A Tale of Two Baptist Preachers: W.C. Buck, J.M. Pendleton and Slavery in Antebellum Kentucky

Editor’s Note: This is part 4 of our Lyceum Disputation series considering how Baptists responded to American slavery. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

It’s difficult to think of two Baptist preachers with more in common than W.C. Buck and J.M. Pendleton. Both men were born in northern Virginia and migrated to Kentucky. Each was a popular pastor, author, and newspaper editor. The two men were present in 1837 when the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky was organized. The pair left Kentucky to move to Tennessee and then ministered in a few additional states. Pendleton in Ohio and Pennsylvania while Buck served in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. Each man wrote autobiographies at the end of their life that have survived to the present day. Theologically both Pendleton and Buck were strong Landmark Baptists and close friends with J.R. Graves. The two men died at similar ages: Pendleton at 79 years old and Buck at 81 years old.

Yet for all their many similarities, there was one staunch disagreement between the two men: slavery. Pendleton was a devoted emancipationist believing that slavery was unbiblical and morally wrong, while Buck was committed to the system, declaring slavery was stanchioned by the Bible and the common good. In antebellum Kentucky, the two men waged a battle of the printed page over this conflict, each seeking to bring the Baptists of the Bluegrass State over to their side.

W.C. Buck, a Defender of Slavery

William Calmes Buck was the older of the two men. He was born on August 23, 1790 in Warren County, Virginia. Although raised in a Christian home, he had no heart for religion. This all changed when he was sixteen years old. A rumor circulated that Buck had drowned while navigating the Shenandoah River. Conviction of sin came upon him as he began to think, “What if I had drowned?” He described what happened next:

The second sabbath in the month of October 1807, I retired from the family into a distant room and there threw myself upon my knees, feeling that my damnation was at hand, and casting myself unreservedly upon the grace and mercy of God in Christ, as one utterly helpless and deserving of his wrath. . . .the burden left my conscience, my soul was enlightened, and my heart filled with love and joy unspeakable. I arose and walked the room and wept of love to God and praised and blessed his holy name.[1]

W.C. Buck was soon baptized into the fellowship of the Waterlick Baptist Church. Sensing the call of God upon his life, he was licensed to preach in 1812 and began speaking throughout Virginia. The War of 1812 interrupted this time of ministry, as Buck served as a First Lieutenant in a company of cavalry from his home state. After the war was over, he was ordained and became the pastor of Waterlick Baptist Church, serving this congregation for five years.[2]

In the Spring of 1820 Buck moved to Union County, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. With his brother and his father-in-law, he had purchased 800 acres of inexpensive Kentucky land six miles below Shawneetown, Illinois. This river bottom land was extremely fertile. Although the area was still largely a frontier, it was not long before large farms were carved out of this wilderness. Slavery became very common in Union County with Buck owning seven slaves himself in 1820.[3]

The next twenty-one years were a whirlwind of ministry for Buck. In the backwoods of Union County, he was able to plant new churches and organize the Highland Baptist Association. He traveled widely across the state, preaching in Lexington and Georgetown. In 1836 he was called to pastor the large First Baptist Church of Louisville. While continuing to pastor, in 1841 Buck became the editor of the Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer, the leading Baptist newspaper in Kentucky.[4] For nine years Buck would edit this paper and exert considerable influence upon the religious landscape of the Commonwealth.

J.M. Pendleton, An Opponent of Slavery

James Madison Pendleton was born November 20, 1811 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. In his autobiography, Pendleton states, “It was during Mr. Madison’s Presidency, and as my father greatly admired him as a statesman, I was named for him.[5]

When he was one year old, Pendleton’s family moved from Virginia to Christian County, Kentucky. Located in the “Pennyrile” region of Kentucky, this county also had some of the most productive farmland in the state. Tobacco farms were commonplace here and slavery was widespread. During the Civil War, this was one of the few areas in Kentucky that overwhelmingly supported the Confederacy. In spite of all these factors, Pendleton would become strongly opposed to slavery as an adult.

The Pendleton family attended the nearby Bethel Baptist Church. As a teenager, the young man was convicted of his sins and in the spring of 1829, he placed his faith in Jesus. The church soon recognized a calling upon Pendleton’s life and licensed him to the gospel ministry in 1830. To prepare himself, Pendleton read widely, taught at a small country school, and traveled with older pastors. He also attended the school of Robert T. Anderson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Russellville as well as the Academy of Mr. James D. Rumsey in Hopkinsville.[6]

On November 2, 1833, J.M. Pendleton was ordained as a gospel minister. He had accepted the pastorate of First Baptist Church of Hopkinsville and his home church, Bethel Baptist Church. Pendleton split his time between these two congregations, preaching every other Sunday at each church.

After three years of pastoring in Christian County, in 1836, J.M. Pendleton was called to the First Baptist Church of Bowling Green. He was offered the large sum of $400 a year and became the first full-time Baptist pastor in southern Kentucky. Pendleton would remain at this pastorate until 1857, when he would move to Tennessee.

Slavery and the Kentucky State Constitution

In January 1849 Kentucky decided to hold a convention with the purpose of updating the state constitution. Those within the state who were opposed to slavery saw this as an opportunity. One hundred and fifty delegates went to Frankfort to attend a state emancipation convention. Handbills were circulated throughout the state and some had hope that slavery might be overturned in Kentucky.[7]

In the midst of the 1849 discussion on slavery, W.C. Buck determined to write on the subject. He published six articles in the Baptist Banner newspaper in 1849 under the heading, “The Slavery Question.” These were so well received; they were published in a separate booklet of 29 pages the same year with over 5,000 copies being distributed.

In these articles, Buck sought to show that slavery was both biblical and beneficial to the slave. He wrote: “In the kingdom of Israel, by special enactment of God, slavery was instituted and provided for; which never could have been the case if it necessarily rendered the condition of the slave worse than it otherwise would have been, and still more impossible would it have been for God to have given his sanction to it, if it were sin in the abstract.[8]” To back this up, Buck would show that Abraham owned slaves, slavery was provided for in the law of Moses, and was seen in the book of Philemon.

Far from being a sin, Buck would contend that slavery was actually a blessing to the slave. He wrote, “Slavery was never intended by God to minister to the cupidity and luxury of the master without an adequate, and even more than an adequate return of good to the slave. Its principle design was, benevolence to the poor and defenseless, and religious instruction to Idoliters.[9]

This was contrasted with the dilemma of the freed slaves in the north. Due to the racial prejudice there, African Americans had a hard time finding work and were often unable to provide for their families. Buck claimed they would be better off in the south where proper food, clothing, and shelter would be given. While their freedom might be lost, there would at least have been someone to care for them.[10]

However, Buck was honest enough to admit there were many slaveholders in the south who did not better their slaves. These were the men who, “were not influenced in the least by any humane or Christian feeling; but seeing an opportunity to enrich themselves by purchasing these slaves at a low price, and entirely without reference to the good of the slave, resolve to purchase all they can that by their labors they may enrich themselves.[11]

Buck had no use for such slave owners and even pronounced the wrath of God upon them:

They cannot plead the examples in the Scriptures in justification of their sordidness, selfishness, injustice, cruelty and utter disregard of humanity and the law of God. God may, and we believe will, over-rule slavery, even in the hands of such moral monsters to his glory, in the social and moral elevation of the slaves, and the ultimate salvation of thousands, but his wrath is kindled against the wicked and cruel master and he will be held strictly accountable for his disregard of his divine law.[12]

From the very outset Buck had not wanted these articles to turn into a religious debate on slavery. Therefore, in his first article, he declared he “would not necessarily open the columns of the Banner for the discussion of the subject.[13]” Even when his friend and fellow Kentucky Baptist pastor J.M. Pendleton asked if he could respond to these articles in the Baptist Banner, Buck refused. So, Pendleton decided to publish his responses in the Louisville Examiner, an abolitionist newspaper that had been founded in 1847. This in turn was printed in a twelve-page pamphlet entitled, “Letters to Rev. W.C. Buck, In Review of His Articles on Slavery.”

Pendleton first tackled Buck’s idea that slavery was beneficial to the enslaved. He thought this was an insult to the reader and a ludicrous statement. He stated, “you know, and I know that slavery ‘promotes the holiness and happiness’ of neither the free nor the slave population of Kentucky.[14]” For proof of this Pendleton wrote,

Slavery in Kentucky cannot exist for a generation if disassociated from its abuses. I think this demonstrable. The abuses of slavery include the separation of husbands and wives, parents and children, the ignorance of the enslaved, etc. Let the separation of slave families be made a penal offence, and a death blow is given to slavery. But few masters wish to sell entire families of slaves, and still fewer, perhaps, are willing to purchase entire families.[15]

Next, Pendleton turned his attention to the Bible. He argued that the “servants” of Abraham were far from slaves. “Abraham armed his trained servants, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them. Would American slaveholders in similar circumstances adopt a similar course? Do not many of our States make it a penal offense for a slave to carry a weapon?[16]

As to the law of Moses affirming slavery, Pendleton pointed to the law of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:10 which gave freedom to servants every fifty years. While some contended this only gave freedom to Hebrew servants, Pendleton pointed out that the verse said, “all the inhabitants thereof.[17]” In addition, In Exodus 21:16 the law of Moses said, “He that stealth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hands, shall surely be put to death.” Pendleton reminded his readers, “How were Africans first introduced into his country? They were stolen from their native land and brought here in chains. Those who stole them deserved death according to the law of Moses.[18]

Finally, Pendleton added that even if some spiritual good, such as the gospel coming to the enslaved, came as a result of slavery, it did not make the practice right. He wrote, “Suppose slavery is so overruled that good, great good to the whole African race shall result from it. Will this prove it right? By no means. It was wicked, as you admit, in Joseph’s brethren to sell him, yet God so overruled the unfraternal transaction as thereby to save the lives of those very brethren, and the lives of their posterity.[19]

Unfortunately, the pro-slavery politicians within Kentucky achieved a complete victory in the election of August 8, 1849. The Kentucky state constitution would not be revised to allow for any emancipation of the enslaved. Pendleton was extremely discouraged at this. In his autobiography, he wrote, “My spirit sank within and I saw no hope for the African race in Kentucky, or anywhere else without the interposition of some Providential judgment.[20]” Although Pendleton’s words were prophetical, neither he nor Buck had any idea that a national Civil War would come in only twelve years and settle the issue of slavery in America once and for all.

Both W.C. Buck and J.M. Pendleton continued to be active in gospel ministry in the years after this controversy. Each would pastor various Baptist churches and write numerous books on theological subjects. During the Civil War Buck served as a Confederate chaplain. He finally moved to Texas where he passed away on May 18, 1872. The War also affected Pendleton, driving him to the north where he pastored for twenty-one years. After his retirement, he moved back south to Kentucky and died on March 4, 1891.

Three Lessons For Today

While this sort of study of Baptist history can be enjoyable to those who appreciate the past, it can also be very helpful in the present. This is especially true with W.C. Buck and J.M. Pendleton. In examining the lives of these two important Kentucky Baptist leaders, three lessons come to mind that are relevant for today.

First, in spite of their strong disagreement over slavery, W.C. Buck and J.M. Pendleton remained friends. Pendleton even invited Buck to preach for him on November 6, 1853.[21] What’s more, in the intense weeks after the Raid on Harper’s Ferry, Pendleton was attacked by several of his fellow Southern Baptist newspaper editors due to his views on slavery. These critics did not understand that Pendleton was in favor of gradual emancipation instead of the immediate abolition of slavery. It was W.C. Buck who came to Pendleton’s defense and silenced his detractors.[22] Would that twenty-first century Baptists had the same compassion for each other, even in the midst of firm differences.

Second, even though Pendleton and Buck were not in agreement on the implications of the gospel with regard to slavery, both absolutely agreed about the need of the gospel for the enslaved. Two years after arriving in Bowling Green, Pendleton led his congregation to vote to allow slaves to become members of the church. So many joined that the following year it was decided to form a separate African American Baptist church. The First African Baptist Church was organized (now known as the State Street Baptist Church) and allowed to meet in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Bowling Green during the evening of the First Sunday of each month. All of this happened with J.M. Pendleton’s encouragement.[23]

W.C. Buck had a similar attitude. He praised the gospel work of London Ferrill, pastor of the First African Baptist Church in Lexington. The Baptist Banner reported how Pastor Ferrill had done “more to suppress vice than all the police of the city.[24]” Buck is also given credit for bringing the African American Baptist preacher Henry Adams to Kentucky from Georgia. While Buck was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Louisville, Adams ministered to the “colored population” of the church. This group grew so large that in 1842 they were organized into a separate congregation known as the First African Baptist Church of Louisville. They were later renamed as the Fifth Street Baptist Church.

Third, the story of W.C. Buck and J.M. Pendleton teaches us about our Southern Baptist forefathers. We often think that early Southern Baptists were a monolithic group, holding the same views on race and slavery. Yet this was not the case. There were a number of individuals like J.M. Pendleton who had very successful ministries in the slave-holding South while holding to a conservative understanding of Baptist theology.  Yet these men were adamantly opposed to the bondage of African Americans. They have much to teach us about a well-rounded ministry, even in difficult circumstances. It is my hope that antebellum Southern Baptists such as J.M. Pendleton will be rediscovered by twenty-first-century Baptists. J.M. Pendleton is just one of many early Southern Baptists who need to be rediscovered by twenty-first-century Baptists.

[1] Gordon Buck, William Calmes Buck, a Minister of the Gospel (n.p., 2022), n.p.

[2] Buck, William Calmes Buck, n.p.

[3] Family Search, “United States Census, 1820,” accessed September 28, 2022, https://www.familysearch.org/

[4] J.H. Spencer. A History of Kentucky Baptists from 1769 to 1885, Volume 2. (Cincinnati: n.p., 1886), 171-177.

[5] J.M. Pendleton. Reminiscences of a Long Life (Louisville, KY: Baptist Book House, 1891), 8.

[6] Pendleton, Reminiscences, 37-38.

[7] Victor B. Howard, “James Madison Pendleton: A Southern Crusader Against Slavery,” Register 74, no. 3 (1976): 197-199, September, 1976.

[8] William C. Buck, The Slavery Question (Louisville, KY: Harney, Hughes and Hughes, 1849), 7-8.

[9] Buck, The Slavery Question, 10.

[10] Buck, The Slavery Question, 14.

[11] Buck, The Slavery Question, 17.

[12] Buck, The Slavery Question, 17.

[13] Buck, The Slavery Question, 4.

[14] J.M. Pendleton, Letters to Rev. W.C. Buck, In Review of His Articles on Slavery (n.p., 1849), 3.

[15] Pendleton, Letters, 9.

[16] Pendleton, Letters, 3-4.

[17] Pendleton, Letters, 5.

[18] Pendleton, Letters, 5

[19] Pendleton, Letters, 12.

[20] Pendleton, Reminiscences, 94.

[21] J.M. Pendleton, “For the Tennessee Baptist,” Tennessee Baptist, November 12, 1853, 3.

[22] J.R. Graves, “Elder Buck’s Defense,” Tennessee Baptist, April 14, 1860, 2.

[23] Howard, “James Madison Pendleton” 193.

[24] R.E. Gillett, “African Church,” The Oberlin Evangelist, August 3, 1842, 127.


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