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A History of American Christianity by Bacon

Or captivity should ever be in the colony


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It will be a matter of growing interest, as we proceed, to trace the relation of the American church to negro slavery.

It is a curious fact, not without some later analogies, that the introduction into the New World of this "direful spring of woes unnumbered" was promoted, in the first instance, by the good Las Casas, as the hopeful preventive of a worse evil. Touched by the spectacle of whole tribes and nations of the Indians perishing under the cruel servitude imposed upon them by the Spanish, it seemed to him a less wrong to transfer the infliction of this injustice to shoulders more able to bear it. But "man's inhumanity to man" needed no pretext of philanthropy. From the landing of the Dutch ship at Jamestown in 1619, with her small invoice of fourteen negroes, the dismal trade went on increasing, in spite of humane protest and attempted prohibition. The legislature of Massachusetts, which was the representative of the church, set forth what it conceived to be the biblical ethics on the subject. Recognizing that "lawful captives taken in just wars" may be held in bondage, it declared among its earliest public acts, in 1641, that, with this exception, no involuntary bond-slavery, villeinage, or captivity should ever be in the colony; and in 1646 it took measures for returning to Africa negroes who had been kidnapped by a slaver. It is not strange that reflection on the golden rule should soon raise doubts whether the precedents of the Book of Joshua had equal authority with the law of Christ. In 1675 John Eliot, from the midst of his work among the Indians, warned the governor against the sale of Indians taken in war, on the ground that "the selling of souls is dangerous merchandise," and "with a bleeding and burning passion" remonstrated against "the abject condition of the enslaved Africans." In 1700 that typical Puritan, Judge Samuel Sewall, published his pamphlet on "The Selling of Joseph," claiming for the negroes the rights of brethren, and predicting that there would be "no progress in gospeling" until slavery should be abolished. Those were serious days of antislavery agitation, when Cotton Mather, in his "Essays to Do Good," spoke of the injustice of slavery in terms such that his little book had to be expurgated by the American Tract Society to accommodate it to the degenerate conscience of a later day, and when the town of Boston in 1701 took measures "to put a period to negroes being slaves." Such endeavors after universal justice and freedom, on the part of the Christians of New England, thwarted by the insatiable greed of British traders and politicians, were not to cease until, with the first enlargement of independence, they should bring forth judgment to victory.

The voice of New England was echoed from Pennsylvania. The Mennonites of Germantown, in 1688, framed in quaint and touching language their petition for the abolition of slavery, and the Quaker yearly meetings responded one to another with unanimous protest. But the mischief grew and grew. In the Northern colonies the growth was stunted by the climate. Elsewhere the institution, beginning with the domestic service of a few bondmen attached to their masters' families, took on a new type of malignity as it expanded. In proportion as the servile population increases to such numbers as to be formidable, laws of increasing severity are directed to restraining or repressing it. The first symptoms of insurrection are followed by horrors of bloody vengeance, and "from that time forth the slave laws have but one quality--that of ferocity engendered by fear."[153:1] It was not from the willful inhumanity of the Southern colonies, but from their terrors, that those slave codes came forth which for nearly two centuries were the shame of America and the scandal of Christendom. It is a comfort to the heart of humanity to reflect that the people were better than their laws; it was only at the recurring periods of fear of insurrection that they were worse. In ordinary times human sympathy and Christian principle softened the rigors of the situation. The first practical fruits of the revival of religion in the Southern colonies were seen in efforts of Christian kindness toward the souls and bodies of the slaves.


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