“We Cannot Uphold You”: Antebellum Baptists Who Bucked Prevailing Norms on Slavery

Editor’s Note: This is part 5 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.

Northern Baptists opposed slavery in the antebellum era and southern Baptists supported it. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. It’s not an invalid summary of the broad state of affairs, yet the reality was more complex. Consider the case of David Barrow.

A Virginian and Revolutionary War veteran, Barrow moved to Kentucky in 1798 and became pastor of the Baptist church in Mount Sterling, in the central part of the state. There his antislavery preaching landed him in hot water. In 1805, the neighboring Bracken Baptist Association accused Barrow of “meddling with emancipation.” He apologized, but the following year his own association, the North District Association, unseated him for continued antislavery preaching. In 1807, the association disfellowshipped the Mount Sterling church for tolerating its pastor and his views. That led Barrow and ten other ministers to form the antislavery Baptized Licking-Locust Association, Friends to Humanity.[1]

Barrow was not the only dissenter from regional norms among Baptists. While the oft-referenced views of Richard Fuller in the South and Francis Wayland in the North were typical of Baptists in their respective regions, both southern and northern Baptists included dissenting voices on slavery. In the South, dissenters often were antislavery social reformers like Barrow. In the North, dissenters argued that Scripture demanded more aggressive action against slavery than the gradual emancipation permitted by Wayland. The dissenters didn’t carry the day, especially in the South. Yet they made a difference, and their perspective merits examination. Before considering the dissenters, however, it’s important to review the prevailing sectional norms.

Prevailing Sectional Norms

Fuller represented the mainstream view of Baptists in the South. A South Carolina pastor, Fuller corresponded with Wayland about slavery and published that correspondence in 1845. He went on to help found the Southern Baptist Convention and serve as its president from 1859 to 1863. He moved to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1846 to pastor Seventh Baptist Church. The congregation grew from 87 to approximately 1,200 by 1867. It launched a mission in 1871, Eutaw Place Baptist Church, which Fuller pastored until his death in 1876.[2]

Fuller’s view of slavery was appealing for its simplicity and appeal to Scripture. The southern states, he wrote, committed no sin in affirming slavery. While abuses of slavery were moral ills, slavery proper didn’t violate anyone’s rights. In fact, those who oppose slavery “are brought into direct conflict with the Bible.”[3]

The Old Testament did sanction slavery. God said, “Both thy bondmen and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be in your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever.” And in the Gospels and Epistles, the institution is, to say the least, tolerated. I do not now inquire as to the character of this slavery, nor is it important, for you pronounce slaveholding itself a sin; a sin, therefore, semper et ubique, always, and everywhere, and in all shapes. I, for my part, have no difficulty, and am in no sort of dilemma here, for I find my Bible condemning the abuses of slavery, but permitting the system itself, in cases where its abrogation would be a greater calamity than its existence. But you—how do you escape the charge of impiety?[4]

Wayland, president of Brown University and a Baptist pastor, represented the mainstream view among Baptists in the North. Slavery is morally wrong, Wayland argued, because it violates the Golden Rule of loving “thy neighbor as thyself.” He illustrated by way of analogy:

Suppose that I should set fire to your house, shoot you as you came out of it, and seizing upon your wife and children, “oblige them to labor for my benefit, without their contract or consent.” Suppose, moreover, aware that I could not thus oblige them, unless they were inferior in intellect to myself, I should forbid them to read, and thus consign them to intellectual and moral imbecility. Suppose I should measure out to them the knowledge of God on the same principle. Suppose I should exercise this dominion over them and their children as long as I lived, and then do all in my power to render it certain that my children should exercise it after me. The question before us I suppose to be simply this, would I, in so doing, act at variance with the relations existing between us as creatures of God? Would I, in other words, violate the supreme law of my Creator, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, or that other, Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them? I do not see how any intelligent creature can give more than one answer to this question. Then I think that every intelligent creature must affirm that to do this is wrong, or, in the other form of expression, that it is a great moral evil.[5]

Both the Old and New Testaments regulated and permitted slavery, Wayland admitted, but that doesn’t mean God sanctioned slavery any more than he sanctioned polygamy or divorce. Consistent application of New Testament principles would lead to slavery’s abolition. Still, every slaveholding southerner did not bear personal guilt, Wayland said. Slavery is always wrong. Yet “guilt commenced as soon as [the slaveholder] was convinced of the wrong and continued in the practice of it.”[6] Not all southerners or even all slaveholders, he said, had done that. What’s more, no specific method of emancipation was required, according to Wayland. “This I leave to you,” he told Fuller, “who are so much better able to judge.”[7] Thus, he left the door open for gradual emancipation.

The views of Fuller and Wayland were influential to be sure. But among Baptists with a high view of Scripture, was there room for dissent? In a word, yes. A contingent of southern Baptists found themselves at odds with Fuller’s view. They opposed slavery. Much of the opposition was in Virginia and Kentucky.[8]

Dissenters Examined

Barrow typified the arguments of southern antislavery Baptists. “Involuntary, unmerited, perpetual, hereditary slavery,” as practiced in the United States, Barrow said, contradicted “the principles of nature, reason, justice, good policy and holy Scripture.”[9] He examined slavery on each of those grounds in his 1808 pamphlet Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery Examined; on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy, and Scripture. After pronouncing slavery a moral evil on each of the other grounds, Barrow turned to Scripture. Servitude and bondage in the Bible were not the same institution as the slavery described in the title of Barrow’s work, he argued.[10] American slavery was more akin to “oppression” and “extortion” than to biblical slavery.[11] American slavery contradicted many emphases of New Testament doctrine:

Unmerited, involuntary, perpetual, absolute, hereditary slavery works the greatest ill to our neighbour, because, it deprives him of every thing, that is near and dear to a rational creature in this world—I mean his birth-right, his and his offspring’s all here below, viz.—his liberty—and that to perpetual generations!!!—And this is not all, for he and his, are not only deprived of the right of liberty, but subjugated to almost every kind of abuse, drudgery, dirtiness, brought up in worse than Gothic ignorance, &c. &c. &c. But if the state of the slave should be tolerable, or even comfortable today, (as is the case, under some owners) he knows not who will be the successor, how he, or his, will be treated, or where they will be sent to:—for they are totally at the disposal of every one, into whose hands they may fall. If holding a fellow creature in such a state, and treating him in such a manner, (when it is in my power to do otherwise) be to “love him as myself,” and to “do to him as I would he should do to me;” I say, if this be consistent with “the royal law,” then I must confess, I neither understand our Saviour, his prophets or apostles.[12]

Slavery of the American variety was “of diabolic extraction; a spawn of the devil, begotten of he himself, by an unnatural commerce on fallen human nature.”[13] While immediate emancipation was not practical, Barrow said, the liberation of slaves was a moral imperative.

Kentucky pastor Carter Tarrant was another opponent of slavery in a slaveholding region. In 1806, he resigned as pastor of the Baptist church in Hillsborough, Kentucky, because the congregation told him to sop advocating emancipation. He and seventeen other antislavery Baptists formed a new church in Woodford County, Kentucky, in May 1806.[14] The month before, Tarrant delivered an address articulating his views. He declared himself “an Emancipator in principle,” then offered arguments similar to Barrow’s.[15] First, he defined American slavery as “perpetual, hereditary, involuntary and unmerited.”[16] Then he argued such slavery ran contrary to republican principles of government, maintenance of a strong nation (militarily and morally), and the teaching of Scripture. Tarrant claimed the biblical examples of slavery were too dissimilar to American slavery to justify the latter. American slavery also contradicted “the general tenor of the Gospel”[17] as well as Jesus’ command to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Some slaveowners might claim, “If I was a slave I should wish to be used well, fed and cloathed well.” But Tarrant countered, “Would you not wish for your freedom? Surely you would, unless your cruel tyrant had destroyed all your ambition and self love. But you say you would wish to be treated well. How can this be when you are robbed of your birth-right, freedom?”[18] Away with the “evasions made by semi-emancipators.”[19] Slaves must be freed, Tarrant said.

Northern Baptists also were not uniform in their view of slavery. As Baptists in the South did not all fall neatly behind Fuller, some northern Baptists dissented from Wayland. They eschewed gradual emancipation, arguing slaves should be freed immediately. In 1836, Fall River Baptist Church in Rhode Island claimed northern Christians possessed a duty “to remonstrate against slavery with a spirit of love, but in the language of truth and in the tone of Christian decision.” Likewise, Baptist associations should “withhold fellowship from slaveholding churches and slaveholding ministers.”[20] Neighboring Valley Falls Baptist Church called the same year for slavery’s “immediate and entire abandonment.” New York’s Oneida Baptist Association called for “speedy abolition” in 1840.[21]

Wayland’s deferential tone toward Fuller and other slaveholding Christians struck some northern Baptists as the wrong approach. Among them were the editors of the Christian Watchman, a Massachusetts Baptist publication with a track record of urging emancipation. In 1839, the Watchman printed an address composed by a “meeting of Baptists, at Worcester.” Slavery is “an enormous sin, second to no other of which man can be guilty towards his fellow man,” the Worcester Baptists stated. American slavery violates the Golden Rule. “Every law then for enslaving any man, is an assumption of a right to reverse the laws of God, and is of course null and void.” The evil of slavery, combined with love for sinning southern believers, demanded a stern rebuke of southern Baptists:

We have long believed that if we should unitedly say to the churches of the south, as brethren in the spirit of Christ we believe before God you are wrong, we cannot uphold you, or apologize for you in your sin of slavery—and unless you take official measures to put away this evil from among you, we cannot continue to hold you as brethren; the work would be more than half done.

A demand of immediate emancipation is not hasty, the Worcester Baptists said, because the evil of slavery must not be trifled with.[22]

“Marginalized but Important Force”

Dissenters from the sectional majority views did not carry the day in the early nineteenth century. They remained “a marginalized but important force,” as historian Aaron Menikoff put it.[23] Yet they made a difference. By 1845, abolitionist sympathizers gained sufficient influence to prompt the splitting of southern Baptists from the Triennial Convention to form the Southern Baptist Convention. The decisive issue in the split: the Triennial Convention’s foreign mission agency refused to appoint slaveholders as missionaries. Apparently, the northern dissenters had gained a foothold among the foreign missions community.

But perhaps even more significant than their influence in 1845, dissenting Baptists of the North and South, prevailed in the minds of future generations. Today, condemnation of American slavery is virtually universal. With that universal condemnation comes universal admiration for the courage of those willing to stand on truth even when that stand met ridicule. Indeed, the Lord can use such stands beyond what we ask or imagine.

[1] Aaron Menikoff, “Piety and Politics: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860” (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2008), 50-51, https://repository.sbts.edu/bitstream/handle/10392/482/3356770.pdf.

[2] Tom Nettles, “A Biographical Sketch of Richard Fuller,” Founders Ministries Website, https://founders.org/library/sermons/a-biographical-sketch-of-richard-fuller/.

[3] Richard Fuller and Francis Wayland, Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution: In a Correspondence Between the Rev. Richard Fuller of Beaufort, S.C. and the Rev. Francis Wayland of Providence, R.I., 5th ed. (New York: Lewis Colby & Co., 1847), 3.

[4] Fuller and Wayland, Domestic Slavery Considered, 3-4.

[5] Fuller and Wayland, Domestic Slavery Considered, 29-30

[6] Fuller and Wayland, Domestic Slavery Considered, 38.

[7] Fuller and Wayland, Domestic Slavery Considered, 253.

[8] Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 3rd ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1963), 282-83.

[9] David Barrow, Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery Examined; on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy, and Scripture (Lexington, KY: Bradford, 1807), vii.

[10] Barrow, Slavery Examined, 36-37.

[11] Barrow, Slavery Examined, 38.

[12] Barrow, Slavery Examined, 40-41.

[13] Barrow, Slavery Examined, 41.

[14] Menikoff, “Piety and Politics,” 54-55.

[15] Carter Tarrant, The Substance of a Discourse Delivered in the Town of Versailles, Woodford County, state of Kentucky, April 20, 1806: with Some Additions and Miscellaneous thoughts Connected with the Subject (Lexington, KY: Bradford, 1806), 3.

[16] Tarrant, The Substance of a Discourse, 8.

[17] Tarrant, The Substance of a Discourse, 10.

[18] Tarrant, The Substance of a Discourse, 22.

[19] Tarrant, The Substance of a Discourse, 22.

[20] Menikoff, “Piety and Politics,” 60.

[21] Menikoff, “Piety and Politics,” 60.

[22] “Slavery,” Christian Watchman, December 27, 1839, p. 205.

[23] Menikoff, “Piety and Politics,” 47.


  • David Roach

    David Roach is pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Saraland, Alabama, author, and seminary professor. A native of New Mexico, he attended Vanderbilt University (BS in philosophy) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (PhD in church history, MDiv in biblical and theological studies). He pastored Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Kentucky, and worked as chief national correspondent for Baptist Press in Nashville, Tennessee. He also served on the staffs of churches in Kentucky and New Mexico. David is married to Erin, who is from the Lexington, Kentucky, area and holds a journalism degree from the University of Kentucky. Erin served nearly two decades as a writer and editor for Baptist Press. They have three children—Caroline, Mallory, and Hutton. David enjoys reading, golf, and sports—including the Vanderbilt Commodores. But he really loves spending time with Erin and their kids.

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