The Slave Owning Presbyterian Church in Old Virginia
Leben: A Journal of Reformation Life|January - March 2016

In her new book “Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-1860,” Bloomsburg University historian Jennifer Oast examines the largely untold story of southern institutions that owned slaves, including church congregations, universities, free schools, and large industries. This excerpt 1 from Institutional Slavery takes us into the surreal world of slave-owning Presbyterian congregations in Prince Edward County, Virginia.

Jennifer Oast

In 1766, the Presbyterian dissenters of Prince Edward County in Virginia, a group of prosperous farmers and tradesmen, confronted a serious problem. They had difficulty retaining a minister for their church, Briery Presbyterian, in part because they had so little to offer as a salary. Virginia Presbyterianism emerged as an important evangelical rival to Anglicanism— the established church —in the mid-eighteenth century. Before the American Revolution, religious dissenters like

the Presbyterians were still required to tithe to the Anglican parish in which they lived. The parish vestry employed these tithes to support the minister of the Church of England, maintain the parish church buildings, and care for the poor, but nothing was set aside to support dissenting groups like the Presbyterians. Therefore, the leaders of Briery Presbyterian, many of whom were slave owners, looked to their own experience, as well as the example of other early Virginia institutions, to find a solution to their church’s financial constraints. They decided to raise money through subscription for a permanent endowment which would be invested in slaves. The annual hire of these church-owned slaves, “and their increase … forever hereafter,” would pay the minister’s salary and fund other needs of the church, such as building maintenance. 2 For the next one hundred years, the members of Briery Presbyterian were the beneficiaries of the labor of these slaves and their descendants.

The Briery congregants were not the only Presbyterians to use slavery to benefit their church; other Virginia Presbyterian churches were following the same path in the second half of the eighteenth century, particularly in the area surrounding Hampden-Sydney College, the Presbyterians’ first institution of higher education in Virginia. All of these Presbyterian congregations were following the example set by Anglican parishes, as well as that of other institutions, such as free schools and colleges, in using corporate slave ownership to benefit their organizations. The case of slave-owning Presbyterian churches is a significant variant of institutional slavery because it created significant controversy in some of the congregations which owned slaves in the nineteenth century. While this practice reflected the larger slave society around them, slave-owning by the congregations was opposed by varying degrees by some of the members and ministers. It was, however, so deeply embedded in Presbyterian culture and economy by the antebellum period that it was very hard for many churches to rid themselves of the practice despite the controversy. Nonetheless, there are few examples of other slaveholding institutions questioning their ownership of slaves in the way that the Presbyterians did in the nineteenth century.

Soon after the close of the American Revolution, antislavery Presbyterians attempted to fight the institution within the church. In May 1787, for example, a committee at a meeting of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, the highest governing body for the Presbyterian Church in the United States during this period, urged “in the warmest terms to every member of their body and to all the Churches and families under their care, to do every thing in their power consistent with the rights of civil Society to promote the abolition of Slavery, and the instruction of Negroes whether bond or free.” 3 The committee’s proposal, however, was deemed too strong. The statement on slavery that the synod approved was thoroughly watered down. While it saluted “the general principles in favor of universal Liberty that prevail in America; and the interest which many of the States have taken in promoting the abolition of Slavery,” it called on Presbyterians only to prepare their slaves for eventual freedom by educating them and to give those slaves who seemed capable of self-government the opportunity to buy their own freedom “at a moderate rate.” The revised statement concluded with a recommendation that members “use the most prudent measures consistent with the interests & the state of civil Society … to procure eventually the final abolition of Slavery in America.” 4 Incapable of calling for an immediate end to slavery, the national Presbyterian Church struck a careful tone in its resolution, attempting to appease both northern and southern members.

In the late eighteenth century, the proslavery movement within the Presbyterian Church continued to strengthen, particularly in the South. For example, in 1795 the church leadership refused to discipline slave-owning members but rather advised Presbyterians to “live in charity and peace” with each other despite differences over slavery. 5 The conflict was inevitable, though; many individuals, both inside and outside of the South, had come to believe that slavery was wrong, due to the influence of Revolutionary rhetoric that said all men were equal, as well as Great Awakening ideas that the souls of all men and women were equally precious in the sight of God. The presence of slaves as church members may also have influenced many white Presbyterians to oppose slavery.

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The Slave Owning Presbyterian Church in Old Virginia

In her new book “Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-1860,” Bloomsburg University historian Jennifer Oast examines the largely untold story of southern institutions that owned slaves, including church congregations, universities, free schools, and large industries. This excerpt 1 from Institutional Slavery takes us into the surreal world of slave-owning Presbyterian congregations in Prince Edward County, Virginia.

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