"Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared not the faces of men, and were ready to lay down their lives in the case of their God, would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church. . . . In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions."
Richard Furman, pastor of First Baptist Church, Charleston, S.C., made that declaration in an 1822 address to the state legislature. It was among the earliest biblical “defenses” of slavery, a rather extensive collection of books and articles produced prior to the Civil War. Fifteen years later (1837), abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison answered Furman and other pro-slavery writers with these words:
"Our doom as a nation is sealed. . . the day of our probation has ended, and we are not saved. . . . the downfall of the republic seems inevitable. . . . The corruptions of the CHURCH, so called are obviously more deep and incurable than those of the STATE; and therefore the CHURCH, in spite of every precaution and safeguard, is first to be dashed to pieces. . . . The political dismemberment of our Union is ultimately to follow."
In a book entitled Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the Civil War, historian C. C. Goen set forth the thesis, echoed by other historians, that “one significant factor in the disuniting of the Unites States . . .was the division of America’s popular churches into sectional factions several years before the political break.” Goen’s work documented the ways in which divisions in the leading Protestant denominations, particularly Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, “exposed the deep moral chasm between North and South,” extending the national alienation and “contributing to the eventual disruption of the Union.” In a sense, the regional splits in American ecclesiastical organizations highlighted ideological and cultural differences that ultimately gave permission for the nation itself to divide.
Later historians, especially in the South, often insisted that the divisions were the result of a broad “sectionalism” that developed between two culturally distinct regions of the country. While diverse sectional distinctions were certainly present, the precipitating issue was clearly slavery. Denominational debates mirrored the political and economic divisions in the broader society with the addition of arguments based in scripture and theology. Formal schisms were a long time coming as nineteenth century church bodies struggled to find appropriate compromises that would support “moderation” and avert institutional breakups. The Methodist General Conference of 1836, for example, officially acknowledged the evils of slavery while at the same time condemning “modern abolitionism.” Both extremes were judged detrimental to Methodism’s collective future. Some sought to avoid the discussion altogether, insisting that slavery was entirely a political and legal matter or that debates over slavery were detrimental to a denomination’s evangelical and benevolent mission.
In 1849, Old School Presbyterians approved a statement that portrayed slavery as a legislative, not a church-related issue. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, many denominational groups passed resolutions that acknowledged the problem of slavery and anticipated its termination at some future time when blacks were “better prepared” for freedom. Others pinned their hopes on such “back to Africa” movements as the American Colonization Society (1816), an ill-fated and unrealistic possibility.
Nonetheless, the call for immediate manumission grew steadily among religious groups. By 1800 southern Quakers and Moravians, influenced by individuals such as Quaker mystic and social critic John Woolman, had freed their slaves and thrown their support to abolitionism. Many were active participants in the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves find their way to the “Promised Land” of Canada.
By the 1830s secular and religious spheres were increasingly polarized by developments that included: 1) The invention of the cotton gin and the rise of cotton economy, much of it built on slave labor; 2) a growing fear of slave insurrection illustrated by revolts led by Denmark Vesey (1822) and Nat Turner (1831); 3) the rise of Abolitionism, represented in the founding of The Liberator by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831; 4) and the extensive publication of elaborate biblical “defenses” of slavery linking cultural practice to biblical authority. Arguments over biblical interpretations led defenders of slavery not only to Pauline admonitions that “slaves obey your masters with fear and trembling as unto the Lord” (Eph. 6:5-8), but also to the “mark of Cain” (Gen. 4:15) and the “curse of Ham,” Noah’s son, (Gen. 9: 24-27) as evidence of divine action against a specific (dark) segment of the human race. Abolitionists countered that slavery was the ultimate violation of Jesus’ admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the greatest of the commandments. Slavery was thus a terrible violation of the heart of the Christian gospel.
These biblical and theological differences ultimately became so volatile that the denominations could no longer delay schism. Abolitionists intensified their denunciation of slavery and demanded its immediate end, while supporters of slavery declared that such an approach, in Richard Furman’s words, made the Bible “an expediency.” In the end, the denominations divided, often around the question of appointing slaveholders to denominationally-representative positions.
Southern Baptists and Methodists formed new regionally-based denominations in 1845, both over test cases regarding the appointment of slaveholding personnel. Baptist divisions developed out of their national organization, the General Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions, also known as the Triennial Convention. Georgia Baptists set up a test case by nominating a slaveholder named James Reeve for appointment as a home missionary. In rejecting this recommendation, the Home Mission Society declared that it would not participate in any action that even implied support for human slavery. Baptists in the South insisted that the Convention had changed the rules for appointment and therefore interfered with the ability of southerners to fulfill their missionary imperative. As a result, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, its charter ignoring any reference to slavery and affirming that the denomination was begun in order that southerners might better carry out their missionary and evangelistic enterprise. The remaining northern group initially took the name American Baptist Missionary Union and then became the Northern Baptist Convention in 1907. It is now the American Baptist Churches in the USA, perhaps the most racially and ethnically diverse of any Baptist denomination. The division with the Southern Baptist Convention continues to this day.
Methodists divided over slavery as early as the 1840s when certain abolitionists left the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) to form the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Michigan in 1841 and the Methodist Wesleyan Connection in New York (1842-1843). The appointment of Georgian slave owner James Andrew as a bishop of the MEC led a majority at the 1844 General Conference to request that he immediately “desist from the exercise of his functions.” As schism appeared inevitable, the General Conference approved a formal plan of separation that at first seemed both conciliatory and appropriately methodical. Soon after its approval, southern delegates met in Louisville, Ky., and founded the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in May, 1845. Fraternal separation agreements soon fell apart as the Northern Methodists voted that the original plan for division was “null and void.” This produced various legal actions over boundaries, property, and publishing resources. Following the war, the two church bodies remained separated until 1939.
Although Presbyterians did not formally divide over slavery until the beginning of the war in 1861, they split into Old School and New School factions in 1837 over a variety of theological questions, some related to the nature of conversion and use of revival methods. This schism had regional implications since Old School Presbyterians were strong in the South, while New School Presbyterians had significant constituency in the North. Northern Presbyterian groups moved gradually toward opposition to slavery and support for abolition in ways that finally forced formal division with the southerners. Following the Civil War, Old School and New School groups in each region united, with the northerners forming the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the southerners the Presbyterian Church of the United States. The two denominations came together as the Presbyterian Church, USA, in 1983.
Conflicts over slavery were present among Lutherans and Episcopalians but their divisions seemed less institutionally explosive. Both communions divided after the war began and were reunited not long after it ended.
Slaves had long been members of southern churches, evangelized through revivals and camp meetings or instructed through programs outlined in such publications as Presbyterian Charles C. Jones’ The Religious Instruction of the Negroes (1842). These efforts were often predicated on the idea that slavery was a beneficial source of conversion for “pagan” Africans, and that Christianized slaves would be especially docile and obedient. After the war, continued second class status in white-controlled denominations led to a mass exodus of freedmen and women into their own organizations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion (1821) and certain Baptist denominations that took numerous variations on the name National Baptist Convention. The Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Missionary Convention (1897) is perhaps the oldest continuous mission organization among African American Baptists.
Differences over racial segregation and Jim Crow laws continued to confront and divide American denominations and churches, formally and informally, from the late nineteenth century through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Although some racial integration is present to varying degrees in most of the major Protestant traditions, reconciliation remains elusive and old divisions linger. The legacy of chattel slavery dies hard.