No. 48  June 2005
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Dissent within New Jersey churches over abolition

In 1849 Reverend Robert Landis of the Bethlehem Presbyterian church in Hunterdon County was dismissed owing to his inveterate opposition to slavery. The congregation wanted a minister who would “stick to Christ and Him crucified,” according to the church's accounts. A significant portion of the state is actually below the Mason-Dixon Line, and slave holding was still common in many parts of the state. The agitation over abolition throughout the north was to roil many congregations before war settled the issue; it would result in schisms in the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. Sometimes the disputes within the congregations resulted in the departure of the minister, as it did in the Old Paramus Reformed church in Ridgewood and the Hilltop Presbyterian church in Mendham, but it occasionally ended with the withdrawal of a portion of the congregation and the erection of another church of the same denomination in the vicinity, as was apparently the case in Trenton (Trinity Methodist), Morristown (South Street Presbyterian) and probably Dover (Grace Methodist). In this issue I'd like to provide some context for the issue, and note a couple of the Jersey congregations that were affected.
      I have noted in previous issues the impact of the Hicksite schism within the Quaker church, the conflicts between the Old Lights and New Lights in the Presbyterian church, the differing interpretations of scripture that caused Baptists to hive off and found new sects. What was of considerable significance for this state—the unwillingness of several Connecticut Congregational churches to accept the Halfway Covenant— led directly to the founding of Newark, Elizabeth, Woodbridge and other early towns. Indeed, dissent, heresies and schisms within the Church of England in the seventeenth century gave rise to the Society of Friends, the Methodists, and the Puritans (among others). What is less well understood, however, was the impact of slavery on schisms with the Christian communities, between northern and southern wings of the major denominations, surely, but also among congregations themselves here in New Jersey.
     Let's put the issue of religion and slave holding during the early colonial period into a larger perspective. Most ancient, medieval and modern religions sanctioned slave holding, and Christianity was no exception. Many English settlers, however, equated Christianity with freedom rather than enslavement; a seventeenth century English writer expressed the sentiments of many when he wrote that Christians would not “make or keepe his brother in Christ, service, bond or underling for ever unto him, as a beast rather than as a man.” If those sentiments caused some unease, they did little to deter the practice of slave trading and slave holding among English (and Dutch) colonists. There was some concern, however, that baptizing slaves might entitle them to a measure of freedom. The Anglican church responded vigorously (especially in the south), assuring slaveholders that slave baptisms did not compromise ownership.
     On this matter, the Quakers came to a different conclusion. John Woolman of Mount Holly led the fight within the Friends to abolish slave holding, and Quakers expelled slave holding members in 1776. The fledgling Methodist church adopted similar measures in 1784, but that discipline was progressively relaxed in areas where slave holding was strong. Baptists had a similar history of forceful aversion to slave holding during the Revolutionary period, but subsequently demonstrated a steady accommodation with Southern views and practices. By 1837 southern churchmen were increasingly saying that ”slavery was a positive good.” For some it was a political issue, not a religious one.
     The Presbyterian church resolved that “we have no right, as a church, to enjoin slavery as a duty or to condemn it as a sin,” and by 1837 the Old School Presbyterians, largely concentrated in the South, suppressed discussion of the issue and averted an open break with the rest of the church until seccession. In Ohio and nearby states, some formed a short-lived Presbyterian Free Church Synod, but the main body itself did not split until 1857 . . . and it remains split, with southern members belonging to the Presbyterian Church of the United States.
     By 1843 there were 1,200 Methodist ministers and preachers who owned about 1,500 slaves, and 25,000 members who were slaveholders. Most, but by no means all of them were concentrated in the southern states. The Wesleyan Methodist church was organized in the north by anti-slavery congregations seceding from the Methodist church, and in 1848 the slavery issue led to a Plan of Separation; it was approved, splitting Methodists into northern and southern organizations. They were not reunited for more than a century, which is why it is now called the United Methodist Church. As one would expect, in the north most Methodist congregations by that time were opposed to slavery and many were open advocates of abolition. The Baptists exhibited a similar progression; in 1845 one group formed the Southern Baptist Convention, which persists to this day.
     There are undoubtedly additional congregations in the state that split over the issue; Monmouth, Bergen and Somerset counties in particular had a significant number of slaves (and presumably, slaveowners) even into the 1830s, so we should expect to find more divided congregations. I would appreciate learning about them.

Most of the information for this article came from Sydney Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People, 2nd edition. (Yale, 2004) and from Jon Butler's, Awash in a Sea of Faith, (Harvard, 1990). The churches pictured, from top to bottom: Bethlehem Presbyterian church, Union Township; Hilltop Presbyterian church, Mendham; Mount Holly Friends meetinghouse; South Street Presbyterian church, Morristown. The day after this article first appeared I had an email from Richard Cawthorn who is Chief Architectural Historian for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He called my attention to some information about the schism in the Presbyterian church that may have wider interest. He wrote:

To update you on one matter -- the Presbyterian Church, US (PCUS) (the "Southern" Presbyterian Church) and the United Presbyterian Church, USA (UPCUSA) (the "Northern" Presbyterian Church) reunited in the 1970s to form the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). The reunited denomination has a reputation, in some circles, as being a "liberal" church, so some of the more conservative congregations of the PCUS began to withdraw even before the merger, and more afterwards, and formed a new Presbyterian organization called the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). According to the listings of active congregations on the web sites of the both national bodies, numbers of Presbyterian congregations in Mississippi are about evenly split between PCUSA and PCA, with about 110 of each. There are also a few Mississippi congregations of some smaller Presbyterian groups -- the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. I haven't checked the PCUSA and PCA web sites for listing of churches in New Jersey, but I would expect most of the New Jersey Presbyterian churches to be USA congregations, with perhaps a few scattered PCA congegations, and perhaps a few Cumberland or ARP as well.

Mr. Cawthorn also suggested that I add an index for these articles to make them more accessible to readers, which I have done. Note the link in the left-hand column, above.

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Copyright 2005 Frank L. Greenagel