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When the Methodist Church decided that slavery was regrettable but none of our business

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Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, succeeded as no other abolitionist writing had in rousing public sentiment across the country against slavery with its vivid depictions of the cruelty of the practice. One of Stowe’s central ideas was that Christian principle forbade slavery. But the church was deeply corrupted by it. In 1853, Stowe, whose brother and father were famous ministers, published a Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded. In it she laid out the record of churches blessing slavery. Stowe acknowledged (as Joe Catron wrote on this site today) that John Wesley, founder of Methodism, opposed slavery, but the southern Methodists had a shoddy record, as these excerpts below demonstrate. The Methodists are holding their global conference this week in Florida, at which they will vote on a resolution to divest from three companies profiting off the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We have boldfaced some passages.

The Methodist Church is, in some respects, peculiarly situated upon this subject, because its constitution and book of discipline contain the most vehement denunciations against slavery of which language is capable, and the most stringent requisitions that all members shall be disciplined for the holding of slaves; and these denunciations and requisitions have been re-affirmed by its General Conference.

It seemed to be necessary, therefore, for the Southern Conference to take some notice of this fact, which they did, with great coolness and distinctness, as follows:


  Resolved unanimously, that whereas there is a clause in the discipline of our church which states that we are as much as ever convinced of the great evil of slavery; and whereas, the said clause has been perverted by some, and used in such a manner as to produce the impression that the Methodist Episcopal Church believed slavery to be a moral evil—

  Therefore Resolved, that it is the sense of the Georgia Annual Conference that slavery, as it exists in the United States, is not a moral evil.

Resolved, that we view slavery as a civil and domestic institution, and one with which, as ministers of Christ, we have nothing to do, further than to ameliorate the condition of the slave, by endeavouring to impart to him and his master the benign influences of the religion of Christ, and aiding both on their way to heaven.

On motion it was resolved unanimously, that the Georgia Annual Conference regard with feelings of profound respect and approbation the dignified course pursued by our several superintendents, or bishops, in suppressing the attempts that have been made by various individuals to get up and protract an excitement in the churches and country on the subject of abolitionism.

 Resolved, further, that they shall have our cordial and zealous support in sustaining them in the ground they have taken.


  The Rev. W. Martin introduced resolutions similar to those of the Georgia Conference.

  The Rev. W. Capers, D.D., after expressing his conviction that “the sentiment of the resolutions was universally held, not only by the ministers of that conference, but of the whole South;” and after stating that the only true doctrine was, “it belongs to Cæsar, and not to the church,” offered the following as a substitute:

  Whereas, we hold that the subject of slavery in these United States is not one proper for the action of the church, but is exclusively appropriate to the civil authorities.

  Therefore Resolved, That this conference will not intermeddle with it, further than to express our regret that it has ever been introduced, in any form, into any one of the judicatures of the church.

  Brother Martin accepted the substitute.

  Brother Betts asked whether the substitute was intended as implying that slavery, as it exists among us, was not a moral evil. He understood it as equivalent to such a declaration.

  Brother Capers explained that his intention was to convey that sentiment fully and unequivocally; and that he had chosen the form of the substitute for the purpose not only of reproving some wrong-doings at the North, but with reference also to the General Conference. If slavery were a moral evil (that is, sinful), the church would be bound to take cognisance of it; but our affirmation is, that it is not a matter for her jurisdiction, but is exclusively appropriate to the civil government, and of course not sinful.

 The substitute was then unanimously adopted.

… The question may now arise—it must arise to every intelligent thinker in Christendom—Can it be possible that American slavery, as defined by its laws and the decisions of its Courts, including all the horrible abuses that the laws recognise and sanction, is considered to be a right and proper institution? Do these Christians merely recognise the relation of slavery in the abstract, as one that, under proper legislation, might be made a good one, or do they justify it as it actually exists in America?

  It is a fact that there is a large party at the South who justify not only slavery in the abstract, but slavery just as it exists in America, in whole and in part, and even its worst abuses…


This was before the Methodist Church had separated on the question of slavery, as they subsequently did, into Northern and Southern Conferences. Both Northern and Southern members voted for this resolution.

 After this was passed, the conscience of many Northern ministers was aroused, and they called for a reconsideration. The Southern members imperiously demanded that it should remain as a compromise and test of union. The spirit of the discussion may be inferred from one extract.

  Mr. Peck, of New York, who moved the reconsideration of the resolution, thus expressed himself:—

  That resolution (said he) was introduced under peculiar circumstances, during considerable excitement, and he went for it as a peace-offering to the South, without sufficiently reflecting upon the precise import of its phraseology; but, after a little deliberation, he was sorry; and he had been sorry but once, and that was all the time; he was convinced that, if that resolution remain upon the journal, it would be disastrous to the whole Northern church.

  Rev. Dr. A. J. Few, of Georgia, the mover of the original resolution, then rose. The following are extracts from his speech. The italics are my own:—

  Look at it! What do you declare to us, in taking this course? Why, simply, as much as to say, “We cannot sustain you in the condition which you cannot avoid!” We cannot sustain you in the necessary conditions of slaveholding; one of its necessary conditions being the rejection of negro testimony! If it is not sinful to hold slaves, under all circumstances, it is not sinful to hold them in the only condition, and under the only circumstances, which they can be held. The rejection of negro testimony is one of the necessary circumstances under which slaveholding can exist—indeed, it is utterly impossible for it to exist without it; therefore it is not sinful to hold slaves in the condition and under the circumstances which they are held at the South, inasmuch as they can be held under no other circumstances

.* * * If you believe that slaveholding is necessarily sinful, come out with the abolitionists, and honestly say so. If you believe that slave-holding is necessarily sinful, you believe we are necessarily sinners; and, if so, come out and honestly declare it, and let us leave you

. * * * We want to know distinctly, precisely and honestly, the position which you take. We cannot be tampered with by you any longer. We have had enough of it. We are tired of your sickly sympathies. * * * If you are not opposed to the principles which it involves, unite with us,  like honest men, and go home, and boldly meet the consequences. We say again, you are responsible for this state of things; for it is you who have driven us to the alarming point where we find ourselves. * * *

You have made that resolution absolutely necessary to the quiet of the South! But you now revoke that resolution! And you pass the Rubicon! Let me not be misunderstood. I say, you pass the Rubicon! If you revoke, you revoke the principle which that resolution involves, and you array the whole South against you, and we must separate!

* * * If you accord to the principles which it involves, arising from the necessity of the case, stick by it, “though the heavens perish!” But if you persist on reconsideration, I ask in what light will your course be regarded in the South? What will be the conclusion, there, in reference to it? Why, that you cannot sustain us as long as we hold slaves! It will declare, in the face of the sun, “We cannot sustain you, gentlemen, while you retain your slaves!” Your opposition to the resolution is based upon your opposition to slavery; you cannot, therefore, maintain your>consistency unless you come out with the abolitionists, and condemn us at once and for ever, or else refuse to reconsider.

  The resolution was, therefore, left in force, with another resolution appended to it, expressing the undiminished regard of the General Conference for the coloured population.

  It is quite evident that it was undiminished, for the best of reasons. That the coloured population were not properly impressed with this last act of condescension, appears from the fact that “the official members of the Sharp-street and Ashby Coloured Methodist Church in Baltimore” protested and petitioned against the motion. The following is a passage from their address:—

  The adoption of such a resolution, by our highest ecclesiastical judicatory—a judicatory composed of the most experienced and wisest brethren in the church, the choice selection of twenty-eight Annual Conferences—has inflicted, we fear, an irreparable injury upon 80,000 souls for whom Christ died—souls, who, by this act of your body, have been stripped of the dignity of Christians, degraded in the scale of humanity, and treated as criminals, for no other reason than the colour of their skin! Your resolution has, in our humble opinion, virtually declared that a mere physical peculiarity, the handiwork of our all-wise and benevolent Creator, is primá facie evidence of incompetency to tell the truth, or is an unerring indication of unworthiness to bear testimony against a fellow-being whose skin is denominated white: * * * Brethren, out of the abundance of the heart we have spoken. Our grievance is before you! If you have any regard for the salvation of the 80,000 immortal souls committed to your care; if you would not thrust beyond the pale of the church twenty-five hundred souls in this city, who have felt determined never to leave the church that has nourished and brought them up; if you regard us as children of one common Father, and can, upon reflection, sympathise with us as members of the body of Christ—if you would not incur the fearful, the tremendous responsibility of offending not only one, but many thousands of his “little ones,” we conjure you to wipe from your journal the odious resolution which is ruining our people.

  “A Coloured Baltimorean,” writing to the editor of Zion’s Watchman, says:—

  The address was presented to one of the secretaries, a delegate of the Baltimore Conference, and subsequently given by him to the bishops. How many of the members of the Conference saw it, I know not. One thing is certain, it was not read to the Conference.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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11 Responses

  1. ToivoS on May 1, 2012, 2:28 am

    Oh Phil you can be so brutal. What an amazing comparison. Some time back you brought up good old Abe and his campaign against slavery. I liked your comparison between today and then and how in politics things can change very quickly. It was unclear when you first brought this up why this was relevant to the IP issue. But then recalling what happened after 1958 in the American South and seeing how quickly things changed it seemed like reasonable comparison. I think your instincts are sound. There is another change coming just around the corner.

    • AllenBee on May 1, 2012, 9:32 am

      “Oh Phil you can be so brutal.”

      careful how brutally you wield that sword; it has two edges.

      Louis Untermyer’s father made his fortune supplying the Confederate army — you know, sort of like a sales rep for Caterpillar.

      But –

      “The dominant Jewish personality of the Confederate South was Judah P. Benjamin, described by one writer as the “most important American-Jewish diplomat before Henry Kissinger, the most eminent lawyer before Brandeis, the leading figure in martial affairs before Hyman Rickover, the greatest American-Jewish orator, and the most influential Jew ever to take a seat in the United States Senate.”

      The son of an English Jewish father and a Portuguese Jewish mother, Benjamin became a senator in 1852 and a year later was offered a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, an appointment he declined in favor of continuing his career as a legislator and one of the South`s most vociferous voices on behalf of slavery. Benjamin would fill several key posts in the Confederate government – attrney general, secretary of war and, finally, secretary of state – before escaping to England when the South lost the war. “

      A Tribe Apart, by Jason Maoz, The Jewish Press

  2. Stogumber on May 1, 2012, 4:19 am

    The reasoning of Dr. A.J.Few of Georgia is indeed the reasoning of our time:
    “it is utterly impossible for it (the Jewish state) to exist without it (the inequality of the Palestinians); therefore it is not sinful to hold slaves (Palestinians) in the condition and under the circumstances which they are held at the South (Judaea, Samaria).”

    • rensanceman on May 1, 2012, 2:03 pm

      Just as the Southern slaveholder had to de-humanize the Negro, the same situation exist in I/P. When one Israeli soldier whose name was well known, was exchanged for a few thousand Palestinians, the message sent by Israel was clear. The Southern Simon Legree’s were also very determined not to allow them to learn to read for fear that they would begin to understand how they were being exploited, and revolt.

  3. lysias on May 1, 2012, 2:34 pm

    Roman law allowed the testimony of slaves (although only after they had been tortured). So obviously, the system of slavery that the New Testament was willing to tolerate was not a system of slavery that did not allow slaves’ testimony.

    I wonder if Rev. Dr. Few was aware of this.

  4. RoHa on May 1, 2012, 7:13 pm

    As I understand it, the idea behind the torture was that a slave, because of his powerless position, would first and foremost say whatever would protect himself. Usually this would be to say whatever his owner wanted him to say. Only torture could ensure that he told the truth.

  5. RoHa on May 1, 2012, 7:26 pm

    “One of Stowe’s central ideas was that Christian principle forbade slavery. But the church was deeply corrupted by it.”

    Actually, the topic was one on which Christian thinkers were divided. Slavery is not forbidden or even roundly condemned anywhere in the Bible*. On the contrary, it seems to be endorsed, and many Christians accepted that. Nonetheless, there were others who thought, like Stowe, that it was contrary to the basic principles. The eighteenth/nineteenth century anti-slavery movement in Britain was set in motion by people who were religious dissidents rather than representative of established churches. One of the first and most powerful voices against slavery in America was Thomas Paine, who was not a Christian at all.

    *Nor in the Qur’an. One of the major failings of all the Abrahamic religions before Baha’i was the acceptance of slavery. Over the centuries Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all been heavily involved in the slave trade.

    • annie on May 1, 2012, 7:58 pm

      thank you RoHa, i have been meaning to mention that. the church was divided and there were many many abolitionist methodists, including ministers. some even lost their lives over it.

      • RoHa on May 1, 2012, 9:18 pm

        Please note that I am referring to Christians from St. Paul onwards, and to slavery as a whole throughout that period, not just slavery in America.

    • eljay on May 1, 2012, 8:41 pm

      >> One of the major failings of all the Abrahamic religions before Baha’i was the acceptance of slavery.

      Failing? For all you know, gawd approved of slavery and Abraham the Chosen, Christ the Redeemer and Mohammed the Submitter passed along the correct message. ;-)

      • RoHa on May 1, 2012, 11:02 pm

        In that case, the failing would be God’s.

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