Continuing my research into Frederick Douglass’s life, 1846 was an incredible year for antislavery in Britain. Douglass, along with many Scottish abolitionists, had created a storm over the Free Church of Scotland and their decision to accept money from slaveholders (see an earlier post on this). This campaign was to have a huge effect on events in London in the summer of 1846…
Members of the Evangelist church across the globe convened in London to form a united organization – the Evangelical Alliance. However, the impact of the Free Church campaign and subsequent antislavery agitation divided the Alliance over the question of slavery and religion. A debate erupted between those in favour of excommunicating slaveholders from the Alliance, and those that were against it. Some men, like the Reverend J.H Hinton denounced the idea slaveholders should be invited, for the religious community could not afford “to prop and bolster up the system of American slavery.” He rebuked those who thought it pointless to debate slavery, stating, “The alliance is divided already.” In reply, an American Reverend S.L. Pomroy argued for a distinction between slavery and the individual – slavery was a sin, but a slaveholder could be a Christian, and it would be wrong to tar them with the same brush.
Frederick Douglass seized upon this indecision. Firstly, he pointed out that the Alliance did not invite Quakers, a religious group who had done much for the abolitionist cause. So why did they invite slaveholders? Secondly, he used the issue to target the American church itself, further exposing and ridiculing the relationship between slavery and Christianity. He argued that the Americans at the Alliance were under control of the churches:
“I do believe the Evangelical Alliance was hoodwinked, that they were misled; I do not think they really understood the matter...It was these reverend doctors [Americans] who led astray the British ministers in the Evangelical Alliance, on this question of slavery; they dared not go home to America as connected with the Alliance, if anything had been registered against slavery by that Alliance; they knew who were their masters, and that they must be uncompromising…” (Frederick Douglass, “Slavery in the Pulpit of the Evangelical Alliance”: An Address Delivered in London, England, September 14 1846)
Some were outraged at Douglass’s comments. A disgusted reader of the Fife Herald wrote:
“…although Mr Frederick should be detained a few years longer in bonds, this reflection ought to console him. That his exertions in the cultivation of coffee are vastly more calculated to benefit himself and his country than those nauseous speeches he is in the habit of addressing to those old women of both sexes, who conscientiously believe negro emancipation in our own colonies was the legitimate consequences of their own privations... It is the duty of all the friends of human freedom, ministers as well as others to unite in any well-concerted political movement which has for its object the abolition of slavery but to excommunicate the individual slave-holders would be on their part an act of persecution…”(Fife Herald, Thursday 14 May, 1846.)
Eventually, the decision was put to a committee, but little became of it. However, this important event highlights the divisive nature of American slavery, something that was not confined to the South. Britain needs to know about this history, as it is a crucial part of British and American transatlantic history.
While in partnership with other organizations across the world, the British Evangelical Alliance still exists today.