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"Cabin Life in the South," oil on canvas, by W. A. Walker
Photograph courtesy Art Association of Richmond

Just as free blacks and abolitionists believed that education opened the mind to knowledge, they believed that religion opened the heart to understanding. Thus, another way abolitionists tried to accomplish their goals was through the church. Many fled the South because religious and moral conscience could not allow them to remain where human beings were held as property. William Sickels, a minister, spoke for many abolitionists: "If we cannot free the slaves, we can come out from among them.''1

Moral suasionists were among those who maintained a religious basis for abolitionism. That they had their work cut out for them, there was no doubt. One astute observer noted that "half or more of the Pulpits in this country are filled by men who fear Nigger[s] more than God.''2 Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Quaker clergymen challenged the stand their churches took on the slavery issue, eventually leading to splits within all the main denominations. This divisiveness was an unrecognized portent of an issue that would also cause the country to split some twenty years later.

Presbyterians were among the first to split over the slavery issue. In 1837, after several years of internal debate, the denomination divided into Old School and New School Presbyterians. In 1845 the Old School General Assembly still maintained that slavery was not sinful in all cases, and that abolitionism tended to perpetuate the "evils" of the institution--a stance they continued to take until 1861.3

Two men, from the two Presbyterian "schools," spent time in Indiana and emerged as spokesmen against slavery. Erasmus MacMaster and Henry Ward Beecher both became objects of scorn as a result of their stand on the slavery issue. Though MacMaster remained in the Old School, he denounced slavery as incompatible with religion. Slavery, according to the one-time president of Miami University, Ohio, degraded human beings because it divested them of their humanity. Indeed, as MacMaster emphasized, slavery stripped blacks of the character of a moral person and reduced them to goods and chattel.4 MacMaster's position was antislavery rather than abolitionist; he made it clear that he considered slavery "to be intrinsically immoral. I have supposed this to be the sentiment of the whole church, and indeed of all men.''5

The True Life of a Nation
Courtesy Indiana Historical Society Library

Henry Ward Beecher, another Presbyterian minister, was no less avid in his denunciation of slavery. Beecher, influenced by Charles G. Finney, became a zealous exponent of the antislavery cause. Beecher at one time pastored churches at Lawrenceburg and Indianapolis, and used the pulpit to voice his antipathy toward slavery.6 Beecher had to contend with some of his flock. "The pro-slavery element was strong in Indianapolis during the last four or five years of Mr. Beecher's pastorate here. Abolitionism was not merely unpopular, it was odious. When Mr. Beecher in one of his sermons spoke out unreservedly against the sum of all villainies,' more than one of his democratic parishioners got up and left the house, and never went back."7

The Methodists were no less resonant in their denunciation of slavery. As early as 1830 Methodists divided on the issue, with agitation occurring at one of the Annual Conferences over the church's position. The Hoosier church was not immune to dissension, and by the 1850s Methodist antislavery leaders launched an all-out campaign within their conferences.

E. D. MacMaster
Reproduced from Correspondence of Thomas Ebenezer Thomas

When James Mitchell, a Methodist minister and officer of the Indiana Colonization Board, presented a favorable report on colonization, the antislavery Methodists denounced the colonization scheme and recommended that colonizationists become more sympathetic. Methodists were also among the first to call for equal education. The First Methodist Church in Wabash, which organized in 1837, and Indiana Asbury College in Greencastle were examples of antislavery institutions. 8

Methodists were one of the more influential groups involved in providing blacks with religious education. Many Methodists went South to preach on the plantations; others labored in the North among free blacks and fugitives. One pro slavery advocate even commended blacks and Methodists on their implementation of Bible instruction: "The slaves are generally moral. The methodists [sic] have not neglected them but teach them the gospel truths every Sunday in the churches.''9 Black Methodist Episcopals and African Methodist Episcopals were just as active as their white counterparts. The Ebenezer Church, organized before 1839 in Madison, remained a "colony" of the Wesley Chapel Church for some time. Subsequently, and contrary to an 1831 law, the Reverend Calvin W. Ruter, presiding elder of the Wesley Chapel Church, employed a black minister to serve Ebenezer Church. Officials indicted Reverend Ruter, although the case never came to trial.10

In the spring of 1860, the Northern Indiana Conference of Methodists finally concurred with a resolution changing the General Rule on slavery to prohibit "every element of enslaving, holding, as well as buying and selling" black people.11

The Baptists, like Methodists and Presbyterians, also had an antislavery faction. As early as 1818 the Vernon church sent a query to the Silver Creek Association: "Is it consistent with the principles and practice of this association to correspond with the Kentucky slaveholding Baptist?" This question plagued Baptist associations, especially in southern Indiana, until the Civil War. In 1856 the Baptist Association in Madison resolved that it was "opposed to intemperance and oppression in every form." At Dupont, the next year, the Reverend Robert Stevenson offered a resolution: "That we request those associations corresponding with us, and also with others, who advocate slavery as right, to seriously consider whether they ought not to drop such correspondence in order to the keeping of a harmonious Christian correspondence with us.''12

Quakers historically were the most prominent advocates of antislavery and abolitionism; they denounced slavery with the loudest voices in Indiana. Though many Quakers expressed their hatred of slavery by migrating to the western lands, many still adhered to the Mother Church's philosophy of noninterference in matters pertaining to slavery and exercised a passive resistance toward the issue. By the 1830s, however, some Quakers became quite verbal in their opposition to slavery. "Sugar is sweet," William Knibb, a missionary abolitionist Quaker in Jamaica declared, "the liberty of man is much more sweet.''13

By 1839 some Quakers began to withdraw from the Society of Friends over the slavery question, joining with Methodists and other antislavery religious supporters. Charles Osborn, though intensely orthodox, willingly mixed with any sort of people who were in favor of antislavery. Members "mixing" with non-Quakers caused furor and division in the Mother Church. When, in the fall of 1840, the Friends church issued an edict against its members mixing with antislavery organizations outside the Society, the antislavery Quakers immediately called a meeting in New Garden and formed the Anti-Slavery Friends.14

Quakers, even Osborn, had formerly advocated gradual emancipation, but by the late 1830s and early 1840s the Friends church finally split over the slavery issue and how the Friends should approach it. Anti-Slavery Friends encouraged other Quakers to rid themselves of prejudice in relation to blacks. "We do most affectionately desire," Anti-Slavery Friends admonished, "that all our dear friends may be so alive to our testimony against Slavery, that none may through prejudice or otherwise, cast any discouragements in the way of such as are faithfully laboring to promote universal emancipation, whether such laborers be found within or without the pale of our Society.''15 "None I apprehend," Edgerton wrote, "who are acquainted with the leading principles of the Society, can fail to see that they are necessarily and pre-eminently Anti-Slavery in their tendency." For Anti-Slavery Friends, however, a tendency was not enough: "to understand them thoroughly and be governed by them completely, is to be an Abolitionist.''16

Little Eva reading the Bible to Uncle Tom in the Arbor
Uncle Tom's Cabin, Volume II, facing page 63

Political Abolitionism

"Bury Me in a Free Land" chapter listing