American Slavery: A Tale of Two Evangelicalisms

Compiled, Edited, and Introduced by Jordan A. Senécal


In the antebellum years, a letter was written by the pen of Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné (1794–1872)—Merle, for short—a Genevan-born descendant of the Huguenots who served as a Protestant minister and professor in that city, as well as a key leader in the evangelical revival which swept across the French European landscape at the time known as le Réveil. Though Merle is the author of the letter, he wrote on behalf of dozens of ministers and professors who were involved primarily in the Société évangélique de Genève (the Evangelical Society of Geneva) and the Église évangélique libre (the Evangelical Free Church). The names of these men appear at the end of the letter, demonstrating their approval of what was written.

This letter, written in 1857, was sent to a minister in New York named Joseph Parrish Thompson (1819–1879), in order that he may disseminate it to be published in as many American publications and periodicals as possible. This letter serves as a worthy example of brotherly admonishment and seeking to offer correction in a spirit of humility and gentleness.

However, the letter was not well-received by all, and a rather scathing response was written and published in the New York Daily Times (now called the New York Times). The authors of the response are unknown, though they are presumably Christians, if not also Evangelicals.

Below I have included transcriptions of both the original letter sent by the Genevan Evangelicals and the response. I include these transcriptions not so much because they necessarily contain the strongest arguments made on either side of the debate, nor because they are both commendable, but they are a fascinating piece of history that still has ramifications down to this day. Be they what they are, they are a fascinating glimpse into the antebellum tensions surrounding American slavery and the drastically different viewpoints adopted by those who called themselves Christians (and, perhaps, even Evangelicals).

The tension would ultimately result in a devastating civil war that had countryman fighting countryman, neighbor fighting neighbor, Christian fighting Christian. The precursors to such disagreement are seen in these letters, and I trust this (lengthy) post will shed light on not only the situation in the United States (as seen in the response), but even more so, in the plea sent by brothers overseas, who saw the reality of American slavery to be a matter of great concern.


The following letter is from the pen of Rev. J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, D.D., of Geneva. But it is not only the voice of the historian of the Reformation;—the Protestantism of Europe here speaks to the Protestantism of America from a revered seat of our common faith, in tones so conciliatory and Christlike, that the most sensitive can not take offense. Will not the reader prayerfully consider this appeal, and also bring it to the knowledge of the church with which he is connected?

To the Evangelical Christians of the United States of America

Dearly beloved brethren in Christ, our all-sufficient Saviour and common Head:

The Evangelical Christians of Geneva frequently return thanks to God for having, in the days of Calvin, kindled that torch in their city, whose salutary light has spread throughout Europe, and reached your far-distant shores. They also give thanks to the Lord, that in these latter days, when the word of truth is penetrating into all nations of the earth, He has placed a powerful focus in North-America; and has sent the children of God from your churches both to enlighten the ancient countries of the East, where the Apostles themselves preached the Gospel, and to bring many souls out of heathen darkness to the Lord and Saviour. The work of propagating Christianity in all the world, is, in our opinion, dear brethren, the principal vocation which has been allotted to you from on high. Thus every thing which can strengthen the hands of American Christians is, we think, an advantage to the whole world; whilst any thing which would weaken them is a real loss, a matter of grief, not to you alone, but to us, and to all mankind.

Now, dear brethren, we desire to express to you a thought which often presses itself upon our hearts. We fear that the laws which establish and regulate Slavery in several of your States, are a source of weakness, not only in your own dear country, but to her legitimate influence over other nations. We know that there are Christians in the United States who possess slaves, and we would not offend them. “Honor all men,” says the Scripture (1 Peter 2:17), and above all, we wish to do so “to them that have obtained a like precious faith with us” (2 Peter 1:1). “We would assure them we come not to speak with them as enemies, but as brethren. We do not claim the right of imposing our opinion with authority upon them;—the Pope of Rome alone believes that he has that power;—and we do not doubt that those among you who differ from us on this subject, are sincere and upright in their opinions. However, if we would speak in love, we must also speak in truth, and with that precious liberty, which belongs to Christians. We know, moreover, that the city of Calvin is an object of deep and brotherly sympathy in America. Your citizens who visit us, are continually giving us fresh proofs of this, and this circumstance excites a hope that our request will find some favor in your eyes. But, we repeat, we do not pretend to teach you, but to give you a cordial token of our brotherly love.

Beloved brethren, if it is true, not only that Slavery is established in several of your States, but that in many places it is unlawful to instruct the children of slaves, or even for the parents to attend public worship; if it is true that the ties of husband and wife, parent and child, are often violently severed; if it is true that the master acquires the property and possession of a woman as if she were his own wife; if other facts, which we prefer not to describe here, are true—we ask ourselves, and we would also ask you, if such laws are compatible with the eternal principles of Christianity, which we all are bound to obey?

We might doubtless bring forward other arguments. We might remind you that Slavery is contrary to natural rights, and that all men having freedom alike, none can be deprived of that liberty unless forfeited by some criminal act; that the rights of property in men and in things are widely different, and that no man is allowed to sell a human being as he would a material object. We might say, with Montesquieu, that Slavery is hurtful alike to the slave and to the master; to the master especially, because he acquires all sorts of vices with his slaves. He becomes proud, hasty, passionate, hard, voluptuous, cruel. We might add, with that illustrious author, that in every country, however severe the toil which society exacts, its fruits may be obtained from freemen, by encouraging them with rewards and privileges, adapting the labor to their strength, by bringing to their aid machinery which art invents, and which, we might add, art has invented abundantly since the days of that great writer. But we prefer waiving such material considerations, and dwelling upon our argument in a Christian point of view.

We acknowledge, dear brethren, that Slavery is not explicitly abolished in the New Testament. We see that Christian masters are not prohibited from having slaves (Col. 4:1; Eph. 6:9); and that slaves are exhorted to submission and fidelity (Eph. 6:5, 8; Col. 3:22, 25; Titus 3:9, 10; 1 Peter 2:5, 18). Yes, slaves ought to be obedient and faithful, and nothing should be said which could drive them to revolt; that is certain; and yet it is as certain that Slavery is opposed to the true spirit of Christianity.

There are many texts in the New Testament which make this plain. Does not St. Paul say to the Christian slave, that if he can obtain his freedom, he is to take advantage of it (1 Cor. 7:21)? “The Apostle thus demonstrates that liberty is not only good, but also more advantageous than slavery,” says Calvin.[2] Is it not also evident that slaves who have become Christians, should be regarded by their masters as brethren, according to the Epistle to Philemon? Does not the same Apostle, in another place, say that before the Lord in heaven the slave is as the free (Eph. 6:9)? Do not the Scriptures elsewhere declare that the slave and the free share in the same blessings of God in Jesus Christ, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for ever? Is He not the true and living God of the black as well as of the white man? If the Eternal Son, who is God for ever and ever, became man, was it not for the Greek as well as the Jew, for the slave as well as the free? Does not the righteousness which was acquired on the cross by the atoning blood of the Lamb, cover the sins of the one as well as of the other? Does the Holy Spirit, which changes the hearts of all in whom he dwells into temples of the Holy Ghost, make any distinction of color? Ought we not to exclaim now with the primitive Christians: “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be bond or free” (1 Cor. 12:13)? “There is neither bond nor free, but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11).

Such being the teaching of the Scriptures, do you not think with us, beloved brethren, that these principles suppress the spirit of Slavery, and only leave its name and appearance? Do you not believe that since God, our common Father, bestows the tender sympathies of his love equally upon the slave and the free, we their brethren can not refuse the precious boon of liberty to those who are deprived of it? If Christ has made them free, shall not we free them also? Christianity in general did not lay violent or imprudent hands on civil institutions, but spread its principles everywhere, and gave precepts to all men, the application of which was gradually to bring about the suppression of all abuses.

These considerations are important; but, we repeat, what particularly induces us to make an appeal to your consciences, is the system of laws, manifestly opposed to the precepts of Christianity, with which several of your States have been obliged to burden their legislation, in order to maintain Slavery in the midst of you. It is not necessary to enumerate these laws; we know them from official documents published in Europe, and which have caused both astonishment and grief to the friends of religion, morality, and liberty. We are aware these laws do not exist in a good many of your States; we know that, with the exception of one or two laws, legislation on Slavery is local, instituted in their sovereign power by those States alone which maintain Slavery. But that in no way prevents us from freely expressing the sentiments which animate us, either to just and moderate men, who doubtless are to be found in abundance in the Southern States, or to all the Christians of the American Union.

If we mistake not, there are three classes of opinions and of persons in the United States, as to the present subject; one is decidedly against Slavery, another is decidedly in its favor; but there is a medium class which hesitates; and we think the moment has arrived when all those who belong to that class ought to decide before God and their conscience, wisely, but with courage and firmness. Between Christianity on one side, and utilitarianism on the other, we do not think that Christians should hesitate.

The two great features which characterize the United States, and which form the essence of your people, are they not, honored friends—the Gospel and Liberty! And are you not called upon both to enjoy these two blessings for yourselves, and to testify to others bow happy are those nations who possess them, and thus to be the means of spreading them in the world? Now it is precisely the Gospel and Liberty which are implicated in this question. The maintenance of Slavery must hinder the growth of these two great principles. The most eminent writers have shown that if Slavery may be excused in despotic States, it is in conflict with the essence of democracy, and that if it is more or less natural amidst Mohammedans and Pagans, it is impossible to justify it amongst Christians, and above all amongst Protestants. Yes, it is now in your power, dear American friends, to render the most brilliant homage, the most signal service, to the cause of the Gospel of Protestantism and of true Liberty. Will you hesitate?

How often we have mourned to see Roman Catholics and partisans of arbitrary governments triumph in pointing to the existence of Slavery in the United States! How often have we been tempted to exclaim: “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines triumph” (2 Sam. 1:20).

Dear brethren, listen to these voices, which come from a far distant land at the foot of the Alps, from the city of the Reformation, and are raised in concert with those in France and other countries. We would entreat you by the most precious interests; in the name of the prosperity of the Union, of the peace, of the glory of your country; in the name of the cause of true liberty; and, above all, of the holy and great cause of Christianity;—to do all in your power, with an unflinching fidelity, to bring about the suppression of Slavery and the establishment of social liberty in your country. Let it be done with wisdom, with kindness, with justice, without disturbing the public peace, but, notwithstanding, as promptly and as universally as possible.

Should this step offend you, dear brethren, we pray you to forgive us. We conjure you to bear with us. We say with St. Paul to the Corinthians, “If we are foolish, it is for the love of you;” it is, we believe, for the glory of Jesus Christ; it is because we thought that God, in a special manner, had called us so to do.

We live in solemn times. A new era is dawning on this question, not only in your country but in the whole civilized world. Universal attention is aroused. Everywhere public opinion pronounces with decision on this subject. The time is certainly come when America must give satisfaction to the claims of Christianity. We know that it is not easy to find the means of attaining that end. There will be many shoals and difficulties; but we know that your people have more courage than any others to surmount all these obstacles, and that the Lord will give the victory to those who are on his side. Let nothing stop your progress; combat Slavery in the spirit of the Gospel, and not in a mere worldly spirit. Seek, above all, the means of attaining this excellent end in a spirit of prayer. Look to the Word of God, to the spirit of Christianity, to the requirements of morality and liberty, and to Jesus the Redeemer, and thus go forward in the Lord’s name. May God be your strength in this great, salutary, just, and Christian work. Let us assure you that such shall be our constant prayer!

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all, Amen![3]

American Slavery: A Vindication of Slavery. Answer to a Letter from Geneva, Addressed to the Evangelical Christians of the United States of America[4]

The historian of the Reformation, Merle D’Aubigne, with forty-six others, Presidents, Professors and Members of the Evangelical Churches and other Societies in Geneva, Switzerland, addressed a letter, on the 31st of March, 1857, to the Evangelical Christians of the United States, on the subject of Slavery. It has been published and widely circulated. We propose to give it a respectful answer.

We begin by objecting to the whole purpose of the letter, independently of its argument, as unauthorized, injudicious, and productive of evil. The writers profess to be induced by zeal only in the cause of truth; by a desire to see the great American Republic relieved from every impediment in diffusing religious truth among all nations; by a conviction that Providence has fixed a great focus of light in the United States. They wish to increase it. They fear that Slavery is a cause of weakness and they are anxious to remove it. The thought presses on their hearts. They invoke us by the peace and glory of our country, by true liberty, and the cause of Christianity, to bring about a suppression of Slavery. “They do not claim the right to impose opinions by authority—the Pope of Rome alone believes that he has that power.” They would exercise the right only of Christian liberty, and send us their advice as a token of Christian love. They believe that those who differ from them in opinion on the subject at issue, are sincere and upright men. They do not wish to offend their brethren, but to do them good.

If everything claimed for the intention of the writers be freely and fully conceded, their proceeding will make no exception to the truth that goodness of intention alone, in any important action, is not enough. Its purity is no justification or excuse for interfering—we will not say intermeddling—in the affairs of a distant and independent community—still less, in a difficult and disputed question of social policy, which divides and inflames the minds of its people.

They address themselves to prejudiced and angry partizans. They letter is welcomed on the one side as a support; it is resented on the other as an attack. It is not sufficient to say that nothing of the sort is intended. We know it is not intended. But, we repeat, goodness of intentions is no defence for causing mischief. If it be the Christian’s duty to do good, it is his duty to also refrain from the appearance of evil. If he must impart benefits, he must beware lest his benefits prove fire-brands of discord and death. To intervene in the affairs or disputes of others, promotes dissension, not peace. The maxim needs no illustration. It applies alike to individuals, families, societies and nations.

At all times, States and communities are the best judges of their own business. Neither governors nor counselors a long way off are safe and sufficient guides. Our whole American history is an assertion and vindication of this truth. No government abroad, proprietary or royal, satisfied our people. They never ceased to contend, until they had established the right to manage their affairs in their own way. Our country’s great maxim is not to interfere with others, and not to permit interference with herself. This is the best security for peace among nations. Let the lovers of peace be cautious how they infringe the spirit of the rule in the least important particular.

But our friends of Geneva are not interfering as a State with a State; they intermeddle only as a Society of Christians with other Christian Societies. They are for that reason the more subject to the applications of the rule. If interference be indefensible, it is the more indefensible when forced or attempted by Christian communities, the advocates of forbearance and peace.

They are governed, as they think, by a principle of conscience. Alas, Christian friends! this opinion only increases the probability of mischief by concealing the danger. We never do evil, says the comparable Pascal, so cheerfully and effectually as when we do it on a false principle of conscience. Can you be sure that your uninvited interference in the domestic policy of a distant people is resting on a true one? You believe that God has called you “in a special manner,” to interpose on this occasion. Where is the evidence? You tell us that you will say to us, as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, in advising them, “If we are foolish, it is for the love of you.” But St. Paul had charge of the Church at Corinth; he had proof of being called in a special manner. You have no charge in this matter, and no proof of a special calling. If, nevertheless, the Apostle apologised in advising, what shall we say of your venturing to do what he excused himself for doing?

You do not claim “the right to impose opinions by authority—the Pope alone believes that he has that power.” Yet the Pope of Rome is silent when you assume to speak. You charge him with arrogating the power which you substantially though quietly exercise, but which, in this matter, he has never undertaken to assert.

You do not impose opinions—very true; but there is a small interval only between imposing opinions and imposing advice. How easy to pass from one to the other! The invitation of a monarch is a command. The counsel of authority implies submission. The temper that volunteers advice is the temper that exacts obedience. The power may be wanting, but not the will. The man who denounces one creed will enforce another by violent means. You who now volunteer to counsel on our principles and practice, under different circumstances from similar views with equal intentions, would compel obedience to what you believe to be the will of God and the good of the Church. Is there no lamentable fact in the history of Geneve itself which may serve, in reference to this truth, as an illustration and warning?

It is the duty of Christians, you think, to feel a warm sympathy in the condition and character of other Christians: to be active in giving effect to their sympathy; to be ready not only with their prayers but with counsel and other aid. All this is true, but all within just limits only. They may advise, but the advice must be sought; it must be founded on a thorough knowledge of the facts; of the temper of the party advised; of the limits of his means and power to act; of the effects direct and indirect of the measure suggested for adoption. Do you stand within these limits? Have you the necessary knowledge for judicious counsel? You say to us if your custom is this, if your practice is that—if the slave is not allowed by law to attend public worship; if it is unlawful to instruct the children of slaves; “if the master acquires possession of a woman as if she were his own wife;” if these and other facts are true, can your laws, you ask us, be compatible with the eternal principles of Christianity? You thus grope about, on hands and knees, to seek what ground you stand upon, or whether you stand on any. You go on blindly to give counsel as though your ifs were facts, while, in truth, they are slanders only, on your American brethren. Are they not founded on hearsay, on the inventions of a fictitious story? We greatly fear that you have no better authority for your opinions than the incidents of a popular tale. Have you been cautious and considerate in this matter? Have you borne in mind the proneness that besets us all to assume the office of supervising our brother’s affairs and teaching him his duties—the ease with which we decide what it becomes others to do or bear, or suffer; the equanimity with which we support another’s pains or losses; the generosity with which we do liberal deeds at another’s cost—have these things been sufficiently before your eyes?

You admit that there are, in the Southern States of North America, “just and moderate men in abundance.” There is more than this. There are well educated, wise, devout and holy men, laborious teachers and ministers of Christian truth, men who traverse interminable forests, crossing mighty rivers, braving the malaria of deadly regions, not unworthy followers and fellow-laborers of the great Apostle of the Gentiles, in deaths often, in perils of the wilderness, in hunger, in cold, in nakedness, perseveringly and successfully preaching the whole gospel of Christ. Are you acquainted, as they are, with the negro character—his need of subjection, his inability to sustain any competition with the white man, his dullness, his idleness, his improvidence? It is easy to say that all this is the delusion of the slaveholder. But can you know it to be so? What are your opportunities for knowing? You make no investigation. You take the opinions of those ready like yourselves to interfere without knowledge. Is this Christianity humility or candor, or just respect for the character of Christian men, as wise and good as yourselves, and infinitely better informed on the question which you undertake to decide? Never has there been a stronger illustration of the truth that it is a small thing to be judged of man’s judgment. Who are ye that judge these devout and laborious men? Have you stood face to face as they do, with the social condition of which you speak? Have you searched it as they search it? Can you understand it as they do? Have you been engaged, as slaveholding Christians have been for a century, in caring for the negro race, in feeding, clothing, training to useful labor, restraining, instructing, civilizing, Christianizing the African? The Christian masters and ministers of the Southern States have done and are doing all this. What have you done? What labors have you performed? What sacrifice have you made? By what right do you assume that you are the negro’s friend, and his master’s too? Let us be understood—we make no boast, we claim no merit. We have done only what Providence appointed us to do—very imperfectly, it may be, without sufficient devotion to the divine will of which are instruments and agents! But all that has been done, the Slaveholders have done. It has been done with immense benefit to the African race. Where else do you find them, as you find them here, efficient laborers, living in peace, bestowing blessings on the whole world, civilized men, compared with the natives of Africa? Who supplies your manufactories with cotton? Who furnishes your laborers the soothing influences of their indispensable narcotic? Who produces the sugar and rice that add to your comforts and luxuries? Is it the African in Africa? Do you obtain these great commercial products from Guinea and Angola? And where else, except among the slaves of the Southern States of American, are seen, in hundreds of thousands, negroes composing Christian Churches in whole or in part? Where else will you find multitudes of negroes able to read the Gospel? In what other region has the African increased, in a century, from 300,000 to 300,000,000? And now when the negro has been converted from a savage to a man, to a prosperous and intelligent peasant, artisan and Christian, by those who have lived with him, and guided and governed him, you stand afar off, and undertake to reprove their remissness, and direct their proceedings. You call across the Atlantic to the laborers in this remote Christian vineyard, who are diligently and faithfully preaching and teaching, by precept, and example, every moral and religious duty, and administering from day to day the Christian sacraments to thousands of churches composed of Christian negroes, and you say to them, my Christian brethren, if your slaves are not allowed to attend on public worship, if you never teach them, if you have as many wives as you have negro women slaves, we exhort you to hear our counsel, offered with Christian liberty, in Christian love.

As it has been the lot of the Christian slaveholder to do all that has been done, it will be for him and him alone to do all that is to be done for the negro race in North America. It is not the task of a day, or a century, to change a barbarous to a civilized race. It needs time, patience, perseverance. The present civilization of Europe is the work of more than two thousand years. You are impatient; you would anticipate the labor of ages—you who have no portion in the toil, no part of the responsibility, no share in the risk arising from injudicious or hurried proceedings—you are unwilling to leave the business to Providence and to the agencies chosen for it by Providence. We are as willing to do what is right as you are; we alone are able to do anything in this matter; we ask you, with all Christian frankness, to stand aside and let us do the work. It is ours, not yours. You may embarrass, but you cannot help us. You may trouble us, but you cannot share our task.

You advise us to abolish Slavery—are you prepared to offer us a plan for effecting it with safety and advantage to all parties? The physician who is content to tell his patients that they are sick and suggests no practicable cure, or who prescribes medicine and knows nothing of its virtues, will command no confidence in his skill. You tell us we are suffering under an evil; you call upon us to remove it; can you devise any mode of doing so with that regard for the general safety which ought, you think, to be carefully considered? What is to be done with the blacks when manumitted? The race, although improved in North America, is still a barbarous one. They are sluggish and sensual. They are inferior to the white not only in actual progress, but in ability to advance. They cannot, like the freed men of Greece or Rome, melt into the mass of freemen. People of the same type, English and Irish, German and French, are easily moulded into one American mass, but there is no possible compounding of white and black. This may seem very unreasonable and wrong to you who know nothing of the difficulty, but it is not the less true. If the two races remain together in the same country, the destruction of the inferior becomes inevitable. We ask you to be taught by history. The great tribes of red men who formerly inhabited North America, have all perished from between the Mississippi and the ocean. The black millions would be equally unfortunate if removed from the control and care of the white race. They could not sustain a competition for bread with a more intelligent rival. This is seen to be true in Canada and in the Northern States. From this cause, with no wars to precipitate it, the extirpation of the blacks must follow manumission. Even where climate protects him from white competition and its consequences, the black deteriorates in freedom. Eye witnesses in the English West India Possessions declare that he is more idle, vicious and ignorant than when a slave. His progress in civilization seems to be conditional on his subjections to a more intelligent and energetic people. Suppose, then, that as the necessary consequence of manumission, the black race should waste away and perish; or, that they should become more idle, vicious, improvident and miserable. What then? Will you still say to us manumit your slaves? Will you disorganize the labor of a whole country, endanger its existence, destroy its great commercial products so important to the whole world, with the certainty of ruin to the race you desire to benefit? Will you convert three millions of useful laborers into paupers and thieves that could not remain in their present home, and that would not find homes anywhere else? We are afraid that you have never given a thought to the subject. If you have, propose to us your plan.

In the early history of the Church, we can find no examples of one society of Christians interposing with unasked advice, or instruction, or otherwise, in the affairs of another. We see but one in which there was any interference at all. When certain parties from the hill country of Judea troubled the Gentile converts with unauthorized teachings and advisings, seeking to impose as Christian duties what were none, an appeal was made to the Apostles and Elders at Jerusalem—to the inspired teachers of Christianity. The men who troubled the Churches were rebuked. The Council, under the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit, advised or admonished the Churches. Do you hold the same authority as the Apostles? Have you been called upon in like manner to advise? Can you claim the same special guidance of the Holy Spirit? Or are you not rather in the position of the parties against whom the Council was called and the decision was made? We fear so. You have troubled Christian Societies with teachings not in Scripture. You have attempted to impose on them as Christian duties what they deny to be such. It was the duty of circumcision formerly. It is the duty of abolishing Slavery now. There are no living inspired Apostles; we must turn, therefore, to their writings. Show us in these writings the Apostle’s precept—manumit your slaves. It would be as easy to find one commanding Christians to circumcise their children. You are teaching without authority what the Apostles have not taught; you are giving counsel where it has not been invited; you interfere in the social condition of a remote community where you may do harm to the cause of Christ, but can do no good.

We make these remarks in not captious or unkind spirit. But the surest way to promote the brotherly intercourse of Christian Churches and communities is to restrict it within safe and legitimate limits. Even between friend and friend, advice, if unasked, if unseasonable, or unfounded on sufficient knowledge of the facts of the case and the feelings of the parties, is always injudicious, seldom useful, often mischievous. It has already produced the worst consequences among our American Churches. The intervention of those abroad can only increase the mischief. There are now divisions and dissentions arising from the attempt of some to assume control over the consciences of others. You may increase the evil by interposing; you cannot remove or lessen it.

And here, with a protest against the whole form and purpose of the letter from Geneva, we might close our answer or review. But we are reluctant to seem wanting in respect for the authors and their arguments, or unwilling to give them our most serious attention. We will, therefore, proceed to examine the reasons against Slavery which they are pleased to assign.

They begin with arguments of more general consideration, but rely on such as apply peculiarly to Christian men. “We might remind you,” they say, “that Slavery is contrary to natural rights; that all men having freedom alike, cannot be deprived of that liberty unless forfeited by some criminal act; that the right of property in men and things is widely different; that no man is allowed to sell a human being as he would a material thing.” And they quote the remarks of Montesquieu as to the injurious effects of Slavery on both master and slave. To such remarks it is enough to say that Slavery is not a new thing under the sun. It has existed in all ages of the world, and its injurious effects, whatever they may be, have not prevented the masters of slaves from being the most renowned warriors, the most eloquent orators, judicious historians and profound philosophers, the most accomplished poets, painters, sculptors, or architects that the world has ever seen.

Nothing, Christian friends, can be more delusive and dangerous in practical questions than conclusion drawn from theories of natural rights. The French Revolution was a grand drama, arranged to illustrate and enforce this important truth. It overturned all social, civil and political relations. It decreed an end to religion. It was the first to abolish negro Slavery. The present abolition spirit is the legitimate offspring of the school of liberty, equality, fraternity, whose doctors and apostles were Gregorie, Brissot, Robespierre, and whose legitimate effects were brutal massacres, at which the world still stands aghast. We detest them and all their [cant?]. There is no state of nature. It is unknown even among the most barbarous tribes. Men exist in societies only. They are born into certain conditions, subject to certain restraints and penalties, imposed by governments over which they have no control. Their rights are determined by laws, and laws are what the good of society requires them to be. Whatever this may demand, society has the right to enact. You admit that a man may be deprived of his freedom for a criminal offence. Why so? Why should the law deprive a felon of his freedom? It may do more, it may take his life. If society can take life to secure what it deems the good of society, will it be pretended that it cannot for the same reason compel its members to serve it as slaves? If the reason is sufficient to imprison or hang one man, is it not enough to enslave another? We say nothing of the looseness of thorough or language by which you confound the condition of the prisoner and the slave; and regard them as deprived of liberty in the same sense. But supposing that they are, what right has the State in the case of the criminal that it has not in an equal degree in that of the slave? If the good of society does not require the enslaving a part of its population or the imprisonment of the criminal, it is wrong to enslave or imprison; if it does require them, it is right. In either case, the discretion of society must of necessity be the measure of the right. It has been exercised accordingly in all ages, by all States, and when it is said that a man cannot be deprived of his freedom, except for a criminal offence, the assertion is made in defiance of the codes of all nations, beginning with that of the great legislator and prophet of Judea. It is in vain to any, in the face of all example to the contrary, that the good of a State can never require the enslaving of a part of its people. This is simply assuming as true the whole question that you undertake to prove. It is making your judgment the standard of right; it is asserting what you disdain—the power to impose opinions by authority. Others have attempted to prove that the good of society never requires the gibbet or the jail; that criminals should not be deprived of life or freedom; that education only should be opposed to crime. They may with equal reason demand that their dogmas should be assumed as truth.

The Southern States of North America judge it to be essential to their welfare that the negro portion of their population should be slaves. They exercise the right of all States to determine what is essential to their own welfare. They injure no other State. They affirm no universal propositions or abstract questions in relation to Slavery as a general question, or as concerning other States. They are no propagandists. They confine their views to the practical question only that concerns themselves. They claim to be allowed to exercise their discretion in their own affairs. Surely, Christian friends, there is reason in this.

The right of property, you say, in men and things is widely different—certainly it is. We never said or thought otherwise. You have formed false conceptions of Slavery, and oppose imaginary principles and maxims, never maintained among us. No man, you add, is allowed to sell a human being as a material thing—very true; and no master of slaves ever sells a human being as a material thing. What is sold and what is bought, in every sale of slaves, is the labor only of the slave, coupled with the obligation to support him. What is there so monstrous in this? Suppose a peasant, bound for life to one of your farmers, with the power in the farmer to transfer the laborer to another farmer, each successive employer being obliged to support the peasant and his family, would this be an insupportable evil to the peasant? Would it place him in any greatly worse condition than he now holds, with an equal obligation to labor and the uncertainty of obtaining work? Would it make him a material thing? Substitute in the case supposed the word slave for peasant and master for farmer, and you will understand the real condition of Negro Slavery in the United States. Emancipate yourselves from the dominion of words. The slaveholder does not sell the negro’s body and soul, as certain pestilent declaimers tell you. He claims and sells nothing but the negro’s labor. He has in the slave for life no more than your farmer has in his ploughman or reaper for a day, or a month, or a year. It is only a different system of labor from your system. Yours is best for your peasantry, no doubt, but we have as little doubt that ours is best for the negro. The slave with us is bound to labor—that is the phrase of the Federal Constitution—as the apprentice is bound to labor with you; the one for life, the other for a limited period. The selling of the one as little implies that he is considered a material thing, as the apprenticing of the other. If you ask who binds the slave and makes him an apprentice for life, we reply, the same power that binds the apprentice for a term of years—the laws of the land; and, for the same cause, too,—the inability of the parties to govern themselves.

Slavery is not the creature of the master’s unrestrained will, nor is it left to his discretion. The master’s obligations are determined by law—by lay sustained, and enforced by an active and sensitive public opinion. The master is the guardian of the slave, to protect him, to support him, not only in health and strength, but in old age and infancy. The instance is unknown in this country of a slave dying from want. He is undisturbed by taxes and conscriptions. His life is one of peaceful labor and certain subsistence. But of all this you know nothing. You never inquire, you only condemn. You join in the current clamor of the world in its denunciation of a system of which your best information is uncertain hearsay. There is as little philosophy as charity in this.

A thinking man might find something worthy of the most careful research in a domestic policy which is so connatural to mankind as to prevail at all times with all varieties of people—with the strong practical sense of the Roman, the refined intellect of the Greek, the deep religious sentiment of the Hebrew. Serfage, villeinage, feudalism, slavery, are all modifications only of the principle which subjects the weak to the strong, the inferior to the superior, for the benefit of both, but especially of the feebler party. The universality of the policy shows its inherency in our nature. It springs up in society in certain stages, under certain circumstances, as certainly as trees in a forest, and is as native to human necessities as grass to the fields. It disappears before advancing civilization, under other circumstances, as the wood disappear before increasing cultivation. In either case the result is the work of causes that we can neither hasten nor retard. We have no space, however, for inquiries like these, and leave to your reflections.

But you do not insist on these material considerations. You prefer to waive them. You desire to dwell on the argument in a Christian point of view. In this view of it you say, “We acknowledge, dear brethren, that Slavery is not explicitly abolished in the New Testament; we see that masters are not prohibited from owning slaves; that slaves are exhorted to submission and fidelity—that is certain; and yet it is as certain that Slavery is opposed to the spirit of Christianity.”

But if Slavery is opposed to the true spirit of Christianity, it is, above all doubt, certain that the Apostle has said so—that he has clearly and emphatically instructed or advised Christian masters to manumit their slaves. We defy any human ingenuity to escape from the absolute necessity of this conclusion. You feel the necessity—it is unavoidable—and while you admit that Slavery is not explicitly abolished in the New Testament, you adduce passages in which you think the Apostle has plainly taught Christians that Slavery is inconsistent with the spirit of Christianity. We believe that the passages bear no such interpretation.

The first quoted is from 1 Corinthians, vii. 21. The quotation is confined to part of the verse included in the parenthesis below. To understand it we must read the preceding and succeeding verses. “Let every one,” the Apostle says, “remain in the station in which he has been called to be a Christian; art thou called being a slave, care not for it, (but if thou mayest be free use it rather;) for he that is called in the Lord being a slave is the freeman of the Lord; likewise also, he that is called being free is the slave of the Lord.” The whole scope of the passage is to inculcate by the most emphatic language that it is unimportant in the eyes of God what the condition of life may be, in which a Christian is placed. Let each remain in his station. Be content with your condition; do its duties faithfully; that only is important. The Lord is no respecter of person. All are alike to him, wise or simple, prince or peasant, bond or free. Yet in the midst of this most emphatic declaration that it is not important what a Christian’s station may be, the Apostle turns aside, as you think, to teach the slave that it is important. The Apostle, as you represent him, is very much in the position of an actor who declaims one sentiment aloud to the audience, and, in a stage whisper, aside, to a different party, expresses another. The passage of Scripture in its whole scope says one thing; and you make a parenthesis of half a dozen words demonstrate the reverse. You are aware that a number of the ablest commentators, from Chrysostom to the present time, give the passage a meaning which, they say, the original demands, and which is the very opposite to your own. They construe the words in the parenthesis to this effect—if thou art a slave care not for it, (and even if you may obtain freedom, remain, nevertheless, in your [station?].) The interpretation is in harmony with the whole passage, and renders it more emphatic still. Yours contradicts and confuses it. There is yet another sense in which the words may be taken which we presume to suggest as the meaning of the Apostle. A Christian slave offered his freedom, might have been embarrassed, under the strong peremptory teaching of the Apostle, to decide whether he could, if he wished it, accept the offer or not. To relieve that embarrassment, the Apostle limits his precept and leaves the decision to the slave’s discretion—if offered freedom, he says, you may accept it if you wish it; you will not in so doing disregard my precepts. This interpretation conforms to the general purpose of his instructions. But to represent him as engaged in demonstrating certain abstract propositions concerning Freedom or Slavery, is incompatible with his whole aim and meaning. He was giving practical rules for the regulation of life in every condition, not suggesting reasons for preferring one condition.

But if this parenthetical remark addressed to the slave is to be regarded as affirming that slavery is inconsistent with Christianity, something more decided still must be inculcated on the master by the Apostle. He has not preached to the slave, and been silent to the master in a matter that concerns them both. You must show us his injunction to masters. You are convinced that this is necessary, and accordingly you quote Ephes. i. 9: “Before the Lord in heaven the slave is as the free”; and 1 Cor. xii. 13: “We are baptized into one body whether we be bond or free”; and, lastly, Col. iii. 11: “There is neither bond or free, but Christ is all in all.” These passages you adduce, to prove that the Apostle teaches the master that Slavery is inconsistent with the spirit of Christianity; and you go on to ask, whether God is not the God of the black man as well as the white man; whether the blood of the cross does not cover the sins of the one as well as the other; whether the Holy Spirit makes no distinction in spiritual things, between white or black, lord or laborer, prince or peasant, ruler or ruled, doctor or disciple; and lest Christians should be misled by this truth—as they have been often and greviously—to overturn all government, to abolish slavery, to level the condition of rule and ruled, prince and peasant, doctor and disciple, he enjoins on them with repeated, emphatic, peremptory earnestness to remain content with their conditions, to submit to rulers, to obey masters, for distinction in temporal things are made by providence—the powers that be are ordained of God.

But assuredly if the Apostle had intended to teach the Christian Church that Slavery is inconsistent with “the eternal principles of Christianity,” he would not have been content with hinting this truth indirectly and obscurely, and leaving to modern believers to supply his imperfect doctrine. Was he slack, or careless, or timid, or time-serving in preaching the Gospel? Woe is unto me, he says, if I preach not the Gospel. Was he indirect, whose peculiar excellence it was to be plain and straightforward; and not as one beating the air. Was he fearful of consequences, who traveled through perils and sufferings innumerable to final martyrdom? Was he backward to incur responsibility, who condemned every sin and social evil, who omitted to notice no abuse even in dress or manners? If Slavery is what you represent it to be, an offence among Christians not to be told in Gath nor published in the streets of Ascalon [i.e., Ashkelon], it is as certain as truth, that the Apostle has explicitly denounced it. He has not been content with a side-wind condemnation of it. It was part of the gospel ministry to reprove it. If he neglected to reprove it openly and fearlessly, he has incurred the woe which he invoked on himself, if he preached not the gospel. He has the subject repeatedly before him. He enjoined on masters their duties to their slaves. And yet, you say, he omitted the most important of them all. Either the Apostle shrunk from his duty, or you, my good friends, are mistaken in yours.

You feel this difficulty. It is indeed not to be escaped. Therefore, to meet it, you say, “Christianity did not lay violent or imprudent hands on civil institutions.” This is the reason assigned why the Apostle has not performed the duty which you are now performing for him. But, to enjoin masters to manumit their slaves, would in no wise have laid violent hands on civil institutions. It was no infringement of civil institutions in the Roman Empire to manumit a slave. Nothing was more common. The Apostle would have affronted no law, custom or prejudice, by enjoining it. He might have said to his converts, manumit your slaves as heathen masters continually manumit theirs. It is of daily occurrence among them. Do not allow their benevolence to exceed yours. Was it assailing the civil institutions to advise Christians to do what all the world were doing? It was more easy to manumit the slave then than now. The slave of Greek, Roman or Hebrew, was of no inferior race. The freedman easily amalgamated with the mass of freemen. The slave was often the equal of his master in learning, accomplishments and manners. A [generation?] removed all distinctions. There was no insuperable barrier of color or inferior capacity. There was no question then, as now, what is to become of the manumitted slaves.

But if to manumit a slave was to lay violent hands on civil institutions, the Apostle nevertheless, as we believe, would not have hesitated to enjoin the manumission of slaves, had he believed Slavery to be inconsistent with the spirit of Christianity. He would have reproved it with as little scruple as he reproved the worship of idols. Idolatry made a part of the civil government. To refuse attendance in the national temples was an offence to the laws. Did the Apostle hesitate to denounce idolatry? We are commanded to render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s—tribute to whom tribute is due. But it is not due to Cæsar to commit sin. In forbearing to reprove it, through his whole ministry, the Apostle was grievously neglecting his duty. But he could not have disregarded the duties of his ministry or failed in fighting the good fight to which he had devoted his whole life. The only alternative conclusion is, that the opinion which makes Slavery inconsistent with the spirit of Christianity is a dogma of modern invention, and a corruption of Christian doctrine. It is false, or the Apostles were unfaithful.

You say that the Apostles did not lay imprudent hands on civil institutions, but gave precepts that would bring about the suppression of all abuses, and you intimate that for this cause they laid no injunction on masters to manumit their slaves. Why then have you not followed the apostle’s example? His silence is full of meaning. It means that his disciples are not to say what he refrained from saying. In teaching what he has not taught, are you not incurring the anathema of those who preach any other gospel than he preached? Why do you advise where he forbore? If to advise manumission is laying violent hands on civil institutions, why do you lay violent hands on civil institutions—on those, too, of a distant people with whom you have no immediate concern? Are you not doing more? Are you not laying imprudent hands on the ordering of God’s Providence? Is it not probable, fellow Christians, that God’s overruling will has brought to North America these millions of Africans for some good purpose? May you not safely trust the event to his wisdom and to the precepts that you say are to bring about the suppression of all abuses? Will your interference quicken their operation or give shape to God’s purposes? When you go a long way off to do the work of others, may you not be neglecting your own? We think this consideration has some weight and is entitled to your serious consideration.

Would it not be wiser than to leave this whole serial question of negro slavery in North America to those who are most deeply concerned, to whom Providence has assigned it, who know it best, who are, in all respects, […?] than you can be, for [meeting?] […?] difficulties? Your American brethren, we venture to assure you, are as sincere Christians, as anxious to perform their duty, as quick to see it, as those who have given them counsel. We say it with no lack of respect, or kindness, or just appreciation of the friendly intentions that have produced your letter. But we fear, nevertheless, that you have only added another illustration to the truth of the admonitory phrase, “ne accesseris in consilium antequam voceris.[5]

Editors Note: The London Lyceum publishes a range of original pieces and book reviews from various faith traditions and viewpoints. It is not the mission of the London Lyceum to always publish work that agrees with our confession of faith. Therefore, the thoughts within the articles and reviews may or may not reflect our confessional commitments and are the opinions of the author alone. Rather, we seek to generate thinking and foster an intellectual culture of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism.

[1] Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné, Letter of Merle d’Aubigné, D.D., 1857. In transcribing the two letters, I have made an effort to preserve as much of the original style and formatting as possible, without being too archaic.

[2] Taken from Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:21.

[3] The names of the signatories are as follows: Merle D’Aubigné, D.D., Président de l’École de Théologie et Vice-Président de la Société Évangélique; L. Gaussen, D.D., Professeur de l’École de Théologie et Membre des Comités de la Soc. Évan.; H. Laharpe, Professeur de l’École de Théologie, et membre du Comité de la Société Évan.; C. Malan, D.D., Pasteur de l’Église tu Témoignage; H. Tronchin, Colonel fédéral et Président du Comité Italien. Adrien Naville, Président du Comité de l’Alliance Évangélique et du Comité d’Évangélisation de la Soc. Évan.; Ls. Brocher, Président du Presbytère de l’Église Évan.; Dr. D’Espine, Vice-Président du Presbytère de l’Église Évan.; Dr. Lombard, Vice-Président du Presbytère de l’Église Évan.; Emile Demole, Pasteur, Membre du Presbytère; S. Pilet, Professeur de l’École de Théologie et Pasteur de l’Église Évan.; E. Binder, Professeur de l’École Évan.; A. Le Fort, Trésorier de la Soc. Évan.; Dr. Panchaud, Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan.; C. Crémieux, Président du Comité de Colportage de la Soc. Évan. et Ancien; E. Cramer, Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan. et Diacre; Wm. Turrenttini, Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan. et du Comité des Missions; G. Naville, Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan.; H. Serment, Avocat, Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan.; Ch. Hahn, Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan.; F. Cramer, Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan.; E. Gautier, Major fed. Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan.; Charles Barde, Pasteur, Président du Comité des Missions; H. Lasserre, Secrétaire de la Soc. des Missions et Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan.; Coulin, Pasteur, Membre du Comité des Missions; Albert Freundler, Ministre, Membre du Comité des Missions; P. F. Andersen, Pasteur de l’Église Luthérienne, et Membre du Comité des Missions; D’Espine, Père, Secrétaire de la Soc. Biblique de Genève; Le Comte Agenor de Gasparin; Maximilien Perrot, Président du Comité de l’Union Chrétienne des Jeunes Gens; Ch. Galopin, Membre du Comité de l’Union Chrétienne; F. Bertholet, Pasteur, Membre du Presbytère; Emile Guers, Pasteur, Membre du Presbytère; Th. Lhuillier, Pasteur, Membre du Presbytère; Ch. Saladin, Ancien, de l’Église Évangélique; E. Bieler, Ancien, de l’Église Évan.; A. Loup, Ancien, de l’Église Évan.; T. A. Glardon, Ancien, de l’Église Évan.; H. Dansse, Diacre, de l’Église Évan.; M. Briquet, Diacre, de l’Église Évan.; T. L. Villibourg, Diacre, de l’Église Évan.; L. Zimmerli, Diacre, de l’Église Évan.; E. Martine, Professeur; Perceval de Loriol, Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan.; Wm. Rey, Membre du Comité de la Soc. Évan.; Hi. Morret, V. D. M.

[4] “American Slavery: A Vindication of Slavery. Answer to a Letter from Geneva, Addressed to the Evangelical Christians of the United States of America,” New York Daily Times, August 20, 1857. There were parts of this article that were difficult to read and/or decipher. Where the text was unclear and I had to make a guess, I placed my guess in square brackets (i.e., [letter]). Where I was unsure of my guess, I followed it with a question mark (i.e., [letter?]).

[5] “Do not come to the assembly until you are summoned.”


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