Updated: Aug 6
The response of pro-life Christians to abortion mirrors the response of anti-slavery Christians to slavery
“Just so, there are many in the ministry who will be much offended if you tell them they are not opposed to Slavery—therefore, in effect, defend it. They will affirm that, in potential essence, the abhorrence of Slavery is in them, though they do not go to the extreme of ever speaking against it.”
Rev. George B. Cheever
“The least that can in truth be said of such churches is, that they are the LUKEWARM friends of the slave, whom God will spew out of his mouth.”
Rev. Stephen Foster
As we evaluate the American Church’s response to abortion, it is helpful to look to the past and see how the Church responded to other grave, widespread injustices. By comparing the attitudes, words and actions of past generations to our own, we gain a better perspective on how our behavior looks to God.
Second only to abortion, the sin of slavery is rightly considered one of the worst injustices to ever take place in the United States. More than a mere denial of liberty, slavery doomed millions of valuable human beings to a lifetime of poverty, illiteracy, abuse and degradation. It encouraged rape, familial neglect and even murder. Surely, if there was ever a problem that warranted a strong, united and immediate response from the Church, this was it.
The United States became independent in 1776, and slavery was abolished 89 years later by the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. As we know, not all Christians of that era considered slavery to be unjust. But what about those who did? What was the response of anti-slavery Christians?
The unbiased reader will find that there are many parallels between the actions of the anti-slavery Church in the early 19th Century, and the response of the pro-life Church in our own era. Sadly, we find that, just as today, the leading characteristic was apathy. Most Christians were incredibly reluctant to confront the slavery problem. Throughout the ante-bellum era, the majority failed to participate in any sort of meaningful anti-slavery action, reasoning the need for it away with arguments very similar to those advanced by numerous pro-life Christians today. Slavery lasted 89 more years because anti-slavery Christians never saw fit to end it.
STRONG WORDS AND HOLLOW PROMISES
During the American Revolution and for several decades following, leading voices in American Christianity spoke powerfully against slavery. Most of the Founding Fathers, even many who owned slaves, were vehemently against the institution. Patrick Henry called it “a practice so totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong.”* Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a long paragraph denouncing slavery and specifically rebuking the “Christian” king of England for encouraging it. There was a general consensus that the practice would not last long in an environment so committed to the ideals of liberty.
During this period, the largest denominations in America not only denounced slavery, but also made plans to abolish it throughout the nation. In 1793 the Presbyterian General Assembly, composed of ministers from both North and South, inserted into their Book of Discipline a passage asserting slavery to be “man stealing” and thus a violation of the 8th Commandment. In 1818 this same assembly unanimously passed one of the most striking anti-slavery statements ever to come from an American denomination prior to the Civil War. It denounced slavery as “a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God” and even went so far as to state that “It is manifestly the duty of all Christians . . . to use honest, earnest, unwearied endeavours to correct the errors of former times, and as speedily as possible to efface this blot on our holy religion, and to obtain the complete abolition of slavery throughout Christendom and throughout the world." No less enthusiastic, in 1784 the Methodist Church declared that all Methodists who owned slaves must emancipate them within twelve months or leave the church, and henceforth no slave owner was to be admitted for membership or even to the Lord’s Supper! (Birney, 10) This was followed up in 1785 with a resolution that the church "shall not cease to seek its [slavery’s] destruction by all wise and prudent means." In 1801 the Methodist General Conference resolved that anyone who so much as sold a slave would be disfellowshipped, and that it would appoint a special committee to petition the US government to abolish slavery, urging church members to diligently assist said committee until this “blessed undertaking” was successful! (Beecher Stowe, 408)
In 1789 the General Committee of the Baptists of Virginia adopted a position that slavery was “a violent deprivation of the rights of nature” and “recommended it to our brethren to make use of every measure to extirpate this horrid evil from the land.” (Semple, 72)
Other denominations made similar statements. They mirror modern denunciations against abortion such as the Manhattan Declaration in that they not only reprimand injustice but promise to do something about it. However, just as modern Christianity has failed to keep its promise to defend the PreBorn, early American Christianity failed to keep its promise to liberate the slave. As abolitionist preacher Parker Pillsbury noted:
“Two things are worthy of notice. First, the fact that all this discussion and action [against slavery] took place in connection with similar discussion out of the church; being little more than an echo of-the popular voice. And [secondly], it was, after all, but expression in words; not the least action ever accompanying the expression during that whole quarter of a century. Her action was of a different character. It was the extremest inaction; proving that all her loud protestations and solemn threatenings were most profoundly insincere.”
The Church, in fact, went backwards. This does not mean that Northern Christians became pro-slavery (as did many Southern Christians) but that the commitment to do something about it became less and less of a priority. Having tolerated slavery for a period in the expectation that it would extinguish itself, churches slowly became less and less vocal in their opposition, until they were actively silencing it in others. Abolitionist Rev. William Goodell described this phenomenon:
“The transition of which we speak was from this state of honest opposition to slavery and incipient though dilatory action against it, to a state of comparative apathy, first; of a quiescence, next; and finally, of apology, of biblical defense, and of opposition to all earnest endeavors to diffuse information on the subject, and to array a public sentiment against slavery.” (Goodell, 186)
Throughout much of the early 19th Century, then, the biggest obstacle to the anti-slavery cause was the apathy of anti-slavery churches. Justification for such apathy took several forms, all of which can be applied to pro-life churches today:
Then, as now, the abolition of injustice was often viewed as an issue outside the scope of a church’s responsibility.
Then, as now, Christians preferred to fight injustice using the most passive methods available.
Then as now, churches refused to address the presence of unrepentant sinners in their own congregations.
Then, as now, the abolition of injustice was viewed as a distraction from the proclamation of the Gospel.
Then, as now, Christians viewed real reformers as radical, dangerous, bothersome and legalistic busybodies.
We shall see each principle at work in the examples that follow. Consider, please, how they are still at work in the response of the modern church to abortion.
THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN RESPONSE: INJUSTICE MET WITH TIMIDITY, REFORMERS MET WITH PERSECUTION
The overall response of the church to slavery was weak and lethargic. By contrast, its response to the abolitionists that would not stop pestering everyone was ruthless and energetic.
Christians in the era of slavery, like Christians today, were always ready to grasp any half-measure, compromise or passive solution that might relieve themselves from the dreadfully uncomfortable burden of tackling injustice head on. In the modern era this is best exhibited by assistance to pregnancy help centers, pro-life banquets, pro-life ‘conferences’ and pro-life prayer services, activities which are always far more popular than activism*. In the era of slavery, it took the form of the American Colonization Society (ACS) and similarly flaccid efforts*. Founded in 1816 by a mix of anti-slavery and pro-slavery advocates, the ACS sought to “solve” the slave problem by emigrating ex-slaves to Africa (thus establishing the modern nation of Liberia). This strategy had great appeal among both Northern and Southern churches, the former because it would ostensibly motivate slave-owners to emancipate their slaves, the latter because it would rid the nation of free black people. Abolitionists (and most free blacks) harshly criticized this strategy because it was based on the concept that blacks and whites could not live in harmony, tended to make forced emigration the condition of emancipation and because IT DIDN’T WORK. By 1835, the ACS, deep in debt, had succeeded in freeing a mere fraction of the slave population, which had meanwhile multiplied dramatically (Goodell). Obviously the slave industry could increase the number of slaves far faster than the ACS could emancipate them. If only for this reason, Christians should have recognized that colonization was a bad strategy that should be abandoned. Sadly, because the tone of the ACS carefully skirted the highly sensitive subject of slavery’s immorality, even going so far as to endorse slavery itself*, and thus avoided the stigma of being judgmental so many Christians dread, the colonization scheme was very popular for a very long time among anti-slavery churches. A slave-owning Baptist minister on a speaking tour of Northern Baptist churches in 1841 wrote home that “the mass of our brethren . . . are opposed to abolition, as now understood by that term, and for no other measure than colonization.”*
Just as modern pro-life Christians should realize that “diaper drives” and pro-life social events will not end abortion, but persist in imagining that they will, anti-slavery Christians of the ante-bellum era should have admitted that colonization would not end slavery, but didn’t. A report published by the Synod of Kentucky in 1834 described, in lurid detail, the horrors of human bondage and bemoaned the fact that members within their own presbytery took part in it. Here we see a church body fully cognizant of an evil taking place within its sphere of influence. Did this knowledge move them to meaningful action? Sadly, no. As William Goodell commented “Who would have believed it?—the Synod of Kentucky were not, and are not, in favor of present emancipation on the soil [without forced deportation] … Aware, as they must be, that no removal of the slaves could be effected in a century, the Synod of Kentucky, and its leading members, who tell us this sad story, are unwilling to listen to any proposal for emancipation, without the colonization [forced deportation] of the slaves. And the one only Presbyterian minister within their bounds who advocated immediate and unconditional emancipation on the soil [without deportation], was given to understand by his Presbytery, that he could not consistently remain with them.” Just like modern pro-life churches, the anti-slavery churches of the past could often not even fathom that there may be a better way to deal with the problem than what they were already doing. Can it be helped that the sincerity of their principles is doubted by those who actively pursue the eradication of injustice?
The pernicious idea that Christians should at all times follow man made law was, and continues to be, an tragic obstacle to the bodily salvation of the oppressed and endangered. For example, in 1840 the General Association of Congregational Ministers in Connecticut resolved that “Immediate abolition [of slavery] by those who have the legal power, is a duty” and that “We recommend to the churches under our care … the exertion of their appropriate influence for the emancipation of all the enslaved throughout this land and throughout the world.” Fine words, indeed! Yet barely five years later, this same association rejected a resolution stating “No man is bound in conscience to obey slave law” and another asserting that Christians should do the same things to free black slaves that they would do to free white slaves (Moral Consistency)! (Goodell, page 176) Many Christians back then would not participate in the underground railroad. Many Christians today will not block the doors of abortion clinics. We set Romans 13:1 against Acts 4:19, and obey men rather than God.
One particularly sensitive subject, which Northern churches were continuously struggling to evade, was the abolitionists’ irritating insistence that Christians exercise church discipline on slave-holders within their ranks. “No communion with slave holders!” may seem like common sense to us, but in those days many preferred unity with slave-holders over disunity for the sake of honoring God. In 1843 abolitionist Rev. Stephen S. Foster wrote, “I know not of a single ecclesiastical body in the country which has excommunicated any of its members for the crime of slaveholding, since the commencement of the anti-slavery enterprise, though most of them have cast out true and faithful abolitionists from their communion.” (Foster, ) Are we so different now? How many congregations will forbid communion to an unrepentant post-abortive woman or man? Does it even enter into our consideration?
Abolitionist Rev. George B. Cheever did not mince words when it came to criticizing the hesitancy of Christians, and especially clergymen, to speak out against slavery often enough and strongly enough. In 1858 he said “It is very easy to say a soft, apologizing word now and then in regard to [slavery], and excite no anger, no disturbance, and do no good, rouse no man's conscience; and not a few, in what they do say or intimate on such a subject, seem to be begging pardon of the congregation for such a painful allusion.” (Cheever)
Harriet Beecher Stowe waxed eloquent on how completely misguided this ‘policy of timidity’ truly was:
“There are those who yet retain the delusion that, somehow or other, without any very particular effort or opposition, by a soft, genteel, rather apologetic style of operation, Leviathan [slavery] is to be converted, baptised, and Christianised. They can try it. Such a style answers admirably as long as it is understood to mean nothing. But just the moment that Leviathan finds they are in earnest, then they will see the consequences. The debates of all the synods in the United States, as to whether he is an evil per se, will not wake him. In fact, they are rather a pleasant humdrum. Nor will any resolutions that they “behold him with regret” give him especial concern; neither will he be much annoyed by the expressed expectation that he is to die somewhere about the millennium. But let anyone, either North or South, take the sword of the Spirit and make one pass under his scales that he shall feel, and then he will know what sort of a conflict Christian had with Apollyon. Let no one, either North or South, undertake this warfare, to whom fame, or ease, or wealth, or anything that this world has to give, are too dear to be sacrificed. Let no one undertake it who is not prepared to hate his own good name, and, if need be, his life also.” (Beecher Stowe, 440)
Tragically, every generation of social reformers must relearn the same lesson. Today, many pro-life advocates judge their success by how well the community accepts them. “Positive messaging” is all the rage. Pro-life prayer services are far more popular than pro-life activism. How foolish! Like the slave industry, the abortion industry is perfectly content to let Christians grumble privately against abortion, craft strongly worded statements that no one reads and create ‘life-affirming’ art, music and film. Such things pose no real threat to their business. But when an anti-abortion effort starts making headway, when it starts shedding light on the grisly practice of abortion and stirring up communities against it, the baby killers come down hard. Their response is immediate, harsh and absolute, their hatred total and unrestrained. As anti-abortion leader Gregg Cunningham has said “Successful reformers are rarely popular, and popular reformers are rarely successful”.
Reformers are unpopular not only with those who commit injustice, but with the mass of Christians who would rather avoid controversy. In stark contrast to the gentle and almost apologetic tone that the church took with slavery, its tone when dealing with the abolitionists was rather harsh and demeaning. The abolitionists began, as most Christian reformers do, with an assumption that the church would hasten to rally alongside them for a cause so noble. In the words of William Goodell, “They [the abolitionists] were mostly themselves supporters of the different religious sects and political parties: and so far from anticipating any separation from them, or controversy with them, they fondly expected to secure their cooperation and assistance. To ministers of the gospel, especially, were their appeals confidingly and respectfully addressed.” (Goodell, page 401) Of course, they were soon disillusioned.
Many Christians feared that the radical demands of abolitionists did more harm than good, and actually spent more time trying to keep them silent than they spent trying to end slavery! In 1828 abolitionist pioneer Benjamin Lundy spoke at Boston’s Federal Street Baptist Church, where the pastor, Rev. Malcolm Howard (later to become president of the Baptist College of Georgetown, KY) was particularly known for urging his congregation to “work for the master” and become involved in charitable efforts. (Hansen) Immediately following Lundy’s address, however, pastor Howard rose to announce that the church ought not to have anything to do with the anti-slavery movement because it was far too sensitive of a subject, and subsequently dismissed the congregation! (Burnham) How similar this is to the reception modern anti-abortionists usually find at the doors of modern pro-life churches, where, if they are able to gain a hearing at all, must curb their enthusiasm, soften their language and never, ever insinuate that the congregation is not doing enough to combat abortion!
The inaction of one’s friends is always more tragic than the action of one’s enemies. Indeed, wrote Goodell:
“No persecutions of abolitionists have been perhaps so vexatious, so annoying, so exhausting, or, on the whole, so effective, as those suffered by some of the more active among them, in their church or ecclesiastical relations … These ecclesiastical annoyances and persecutions have not been confined to the sects whose general associated action has been found recorded on the side of slavery … Sects claiming the reputation of being decidedly anti-slavery—sects that do not allow slaveholding among their members, nor maintain any ecclesiastical connection with slaveholders, have opposed the agitation of the subject by anti-slavery societies, and have censured and even excommunicated their members for their activity in them.” (Goodell, 434)
The average American Christian probably does not realize that this situation is being repeated today every time someone tries to get his or her church active in fighting abortion. Moving a church even an inch beyond the bounds of its comfort zone is like moving a mighty mountain, so great are the forces of inertia, fear and self-interest arrayed against the effort. In tears many have left or been asked to leave congregations for “being too pro-life” and disturbing the tranquility of the faithful. Active anti-abortionists are a lonely breed that operates on the fringes of Christian society, trying desperately to break in and make their voices heard, but almost always rebuffed and censured by the very Body of Christ who should be embracing them.
OPPOSITION FROM CHURCH BODIES
In 1843 Stephen S. Foster ruefully remarked that “Not a solitary sect in the land, of any magnitude, has espoused the anti-slavery cause. They all, without exception, stand on the side of the oppressor, and legalize his atrocities.” How could Foster say this when there were, in fact, denominations that officially denounced slavery? Simple! As any true reformer will tell you, official statements are not enough. Words must be followed up with actions, or they are worthless. But when Foster made this statement no church body had taken upon itself the task of eradicating the blight of slavery. No church body today is genuinely dedicated to seeing the end of abortion, despite what they claim.
Neither the Presbyterian nor Methodist churches ever made good on their high sounding promises. By 1836 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which a generation previous had promised never to rest until slavery was destroyed, was able to declare themselves “decidedly opposed to modern abolitionism, and wholly disclaim any right, wish, or intention, to interfere in the civil and political relation between master and slave.” Just to make sure there was no doubt as to their feelings, they even passed (by a vote of 122 to 11!) a resolution expressing disapproval that two of their own had given abolitionist lectures. To this was appended a pastoral letter, disseminated at large, which exhorted Methodists to “abstain from all abolition movements and associations, and to refrain from patronizing any of their publications.” Indeed, the pastors of the Methodist Episcopal Church concluded that “the only safe, scriptural, and prudent way for us, both as ministers and people, to take, is wholly to refrain from this agitating subject.”
Least we assume that these motions are the result of Southern influence at the General Conference, consider that in that same year (1836) Methodist pastors at the New York Annual Conference urged their people to shun anti-slavery publications and advised the church at large to ban anyone from being ordained who did not promise to “refrain from agitating the church with discussions on this subject [slavery]”, while the Ohio Annual Conference resolved “That we deeply regret the proceedings of the abolitionists, and Anti-Slavery Societies in the free States” and commended clergy and lay persons who “abstain from any connection with them, or participation of their acts.”
In 1838, after two decades of vacillation, during which the power of pro-slavery Southern clergy grew ever stronger, the Presbyterian Church split into two factions, New School and Old School. The split was based on doctrinal issues, but since most of the New School presbyteries were Northern, this effectively left one half of the Presbyterian church totally dominated by anti-slavery men. Incredibly, it made no difference whatsoever. In 1839, 1840 and 1843 the New School General Assembly (NSGA) repeatedly resolved that slavery was not its business and that individual presbyteries should deal with the issue as they saw fit.
During these assemblies, ministers cautioned that “In taking these [anti-slavery] positions, we are making war on the law of the land; which neither Christ nor his apostles did, in their contest with evil.”(Rev. Groff of Maryland) And that “political institutions are not to be assailed by the church.” (Rev. Wisener of New York) (Pillsbury, 21, 23) In May of 1846 this same body, by a vote of 97 to 27, passed a resolution that succinctly encapsulates the double-mindedness of both anti-slavery Christians during that era, and pro-life Christians today. While it held that slavery was “intrinsically unrighteous and oppressive . . . opposed to the prescriptions of the law of God, to the spirit and precepts of the Gospel, and to the best interests of humanity”, and called on slave holding Presbyterians, and their local churches, to “use all means in their power to put it [slavery] away from them”, they as an Assembly had no right to take disciplinary action against any person, congregation or presbytery which condoned slavery, thus leaving this decision with the local churches. The resolution further denounced abolitionism, saying “we do at the same time condemn all divisive and schismatical measures, tending to destroy the unity and disturb the peace of our Church, and deprecate the spirit of denunciation and inflicting severities, which would cast from the fold those whom we are rather bound, by the spirit of the Gospel, and the obligations of our covenant, to instruct, to counsel, to exhort, and thus to lead in the ways of God; and towards whom, even though they may err, we ought to exercise forbearance and brotherly love.” That same year (1846) the New School General Assembly invited the Old School General Assembly to enjoy the Lord’s Supper together with them. Many of the Old School ministers in attendance were slave owners and some, like Dr. James Smylie, had been zealous proponents of the institution. Three years later the Assembly had the nerve to declare that its Southern presbyteries were already doing everything possible to eradicate slavery, a bald faced lie that demonstrates the depths to which this cowardly body, the spiritual leaders of millions of Americans, had sunk.
Other denominations fared no better. Rev. Joel Parker, the anti-slavery yet anti-abolitionist pastor of the independent Broadway Tabernacle Church in New York City, who later became president of Presbyterian Theological Seminary of New York (now Union Theological Seminary), relentlessly strove to drive abolitionist leader Lewis Tappan out of the congregation, and in 1840 declared that “Abolitionism might be pronounced a sin as well as slavery". (Birney, 37) In 1839, the Episcopalian John Jay, Esq, wrote with sadness that in his church even anti-slavery men were hesitant to take action against the institution:
“Her Northern (free State) clergy, with rare exceptions, whatever they may feel upon this subject, rebuke it neither in public nor in private; and her periodicals, far from advancing the progress of abolition, at times oppose our societies, impliedly defending slavery.” (Birney, 39)
In 1844, Samuel Wilberforce, son of British abolitionist William Wilberforce and then Lord Bishop of Oxford, published a book containing statements denouncing the slaveholding character of the American church. An anonymous American bishop in Illinois responded with a letter explaining that while Episcopalians recognized slavery as a moral evil, the church was not responsible for ending it. Rather,
"All she can do is by her prayers, and the preaching of the gospel, and teaching of the blessed doctrines of Christianity, to endeavor to ameliorate the condition of the slave; but, like the primitive Christians amidst the evils that surround her, she does not think herself called upon to eradicate at once the evil. She rather finds herself commanded, as were the servants in the gospel, to exercise caution, 'lest in eradicating the tares they root out the wheat also.' 'Let both grow together,' saith our Lord. [Matthew 13:29-30]. Let the evil be borne for the sake of the good that may be done to the souls of the poor slaves.”
The same arguments are now advanced by American clergy who wish to avoid any involvement in fighting abortion. Phrases such as “Abortion is a political issue”, “We must fight using Spiritual means rather than worldly means” and “We must keep the main thing the main thing” are the cruelest words in the universe. To the victims of injustice, they mean abandonment, torture and death.
Some churches, such as the Free Will Baptist, Congregationalist and Quaker denominations, had the wherewithal to maintain a more consistently anti-slavery stance. That is, they did a little more than most other churches did and, satisfied with this, went no farther. Stephen S. Foster wrote “It is true that they have spoken against slavery; and spoken, too, in strong terms of reprobation; but it is equally true, that with both hands they have upheld it … they admit no slave-claimant to their fellowship; but at the same time, as a body, they stand entirely aloof from the anti-slavery enterprise, or openly oppose it.” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Considering the whole state of public sentiment, considering the critical nature of the exigency, has the vehemence and force of the testimony of Congregationalism, as a body, been equal to the dreadful emergency?” and answers her own question with a vehement NO. Are today’s pro-life churches any different? Let no one ever say “My church is very pro-life!” simply because it officially takes a strident pro-life stance. Words are not enough.
OPPOSITION FROM INFLUENTIAL CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP
During the New England Anti-Slavery Convention of May, 1841, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the famous abolitionist newspaper Liberator, stated that "in regard to the existence of slavery, . . . the clergy stand wickedly preeminent, and ought to be unsparingly exposed and reproved before the people”. He was right. Leading voices in American Christendom, even those who opposed slavery itself, were always more ready to shun, criticize and denounce the anti-slavery movement than they were to encourage and participate in it.
The Rev. Willbur Fisk, first president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, is a model example of the duplicitous mindset held by most anti-slavery clergy in the ante-bellum period. While acknowledging the evils inherent in American slavery, he nevertheless opposed any movement to abolish it out of fear that it would split the Methodist denomination (as it eventually did). “I tremble for the consequences of this ultra abolition doctrine” wrote Fisk in 1835, and instead of pursuing the end of slavery directly, lent his support to ministries like the American Union for the Relief and Improvement of the Coloured Race, which, though pro-abolition, focused on relieving the symptoms of slavery instead of slavery itself, and thus avoided offending the perpetrators of injustice whose esteem Fisk highly valued. Also a fan of the American Colonization Society, Fisk once praised it as “a society that has indirectly liberated more slaves probably than all the anti slavery societies of our country from the beginning until now” (Holdich, 330), a unfair and uniformed remark that prompts curiosity as to what he really knew about ACS activity. Political action on behalf of the slave was unthinkable to Fisk, and the sordid, controversial world of public activism offended his cultured sensibilities. Like so many others both then and today, flagrant injustice remained an “issue” to be calmly discussed in polite society, not a monster to be confronted and slain.
The Rev. Moses Stuart, a professor at Andover Theological Seminary in Newton Centre, MA who would later be known as “the father of exegetical studies in America”, and a clergyman of significant influence*, is another such example. In his 1850 book Conscience and Constitution, Stuart railed against the “vituperative” writings of the abolitionists and cautioned that their excitable, aggressive campaign would only make the slavery problem worse. “Gradual freedom is the only possible practical measure” wrote Stuart, ignoring the fact that gradual plans for freedom had been drawn up and promoted for decades but slavery remained as strong as ever. In a letter dated April 10th, 1837, he had written:
"The abuse of it [slavery] is the essential and fundamental wrong. Not that the theory of slavery is in itself right. No, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' 'Do unto others that which ye would that others should do unto you,' decide against this. But the relation once constituted and continued, is not such a malum in se as calls for immediate and violent disruption, at all hazard … Paul's conduct and advice are still safe guides. Paul knew well that Christianity would ultimately destroy slavery, as it certainly will. He knew, too that it would destroy monarchy and aristocracy from the earth; for it is fundamentally a doctrine of true liberty and equality. Yet Paul did not expect slavery and monarchy to be ousted in a day; and gave precepts to Christians respecting their demeanor ad interim.”*
The Rev. Francis Wayland, the fourth president of Brown University, studied under Stuart at Andover and was greatly influenced by his thinking. A Baptist minister, he certainly opposed slavery, calling it “wicked and destructive of the best interests of both master and slave”. Wayland Seminary in Richmond, VA, a school established in 1867 to educate former slaves, was named in his honor. Yet Wayland, too, considered the spirit of abolition uncouth, unwise, improper and unloving. He refused to read the anti-slavery newspaper Liberator and wrote that no one had a right to condemn the actions of slave-holders “either by conversation or by lectures or by the mail.” Rather, “If we have spoken truth, we should leave it to God. We may talk with Southerners in a spirit of love.” (Wayland, Limits of Human Responsibility, 1838)
The Rev. Benjamin F. Wile was a prominent minister in New York. Like Fisk, Stuart and Wayland, he was anti-slavery but against abolition. In 1838 he preached a famous sermon that definitively characterized the criticisms typically leveled against abolitionists. Read them and see if they are not the very same charges leveled against earnest anti-abortionists today! They are:
Abolitionists have made the abolition of slavery more important than any other Christian endeavor, even more important than evangelism
Abolitionists oppose colonization in favor of more radical forms of action
Abolitionists have been too aggressive and therefore hurt the cause of the slave
Abolitionists exude a judgmental spirit towards who disagree with them
Abolitionists have said shocking and unloving things
The apostles and early church did not bother themselves with solving the world’s problems, but focused, rather, on spreading the Gospel
Replace the word “abolitionists” with “radical pro-lifers” and “slavery” with “abortion” and this sermon may as well have been preached from the pulpit last Sunday. The radical wing of the pro-life movement (the only wing that has a fighting chance of ending abortion) is constantly accused of focusing too much on one subject, overlooking less confrontational methods, forgetting that people have other ‘issues’ in their lives, being too mean and acting too legalistic. It these charges are true of pro-lifers, it follows that they must also have been true of abolitionists. The ghost of Wile and his contemporaries walk arm in arm with modern clergy and laypersons, but the latter do not realize it!
The Rev. Lyman Beecher is considered one of the greatest preachers of the early 19th Century. He is famous for combating the liberal influences of Unitarianism in Boston, MA, and leading campaigns against alcoholism, Sabbath-breaking, and other such social ills. He is, in fact, best known as the father of abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe and abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Yet this outstanding moralist, while emphatically anti-slavery and preaching in Boston, epicenter of the American abolitionist movement (William Lloyd Garrison was for a time a member of his congregation) was nevertheless an ardent opponent of abolition! Beecher valued the “silken ties” between Northern and Southern churches which supposedly held the nation together and which would, if given sufficient time, work some sort of magic and convince Southerners to emancipate their slaves. He opposed abolition because he felt it distracted from the Gospel and exuded a spirit of self-righteous pride. When abolitionist societies sprang up in and around Boston in the 1820s and 1830s, Beecher refused to permit them the use of his pulpit, publically denouncing “he-goat” abolitionists “who think they do God service by butting every thing in the line of their march which does not fall in or get out of the way”. He was successful at persuading Congregationalist ministers in Connecticut and Massachusetts to avoid contact with itinerant preachers who held “erroneous or questionable views [abolition]” considered “fatal to the peace and good order of the churches”. Accordingly, in 1836 every church in Boston refused to open its doors to the Massachusetts Abolitionist Society and they were forced to meet in a barn. Ten years later, in August of 1846, Beecher even traveled to England and, along with several other American clergymen, convinced the Evangelical Alliance to revoke its ban on receiving slave-owners to communion! (Pillsbury, 28)
Rev. Beecher’s eldest daughter, Catherine Beecher, once drafted a treatise discouraging Christian ladies from joining abolitionist societies. Like many Christians today, she believed that boldly condemning evil was counter-productive. Far better to tenderly persuade the sinner! In her own words:
“The Abolitionists have violated all these laws of mind and of experience, in dealing with their southern brethren...They have not approached them with the spirit of love, courtesy, and forbearance. They are not the persons who would be regarded by the South, as having any right to interfere...In dealing with their brethren, too, they have not tried silent, retired, private measures. It has been public denunciation of crime and shame in newspapers, addressed as it were to bystanders, in order to arouse the guilty…”*
Only after years of opposition, and the conversion of his children Harriet and Henry to the abolitionist position, did Lyman Beecher recognize the righteousness of their cause.
These men and women acknowledged slavery as sin, yet counseled against abolition, on the grounds that it wasn’t worth the social upheaval and turmoil that would result. While having faith that Christianity would eventually exterminate slavery, they denounced those who would live out their faith by attempting to bring it about! The spirit and philosophy of Stuart, Fisk, Wayland, Wile and the Beechers was the accepted norm among Northern clergy throughout their era. It would have been very familiar to Luther King, Jr., for to ministers such as these he penned his Letter From A Birmingham Jail. It still dominates the mindset of modern pro-life Christians, especially clergy. In a single breath we are capable of calling abortion murder yet cannot bring ourselves to call those who kill their children murderers. We say abortion is an emergency but act as if it wasn’t. Within our churches we call on the world to repent, but outside them we are afraid of giving offense. We feel grievously insulted if some “holier-than-thou” anti-abortionist should suggest that we ought to reorient our lifestyle to help save babies. “Who are they to judge us?” we ask.
OPPOSITION FROM PARA-CHURCH ORGANIZATIONS
Just as 21st Century Christians forget that the PreBorn children must be permitted to live before they can receive the Gospel message, so 19th Century Christians overlook the fact that slavery itself was often the very thing which prevented slaves from hearing that same message. Most slaves could not read the Bible, and though they were provided with ‘religious’ education, it often amounted to nothing more than endless lessons on the virtues of obedience. The American Bible Society (ABS), founded in 1816 with a goal of providing every American family with a Bible, made no effort to supply them to slave families, even after the American Anti-Slavery Society offered to fund the entire enterprise! The excuses given was that doing so was illegal in the slave states, and that distribution was the duty of ABS auxiliaries and not the national society. (Goodell, 212-213) Thus, in one fell swoop, the ABS committed three distinct sins: 1) denying the Gospel message to an entire class of human beings, 2) placing the laws of man higher than the laws of God and 3) passing the buck. All three are routinely committed by Christian organizations today in regards to abortion.
In 1834, when the students of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, OH, formed an anti-slavery society, its trustees and faculty, fearful of the backlash such a society would instigate, banned it from campus. Approximately 40 seminarians left Lane as a result. This shameful episode is re-enacted every day on college campuses throughout the nation, where Christian college organizations such as FCA and Cru carefully distance themselves from anti-abortion efforts out of fear that associating with contentious ‘political’ issues will hurt their witness and invite unnecessary persecution.
In 1841, in the midst of mounting appeals from Baptist abolitionists that their churches take a stronger stand against slavery, the American Baptist Home Missionary Society published a circular warning Baptists not to “furnish a armory for the secular conflicts of the times” but “say with Nehemiah, I am doing a great work and I cannot come down!” Thus he Great Commission became a reason to neglect the Greatest Commandment. Is it any different now?
In 1845 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, then the largest American missionary organization in existence, published a report acknowledging that slave-holders were welcome in their mission churches provided they “give credible evidence of piety”, and (how familiar it sounds to modern ears!) indicating that this was an excellent way to encourage masters to emancipate their slaves! (Goodell, 204)
Like modern pro-life Christians who are afraid to speak decisively on the topic of abortion for fear that it will alienate those they wish to evangelize, The American Tract Society (ATS), founded in 1825, was by the 1850s publishing and distributing tracts on every subject pertinent to the Christian religion except for one. It had never created a tract even attempting to deal with the subject of slavery, and in fact edited out the anti-slavery comments of hymnist Mary Lundie Duncan in an 1852 tract they published about her life*. In all other things the Society remained faithful to the cardinal truths of Christian orthodoxy, but here they failed.
The American Sunday School Union (now The American Missionary Fellowship) organized in Philadelphia in 1824, was also too timid to denounce slavery, even as they orchestrated their grand plan to place Sunday schools throughout ‘destitute’ regions such as the Mississippi Valley. Such was their fear of loosing converts in the slave states that they carefully filtered each and every book used by their associated Sunday schools, and discarded any that even so much as presented slavery in a less than positive light!*
REAPING WHAT WE SOW
As anti-slavery feeling grew in the North, but established churches remained aloof to the anti-slavery effort, some abolitionists took the radical step of disassociating with them altogether. Thus, in 1841, a group of anti-slavery Methodists separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Wesleyan Church, while anti-slavery Presbyterians separated from the New School to form the Free Presbyterian Church in 1847. Anti-slavery mission societies and other para-church organizations began to take shape as well. In 1859 the Boston branch of the American Tract Society separated from the New York branch and began to publish material dealing with the slave issue.
The Methodist Episcopal Church continued to cling to a policy of appeasement until 1844, when enough of its ministers found the courage to insist that a Southern bishop resign his post until he was able to emancipate his slaves (as per denominational rules), prompting most pro-slavery churches to leave their communion. By 1845, abolitionism was sufficiently potent amongst Northern Baptists to force through a resolution that no more slave-holders be appointed as missionaries, an act that, once again, precipitated the separation of the pro-slavery churches and the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1857 abolitionist New School Presbyterians finally forced their communion to address the issue, resulting in yet another split. Even after these dissolutions, however, the Northern or anti-slavery faction of each church remained, for a while, very hesitant to go any further. What anti-slavery activity there was usually initiated with individuals and rarely with organized religious bodies.
Nevertheless, the efforts of the abolitionists eventually bore fruit, forcing American Christendom to deal seriously with the slavery problem. Overtime, half-measures and compromises were abandoned in favor of real, sacrificial efforts to curtail and eradicate the institution across the nation. The formation of the Republican Party, the election of Abraham Lincoln and the passage of the 13th Amendment would not have been possible had this change in mindset not taken place. Yet in another sense it was too little, too late. American Christians had let the disease of slavery fester for too long, and before it was abolished, God extracted from them a heavy price. They paid for their apathy with the blood of their children.
Friends, what was true of the anti-slavery church a century and a half ago is true of the pro-life Church today. We have not thought of abortion as something worth fighting to end. We have fought it timidly and cautiously, with far more concern for our own safety, reputation and comfort than for the lives of the victims. We have shrunk from our 1 Corinthians 5 duty to expose sin in our midst and demand that our brothers and sisters separate themselves from it. We have had the audacity to claim that the Great Commission cancels out the Greatest Commandment! We have passed over abortion as a “political issue” effectively abdicating our responsibility to the poor and helpless! We have rejected and persecuted those whom God has sent to warn us, calling them radicals and lunatics and Pharisees!
We are, in fact, REPEATING HISTORY. We are stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, always resisting the Holy Spirit. As our fathers did, so do we.