'Send back the money'

In the summer of 1845 a former American slave, Frederick Douglass, set sail for Britain, arriving in Liverpool on 16th August.  Born in February 1818 (he didn’t know the exact date), and of mixed race (including Native American) he had endured the usual vicissitudes of enslavement.  Separated from his mother soon after birth, he had been passed from owner to owner, and had met, occasionally, with some kindness.  He had learned the rudiments of reading and writing, he had developed a love for the Bible, and he was a sincerely religious man. 

But he had also met with cruelty, and after merciless whippings at the hands of one brutal owner at the age of sixteen, he resolved to escape to a slave-free state.  He made his move in September 1838 and, using public transport, made the journey from Maryland to a safe-house in New York in the remarkably short time  of twenty-four hours,  Shortly before this he had met, and fallen in love with, a free black woman bearing the good Scottish name, Anna Murray.  She had provided the  money for his fares, she followed him to New York, and shortly afterwards they were married by a black Presbyterian minister.

Once escaped, Douglass quickly identified with the anti-slavery movement, became a noted abolitionist, and showed himself a man of remarkable talents: a powerful preacher and orator, a brilliant journalist, an enterprising newspaper owner, and even (in 1872) a nominee for the Vice-Presidency of the United States. 

Nor were his campaigning activities limited to abolitionism.  Driven by a deeply held belief in the equality of all human beings regardless of colour, social status or gender,  he also campaigned for women’s rights and (without the support of President Lincoln) for the enfranchisement of freed black men.


Douglass in Scotland

In the summer of 1846, Douglass was in Scotland.  By this time, the efforts of William Wilberforce and his colleagues had secured the passing of the Slave Trade Act (1807), which made the traffic in African slaves illegal throughout the British Empire.  A further Act in 1833 made it illegal to own slaves in most parts of the Empire, and in 1838 this was extended to the West Indies, where the sugar-plantations had seen some of the worst excesses of slavery. 

Now that these changes had been secured ‘at home,’ British abolitionists turned their attention to the situation on the other side of the Atlantic, with the result that when Douglass arrived in Scotland he received a warm welcome and drew huge crowds to his meetings in such cities as Edinburgh and Dundee.  Unfortunately, however, he let himself become involved not only in the anti-slavery movement, but also in the anti-Free Church sentiments which naturally followed the Disruption of 1843.  This sentiment crystallised in the slogan, ‘Send Back the Money,’ and Douglas was more than happy to latch on to it.  

The background was this.  Soon after the Disruption, the Free Church appointed some of its ministers to represent its cause to the Presbyterian churches of the United States.  They were not ‘missionaries,’ as has been suggested, but deputies; nor were they sent just to raise money.  The most prominent of them was Dr. William Cunningham, and the primary object of his trip was to visit Princeton Seminary, then the foremost Reformed seminary in the world, in order to get ideas for the Free Church’s own theological college, where Cunningham was one of the first professors.  Over and above this, the deputies were also sent to allay misgivings on the part of American churches, many of which were deeply uneasy about the Free Church’s continuing commitment to the idea of a close relationship between church and state.

Still, if money wasn’t ‘raised,’ it was certainly given.  But America wasn’t then the sugar-daddy it has since become.  Its own economy was struggling, its churches were having difficulty paying their own ministers, and at one point even Princeton Seminary was in such financial straits that it was unable to pay the salaries of its professors.  In the circumstances, the American money (mainly from private donors) was matched, and possibly even more than matched, by the support offered by the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. 

Besides, the Free Church deputies themselves were hardly money-grabbers.  Cunningham himself had rejected outright a proposal that the Church’s professors be paid a salary of £500 a year (in addition to income from student fees).  This would have put them on a par with university professors (a position which two of them. Dr. Chalmers and Dr. Welsh, had forfeited by joining the Free Church), but Cunningham had successfully insisted that their salaries should be the same as that of the ministers: £80 a year.

And though churches never have all the money they need, the Free Church was not, as has been alleged, in dire need of funds.  It had already shown that it was perfectly capable of funding itself.  When we are told, for example, that £3,000 came from America, and that that would be a huge sum in today’s terms, we have to remember that, within days of the Disruption, contributions to the new church’s Building Fund amounted to £105,000.  Two years later free-will offerings for the building of churches alone had risen to £360,000; and this was only a fraction of the Church’s total income.  Her Sustentation Fund, the brilliant brain-child of Thomas Chalmers, enabled her to pay the stipends of some 500 ministers, while other income funded the building of hundreds of manses and schools, the establishment of overseas missions, two teacher-education colleges (including Moray House), and three theological colleges which quickly became world-leaders in their field. 

All this was done in the face of a Scottish press which constantly lampooned the Free Church leaders and which, even before the Disruption, had been so unanimous in its opposition to the Evangelical Party in the Kirk that they were forced to establish their own newspaper, the Witness, whose brilliant editor, Hugh Miller, is the only Victorian journalist whose name anyone remembers today.


Condemnation of slavery

Frederick Douglass came and went, and so did the slogan, ‘Send back the money.’  The Free Church was not ‘in a stew’ over it, as Douglass alleged; she did not send back the money; the people did not leave her in droves; and the whole episode had no impact in Britain, where slavery (apart from some forms of white slavery) had already been abolished, and even less in America which, but recently independent, was in no mood to be spoken to by churches on this side of the Water.  The only life left in the ‘Send back the money’ story is the life injected into, more or less annually, by those who think it can still embarrass the Free Church; and that, of course, is still a very popular, if futile, Scottish pass-time.

There were probably few within the Free Church itself who were entirely at ease about receiving money from America, because from the outset the Church was unanimous in its condemnation of slavery and in its support of abolition.  William Cunningham hated slavery with his whole soul, publicly shared the views and feelings of abolitionists, and was very much of the view that American churches were not doing enough to bring the system to an end.  They were too inclined, he thought, to shelter behind the principle of the need to tolerate  existing evils.

Nor were these merely the private opinions of Free Church leaders.  As early as March 1844, Dr. R. S. Candlish was a main speaker at a meeting called by Edinburgh Town Council to protest against the sentence of death passed on a young man from South Carolina, John L. Brown, for helping a female slave to escape.  ‘Let us go,’ Candlish declared, ‘subordinating every other consideration of policy or principle, to tell our brethren to let that man go, and to pronounce him, as he is already pronounced by God, wholly innocent and scatheless.’

In the event, the young man was not hanged: there were irresistible representations on his behalf in America itself.  But what is interesting is Candlish’s insistence that no consideration of ‘policy’ should be allowed to come between them and speaking the truth.  If their protest cost them the goodwill (and money) of their American friends, so be it.  But even more noteworthy is that what he pled for was not clemency, but justice.  In the sight of God, the young man was already ‘scatheless:’ in other words, far from being a crime, aiding the escape of a slave was an honourable act. 

At the same time, however, Candlish recalled Britain’s own shameful involvement in the slave trade.  God had given them time for repentance, however, they had availed themselves of the opportunity, they had let the slave go free, and they never had cause to regret it (bear in mind that this was a mere six years after slavery had finally been abolished in the British empire).  ‘God,’ he declared, ‘blessed our repentance; we urge you to make the same trial of his kindness.’

The Free Church never hid such views from their American contacts.  Not all of their  contacts were pro-slavery, of course.  Cunningham’s main American friend and contact was the renowned theologian Charles Hodge and he, like the overwhelming majority of Northern churchmen, was an abolitionist; and even in the South there were abolitionists such as Dr Robert Breckinridge, for whom Cunningham had a profound respect.  On the other hand, the Free Church distanced itself decisively from the views of other distinguished Southern theologians such as James Henley Thornwell, and especially from their argument that slavery as an institution was protected by Scripture.  To this, they replied that the issue was not servitude as such, but slavery as currently practised in America, and all the abhorrent legislation by which it was protected: the status of slaves as ‘property,’ the ban on slaves marrying, the routine breaking-up of the slaves’ family units, and the cruelty of the Fugitive Slaves Act, which not only stipulated draconian punishments for any slave who attempted to escape, but required even the residents of slave-free Northern states to hand back to their owners in the South any escapee they spotted.  

This was the reality: not the Old Testament system whereby Hebrew slaves had to be set free after six years, all slaves had to be freed in the year of Jubilee, and conditions were so humane that a slave might even decline to be freed because he loved his master (Ex. 21:1-6).  Nor was it the sort of relationship that existed between the Christian runaway, Onesimus, and his Christian master, Philemon, whom St. Paul could urge in the most courteous and yet authoritative terms to take the runaway back.  In America (and in pre-1838 British Jamaica), Onesimus would have been flogged to within an inch of his life.

In 1847 the Free Church’s views found formal expression when the General Assembly sent a strongly worded letter to the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church, and the reception given to the letter illustrates the futility of making representations to American institutions on the subject of slavery.  The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland had also sent a letter, but the main debate in the American Assembly was not on the merits of the Scottish and Irish representations, but on whether the letters should be received at all.  Eventually, it was agreed that they should be received, the Assembly then proceeded to authorise an anodyne reply, and thus, records Thornwell, ‘the whole affair passed off very pleasantly.  They [the letters] were very strongly against slavery, but produced no ferment.  Our Assembly returned a very firm, calm and dignified answer to both.’ 

A hundred-and-ninety years later, a dignified defence of slavery is hard to imagine.


Did slave-owners have no choice?

As we have already seen, part of what troubled Free Church spokesmen was that the abolitionist case was not being pressed strongly enough by American churches, even in the North.  But they were also troubled by the plea repeatedly put forward by Christian slave-holders that they had no choice.  Slavery was the law of the land, they said, and protected, by the Constitution (a claim which Douglass rightly disputed).  They had inherited it, and with it they had inherited slaves either as part of their patriarchal estates or as assets for which they had to take responsibility when they purchased a property for themselves.

Candlish addressed such issues in a speech before the Free Church General Assembly in 1847.  The key point in the whole debate, he said, was that slavery is a sin, it followed from this that every slave-owner should be required to explain why he was associated with it, and this applied particularly to everyone who applied for admission as a Communicant member of the church.  If they were slave-owners, they should be asked to explain themselves, and if they gave the excuse that they had no choice, they should be required to explain the circumstances that left them with no choice. They should also be reminded that even if, through no fault of their own, they owned a slave, they had no right to treat him as a slave.  No man could be another man’s property: a fact which clearly implied that no man had a right to deprive another man of his freedom, effectively detaining him under lifelong house-arrest and indentured to hard labour.

 ‘Never, never,’ declared Candlish, ‘let this church, or this country, cease to testify that slavery is sin, and that it must bring down on the sinners, whether they be in Congress assembled, or as individuals throughout the land, the just judgement of Almighty God.’   


Should the Free Church have severed relations with the American churches?

But still the Free Church held a firm line against pressure to sever relations with the Presbyterian churches of the American South.  Chalmers, Cunningham and Candlish all agonised over the question, but they refused to be swayed by public-relations considerations; and they refused, too, to see it reduced to a question about sending back money.  It was, to quote Candlish again, ‘a grave, scriptural, religious question as to the relation that ought to subsist between Christian Churches.’  Besides, any action would have to carry the conscience of the Southern churches as well as the conscience of Scotland; and could they, asked Cunningham, convince these churches, from Scripture, that a man ought to be excommunicated because he owned slaves? or, again on the basis of Scripture, that a church should be un-churched because it refuses to excommunicate slave-holders? 

On the face of things it’s an easy question to answer.  The New Testament church didn’t excommunicate slave-holders.  But I’m still not sure the Church’s answer, severe and painful though it was, was the right one.  The New Testament church was not an apologist for slavery; it welcomed slaves to the Lord’s Table along with their masters; and it stressed the obligations of masters to slaves as firmly as it did the obligations of slaves to masters (Eph. 6:9).  None of this was true of the system which prevailed in the American South, any more than it was true of the system that had prevailed until recently in the British West Indies.  And although the Southern Churches might be held to preach the Evangel in the sense that their pulpits resounded to the doctrines of Reformed Orthodoxy, they had no message of deliverance for the captives (Lk. 4:18).  

Again, the danger was of seeing slavery in the abstract.  It was recognised that even if a man could not be excommunicated for merely owning a slave, he could and should be excommunicated for treating one cruelly.  What was not recognised was that slavery as it then existed was a system of statutory cruelty.  The Southern Presbyterian Church should have condemned that system in no uncertain terms.  They didn’t.  Instead they condoned the cruelty.

Why then did the Free Church not sever relations with these churches?  It is a fair and a troubling question, but several things held it back.  The first of these we have already seen: a deep-seated reluctance to un-church another church.  But there were other considerations, too.  Even within the Southern Churches themselves, there were those like Dr. Robert Breckinridge who continued to raise their voices against slavery.  These voices offered a glimmer of hope, and there was little point in isolating them further.  Furthermore, even if the churches had been persuaded to change their stance, it was clear that it would have made little difference.  In a culture where slavery (and an aversion to the ‘Yankees’ of the North) was so deeply embedded, their voice counted for little.  The only avenue open, the Free Church concluded, was to maintain un-fractured its relationship with the Southern Churches, to continue to remonstrate with them, and at the same time to raise its voice consistently in support of abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic.


Why not press for immediate abolition?

The Free Church did not, however, call for immediate abolition, and this, too, has exposed it to criticism.  Apart from all else, it was a clear departure from the policy of earlier Scottish abolitionists such as Dr. Andrew Thomson (1779-1831), predecessor of Thomas Chalmers as leader of Scotland’s Evangelicals.  Thomson once startled an audience filled with his supporters by declaring that he was not in favour of abolition ‘at the earliest possible opportunity;’ but then (no doubt after a suitably dramatic pause), he added, ‘I am demanding abolition now.'

But there were good reasons for a more nuanced approach.  The South was united in a solid phalanx of opposition to abolition.  Not only would it would it be economically ruinous (as they thought).  It was a breach of their right as Americans to determine their own culture.  But above all, it was clear even to American abolitionists that ‘Abolition now! would mean civil war and the dread prospect of one half of the nation rising up against the other.  In the event that is how abolition did come, twenty years after Douglass’s visit to Scotland: and Hodge, Breckinridge and Thornwell would have to live through it.  From 1861 to 1865 the conflict tore America apart and cost, according to the latest calculations, 750,000 lives: more, it is said, than the nation lost in all subsequent wars put together; and that out of a population of only 31 million.


A spirit of caste

There was a further reason, however, why immediate abolition would not have been the right policy: even twenty years after Douglass’s visit, the slaves were not ready for freedom, with the result that neither the war nor emancipation brought a final solution.  The so-called ‘freedmen’ were in reality far from free and even further from equal; enslavement gave way only to segregation; and the Fugitive Slaves Act gave way only to lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan.  

But grim as these developments were, the issues ran much deeper, as B. B. Warfield highlighted in 1887 in a far-sighted article, ‘A Calm View of the Freedmen’s Case.’

Warfield, a native of Kentucky and grandson of Dr. Robert Breckinridge, was happy to identify as ‘a Southerner, in birth, training, and affiliations,’ but he began his article with the solemn warning that the elevation and integration of its millions of black people was the greatest challenge facing America.  Slavery, he wrote, had left a terrible legacy which few appreciated, and one reason for their failure to appreciate it was that white people imagined slaves as domestic servants working in genteel, and even Christian, environments.  The reality was far different.  The vast majority of slaves had worked on plantations, where conditions were brutal and degrading, and in these circumstances the curse of slavery ate to the very roots of life.  It unfitted a man for freedom; it bred its own morality, designed only to ensure survival; and, above all, it took away from a man all hope of rising above his station, if not to better himself, then to better the lot of his children.  A slave could entertain no such hope and, bereft of it, it was absurd to expect him to elevate himself.  He had the capacity to rise, but the obstacles were too great.  Freedman, he might be, but he  embarked upon his freedom burdened by a weight of ‘prejudice, evil custom, and sad fate.’

But more fundamentally still, slavery had bred ‘a spirit of caste,’ and this was by no means confined to the South.  It existed, said Warfield, in full bloom in the North also, and was so deeply ingrained that people betrayed it even when attempting to deny it.  He recalled, in this connection, a recent church conference where a delegate had risen to defend the church against the charge that its white members had barred members of the coloured race from attending.  It was not so, the man declared.  They would be warmly welcomed, ‘and seats have been assigned for them in all the churches’ (the same practice obtained in apartheid South Africa, where blacks were ‘welcome,’ but assigned to seats marked ‘Visitors.’  I once attended several such churches as a visitor, but I was never shown to such a seat).  And then, sure he had made his point, the speaker added that the only prejudice that would exist was the ‘normal’ prejudice that would exist against any ‘uneducated and unrefined people.’ 

This was exactly the sort of argument used in South Africa: the Blacks were not fit to govern.  But whose fault was that?  And if America’s freedmen were uneducated and unrefined, whose fault was that?  The slavery that broke both the body and the spirit of man and woman and condemned them to statutory illiteracy! 

This ‘spirit of caste’ paralysed every effort to prepare those of African descent to take their rightful place in American society.  Viewed through the eyes of the ‘spirit of caste’ the descendant of a slave ‘should know his place,’ and could not be raised above that place;  viewed through the eyes of the ‘spirit of caste,’ a black man is a ‘little less than a man,’ just as (quoting Psalm 8) a white man is but a little lower than the angels.  Such a spirit was fatal.  Only a society which built on the conviction that God made all races of one blood, and created every human being in his own image, could serve ‘as the hand of the Most High in elevating the lowly and rescuing the oppressed.’  And only that same conviction can eliminate the racism and xenophobia which lurks in every human heart.  


Rosa Parks

That spirit of caste long outlived the Civil War.  One of the most intriguing details in the life of Frederick Douglass is that once, when travelling in Massachusetts in 1841, he was thrown off a train for refusing to sit in a segregated coach.  Over a hundred years later, in December 1955, the same thing happened to Rosa Parks, when an Alabama bus-driver ordered her to give up her seat in the ‘coloured section’ because all the white seats were filled.  Her refusal became a key moment in Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights campaign.

Today, more and more African-Americans are able to rise above the glass-ceiling set by the spirit of caste.  But as they’ve risen, they’ve reflected more and more on the pain suffered by their parents, grandparents and 18th century forebears; and the dumb, hopeless acquiescence of the slave has given way to anger. 

The slave-trade was Africa’s Holocaust.  We can only hope that the children of its survivors will channel their anger wisely.

Yet nothing written in this blog should blind us to the fact that the enslavement of the peoples of Africa was not an invention of America’s, but of Britain’s.  It was we who pioneered the trafficking of men and women in chains from the coasts of Africa to the auction-marts of Alabama and West Virginia; the atrocities committed on the plantations of Mississippi were fully matched by those in the fields of Jamaica; and in these, Scots played a full part.