Southern Presbyterians, Slavery, The Spirituality of the Church, Abolitionism, Manumission, 625,000 Civil War Dead, and Rev. John Gloucester (1776-1822)

5 Nov

Recently at Oldlife.org Darryl Hart took objection to Michael Horton “taking a swipe at the spirituality of the church”.

This is Hart’s entire piece: http://oldlife.org/2012/10/not-so-fast/

Here is Hart’s statement from that piece (I put the boldface in):

“Postscript: Matt (Tuininga) also summarized Horton’s presentation with these lines about the spirituality of the church:

[Horton] clarified that the two kingdoms doctrine does not amount to a distinction between material and immaterial things but between the present age and the age to come. For that reason he rejected versions of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church that have been used to argue that the church should not speak out against patent evils like the racial slavery of the Antebellum South.

This is the second time within the last month or so that Mike has taken a swipe at the spirituality of the church. Without getting into a lengthy discussion, I would try to correct this assertion by noting that the reason some Presbyterians did not speak out against slavery was not to preserve the spirituality of the church. The reason was that Paul and Jesus and Abraham and Moses did not speak out against slavery. Whether or not Presbyterians read the Bible correctly, they were starting with Scripture and from that followed the spirituality of the church — as in the church may not speak where the Bible is silent. It is the same idea that led and leads some Presbyterians to oppose the church’s support for the Eighteenth Amendment and the church’s ban on women serving in the military.”

Here is the link that Hart refers to: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2012/10/12/christ-is-lord-of-all/

And here is the segment (written by Horton) that I think Hart objected to:

“One of the places where I found the book (Timothy Keller’s “Center Church”) especially thought-provoking was his engagement with various approaches to Christ and culture—especially transformationalism, pietism, and two kingdoms.  I still would demur with a couple of his descriptions of the “two kingdoms” perspective, but I think he does point out helpfully that this view is no more monolithic than other positions.  I also share some of his concerns about how the model can be used to justify unfaithful witness—as in the way that it was used by Southern Presbyterians (under the rubric of the “spirituality of the church”) to justify slavery.”

This morning I read a really interesting entry in the “Dictionary of the Presbyterian & Reformed Tradition in America” on a man I had never heard of named John Gloucester (1776-1822). I’ll type out the entire entry (which is painful) because it is so good:

“Presbyterian minister and founder of the first African-American Presbyterian church. Born a slave in Kentucky and converted by the preaching of a Presbyterian minister, Gideon Blackburn. Gloucester began to receive training for the ministry when Blackburn purchased him and took him to his home in Tennessee for instruction in Presbyterian divinity. After Gloucester preached to the nearby Cherokees, Blackburn advocated in 1807 that the Presbytery of Union license him to preach. At the same time, Archibald Alexander, then pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, who met Gloucester at the 1807 general assembly, asked him to go North for the purpose of serving in the Evangelical Society, an agency that evangelized blacks in Alexander’s hometown. Blackburn agreed to free Gloucester to comply with Alexander’s request. Gloucester’s preaching led in May 1807 to the organization of the First African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. he was finally licensed to preach in 1810 by the Presbytery of Union and a year later transferred his credentials to the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

In addition to pastoral duties and overseeing a sabbath school and a day school, Gloucester traveled frequently to raise funds for the manumission (freeing) of his wife and four children. In 1818 he went as far as England to secure the remainder of the fifteen hundred dollars he needed. His trip was successful, and upon his return to Philadelphia he was reunited with his family. Gloucester’s two sons, Stephen and James, followed in their father’s footsteps, the former founding the Central Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia in 1844 and the latter organizing the Siloam Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn in 1849. Gloucester’s admirers remembered him as an excellent preacher and an even better singer. Consumption (tuberculosis) contributed to his death.”

Now as everyone knows the question of slavery in America was ultimately decided by the U.S. Civil War — a conflict that led to roughly 625,000 deaths (according to Wikipedia). The story of Blackburn & Gloucester, however, points to another way that slavery might have been dealt with. Here is a paragraph on “manumission” from the Wikipedia article on “Abolitionism”:

Manumission by owners

“After 1776, Quaker and Moravian advocates helped persuade numerous slaveholders in the Upper South to free their slaves. Manumissions increased for nearly two decades. Many individual acts of manumission freed thousands of slaves. Slaveholders freed slaves in such number that the percentage of free Negroes in the Upper South increased sharply from one to ten percent, with most of that increase in VirginiaMaryland andDelaware. By 1810 three-quarters of blacks in Delaware were free. The most notable of individuals was Robert Carter III of Virginia, who freed more than 450 people by “Deed of Gift”, filed in 1791. This number was more slaves than any single American had freed or would ever free.[39] Often slaveholders came to their decisions by their own struggles in the Revolution; their wills and deeds frequently cited language about the equality of men supporting their manumissions. Slaveholders were also encouraged to do so because the economics of the area was changing. They were shifting from labor-intensive tobacco culture to mixed crop cultivation and did not need as many slaves.[40]

The free black families began to thrive, together with African Americans free before the Revolution, mostly descendants of unions between working class white women and African men.[41] By 1860, in Delaware 91.7 percent of the blacks were free, and 49.7 percent of those in Maryland. These first free families often formed the core of artisans, professionals, preachers and teachers in future generations.[40]

Now I do not claim to be an expert on the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church or how the doctrine was employed rightly or wrongly by Southern Presbyterian Churches. The story of Blackburn & Gloucester makes me think that there might have been another way to deal with slavery, however, and that perhaps Southern Presbyterians had more going for them than 21st century critics are willing or able to admit.

Oh, and who wrote that Dictionary entry on the Rev. John Gloucester back in 1999? Darryl Hart did, of course.

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