Slavery and Abolition

It was also in the 1840s that the records mention that Hanover had several black members. Mrs. Adelaide Thomas, referred to as a “colored woman” in the minutes, was admitted to membership on certificate from the First African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. It is of interest to note that, much earlier in Hanover’s history, in 1802, the Trustees appointed a committee to find a suitable lot for a burial ground. One was purchased in July 1802. On April 26, 1806, there was a meeting of the congregation, and it was decided “by a large majority” that “no Black person could be buried in the burying ground.” It was also agreed that “if necessary for the few Blacks that attended this Church, the Church would be willing to purchase a small corner for burying them.”

Throughout the first half of the 19th century the free black population of Delaware continued to grow, and by 1850 the state had the largest percentage of free black residents of any state. This same period saw the founding of several black churches and denominations in Delaware. While we do not find reference to the abolition movement in Hanover’s records, we do have evidence that one Presbyterian minister was a significant pioneer in the movement to abolish slavery. Rev. John W. Christie, in his book George Bourne and the Book of Slavery Irreconcilable, states that Rev. Bourne preached that slavery was a sin against God and in violation of the Bible. Rev. Bourne became a minister in Virginia and refused communion to slave holders. He denounced them as “man stealers.” For his stand, he was placed on trial by the church and was deposed. He is credited with having been the first person to call immediate abolition and he was considered the source of inspiration for the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. 

Many Presbyterians were active in the anti-slavery movement. Theodore Sedgwick Wright (1797-1847), the first black to graduate from an American theological seminary (Princeton, in 1828), worked tirelessly for the abolitionist cause. He pastored Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York, for 20 years, and was active in the temperance movement and African mission endeavors. At the 1837 Convention of the Anti-Slavery Society, he stated, “The principle of recognizing all men as brethren, is the point which touches the community. It is an easy thing to ask about the vileness of slavery, but to treat the man of color in all circumstances as a man and brother — that is the test.”

Most abolitionists came of age in the Second Great Awakening and participated in the reform movements it spawned. Slavery was an easy target for social reformers, especially those from evangelical ranks. Lyman Beecher, Charles Finney, and Albert Barnes, the most well-known Presbyterian anti-slavery agitators, were all accused of and faced ecclesiastical trials for perfectionist heresies. Albert Barnes, in a important exchange with Frederick Ross, a Southern Presbyterian leader who argued that the Bible condoned slavery, stated that slavery violated the “spirit of love” found in the New Testament. “The instinctive feeling in every man’s bosom is a condemnation of it.” Given his emphasis on ethics and instinctive human feeling and what was viewed as his wavering commitment to the Scripture, he was deposed from the ministry in 1835.

The Presbyterian ambivalence about abolition was reflected in much of the sentiment in Delaware — at least in northern Delaware — in the decades before the Civil War. By 1850 the state had a population of 91,532, of whom 18,073 were free Negroes and 2,290 were slaves, meaning that the number of slaves in the state had decreased by 75 percent since the first federal census in 1790. Delaware had not allowed the importation of slaves for more than 50 years, and Delaware Quakers and others had been involved in helping thousands of slaves flee the South via the Underground Railroad.

But many Americans who were opposed to slavery in principle were also opposed to abolition. They believed that freeing the slaves would create serious social and economic disruption, especially in the South, or argued that slavery was a local issue, and that the abolitionists had no business meddling in the affairs of other parts of the country. In the 1860 national election the pro-slavery candidate received about 46 percent of the Delaware vote, but carried the state because the rest of the vote was split among the three anti-slavery candidates. When a decision had to be made between Secession and Union, however, Delaware supported the Union.

Previous | Next