“Social Intercourse Irrespective of Color”: Lyman Beecher and the Lane Seminary “Rebellion” of 1834

Lyman Beecher

Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) was “one of the most prominent and powerful evangelical Protestant religious leaders” in his day (J. Earl Thompson, “Lyman Beecher’s Long Road to Conservative Abolitionism,” Church History 42.1 (1973), 90). Beecher was a Presbyterian minister in Connecticut, and Boston, Massachusetts, and in 1832 became the president of Lane Seminary, a Presbyterian school in Cincinnati. Beecher was involved in a number of evangelical social reform movements, especially Sabbatarianism and the temperance movement, and his endorsement was coveted:

“Being one of the most prominent and powerful evangelical Protestant religious leaders, his endorsement of moral causes was highly coveted and assiduously cultivated and gave them an aura of legitimacy, respectability and urgency.”

Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 109.

Thompson highlights the white Christian nationalism at the heart of Beecher, and other evangelicals, reform efforts:

“Many historians have pointed out that he and most evan­gelical Protestants of his generation yearned for the millennial age of spiritual purity, material abundance, democratic freedoms and socio-political tranquility and that they dreaded any individual, group or institution that threatened to delay or block it. But what has been neglected almost altogether is that these Protestants perceived this halcyon era to be tantamount to the triumph of white evangelical Protestantism in America… Beecher’s goal was the ascendancy of white evangelical Protestantism in a predominately white America.” 

Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,”90.

Slavery

How did the issue of slavery fit into Beecher’s vision of a Christian America? Beecher was personally opposed to slavery, and believed it to be a sin. However, in spite of the fact that the population of enslaved people in the United States increased over 30% (from 1.5 million to over 2 million) between 1820 and 1830, Beecher was naively optimistic that slavery would inevitable decline and disappear from American culture (see J. David Hacker, “From ‘20. and Odd’ to 10 Million: The Growth of the Slave Population in the United States,” Slavery & Abolition 41.4 (2020), 13).

At an 1834 Colonization meeting in Cincinnati, Beecher said this:

“There can be no doubt that slavery, through the world, is destined to cease.” 

“Dr. Beecher’s Address”  The African Repository and Colonial Journal (American Colonization Society, 1834), 279.

Additionally, Beecher did not see a place for free Black people in American society, and endorsed the colonizationist dream of sending all freed Black people back to Africa as “missionaries. Thompson describes the way abolitionists viewed Beecher: 

“From the abolitionists’ perspective Beecher’s notion of the corporate guilt of slavery and his appeal to mild reforming methods were merely verbal camouflage concealing his deficient sense of moral urgency about and his lack of empathy for the plight of the slaves.”

Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 93.

Lane Seminary

Lane Seminary

The conflict between Beecher’s moderate opposition to slavery and the more urgent efforts of the “immediate abolitionists” reached the national stage in 1834, just two years after he assumed the presidency of Lane Seminary. That year a number of anti-slavery students had joined the seminary (including Theodore Dwight Weld), had organized debates on “immediate abolition” versus colonization, and had subsequently formed a student anti-slavery society. Not content merely to discuss these issues, the students took to the streets of Cincinnati to put their ideas into action:

“It was only after they plunged into missionary work among the freedmen of Cin­cinnati, which also involved frequent social contacts with them—visiting, eating and boarding with them—that the Lane educator became upset and unsure of his proteges. Just as the town’s respectable white citizens became enraged by the missionaries’ practicing ‘immediate intercourse irrespective of color,’ so Beecher was also repelled by this doctrine and offended by his students’ re­fusal to give up their style of evangelism.”

Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 100.

The faculty met with the students repeatedly and asked them to stop. Eventually the faculty and trustees disbanded the anti-slavery society, and a large group of students withdrew from the school and went down the road to Oberlin College instead. The whole incident is a case study of the white, northern, paternalistic racism in some of the conservative “anti-slavery” circles, and has been much written about. However, what I have not seen much attention to (though some, like Thompson, mention it briefly) is the main point of contention at the heart of the whole dispute: “social intercourse irrespective of color.”

“The Evils Which Its Existence Occasioned”

In shutting down the society, the faculty had complained of “the evils which its existence occasioned” (“Statement of the Faculty Concerning the Late Difficulties in the Lane Seminary,” 33). The faculty sought to clarify why they had shut down the society: not because of abolitionism per se, but because of “the spirit and manner of doing a few things not necessary to the prosperity of the society itself, against the advice of the faculty, and reckless of the consequences in doing violence to public sentiment” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 34). What were these “few things” and their “consequences”?

The main issue, which the faculty emphasized over and over, was “social intercourse” with Black people, or, in Thompson’s words, “treating blacks as equals with dignity and respect” (“Beecher’s Long Road,” 100):

“In the discussions preceding the organization of the society, the doctrine of social intercourse according to character, irrespective of color, was strenuously advocated, and the knowledge of this opinion of the students became extensive in the city, and it was not long before reports multiplied, that they were beginning to put their doctrine in practice. These reports, greatly amplified, appeared, on examination, to originate in the fact, that an influential member of the anti-slavery society, weary with lecturing and too much indisposed to return to the seminary, accepted the proffered hospitality of a respectable colored family to pass the night with them, and that one of the teachers of a colored school, a member of the Abolition Society, and till recently a member of the seminary, boarded in a colored family.”

“Statement of the Faculty,” 36.

Manisha Sinha describes the activities of the students:

Contact with African Americans made the Lane rebels even more committed to immediatism and against colonization. Their activities caused an uproar, and school authorities sought to ban discussion of slavery. Two of the students, Augustus Wattles and Marius Robinson, began to teach full-time in black schools. Weld never forgot his experience with black Cincinnatians, many of whom had bought themselves out of slavery and continued to scrape money together to buy friends and families. Recounting their stories, he ‘was forced to stop from sheer heart-ache and agony.'”

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause, 242.

The trustees and faculty could not abide this. They were perfectly fine with efforts to “help” Black people…:

On this occasion the students were convened, and the reports in circulation and the state of public feeling were explained to them by the faculty, and the belief was expressed that, without offence to the community or injury to the seminary, the colored people might be instructed in common schools, and Sabbath schools, and lectures, and by any missionary labors, among them, necessary for their best good…

…so long as that help was meted out from a proper distance:

…provided they abstained from the apparent intention of carrying the doctrine of intercourse into practical effect. That this, in our belief, would not be endured by the community, and would be resisted in a manner which would render it impossible to protect either them or the institution. 

“Statement of the Faculty,” 36.

The faculty tried to pressure students to stop associating so closely with Black people:

These considerations were pressed upon the attention of an influential member of the Abolition Society, who had been especially instrumental in the establishment of the schools, and he was requested to exert his influence to change the residence of the instructor, and to prevent that kind of intercourse, which would offend the community and injure the seminary.

“Statement of the Faculty,” 36.

The “influential member” was likely Weld. In his autobiography, Beecher describes the scene:

“When they founded colored schools,” said Dr. Beecher, “ I conversed with Weld repeatedly, and pointed out these things. Said I, you are taking just the course to defeat your own object, and prevent yourself from doing good. If you want to teach colored schools, I can fill your pockets with money; but if you will visit in colored families, and walk with them in the streets, you will be overwhelmed.” 

Lyman Beecher, Autobiography, Correspondence, Etc., of Lyman Beecher, D.D., vol. II (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1866), 325.

The “influential student” pushed back: 

In reply, he justified the boarding of white instructors in colored families, as indispensable to secure the confidence of that injured people and do them good. That any reference to color, in social intercourse, was an odious and sinful prejudice, and that some action, in advance of public sentiment, was necessary to put it down.

“Statement of the Faculty,” 36–37.

A further bit of trouble and controversy involved the Lane students associating with Black women in public:

The next excitement was caused by a visit paid to the seminary by several female colored persons, in a carriage, and the marked attention said to have been paid to them by the students. In this case, also, the public excitement was greatly increased by various exaggerations and misrepresentations of the fact.

“Statement of the Faculty,” 37.

And further, a seminary student walked with a Black woman as they travelled to their respective destinations:

Sometime after this, a new excitement was created by the walking of the instructor, who boarded in a colored family, with a colored female to the seminary or its vicinity, and returning in like manner. It was said that their meeting on the road was accidental, and that the young gentleman merely complied with her request to be directed to some place with which she was not acquainted. But they returned to the city in the same manner, and it was regarded by the community as part of a settled design to carry into effect the scheme of equalization.

“Statement of the Faculty,” 37.

Again, the faculty tried to convince the seminary students to stop this practice of “immediate intercourse irrespective of color”: 

About this time the dissatisfaction in the community became so great, as to induce the faculty to convene and address the students once more… they were distinctly notified that it was the doctrine and practice of immediate intercourse irrespective of color, which provoked the community, and arrayed its rising indignation against them and the seminary… and that if they persisted in their course with the distinct admonition and high moral certainty of these amplified and exasperating measures, they would be accountable for all the mischief which they produced; and that a continuance of this course would be, in our opinion, intolerable and ruinous.

“Statement of the Faculty,” 37–38)

What were these “intolerable and ruinous” effects on the seminary? One was fundraising:

Lane Seminary … is in its infancy, and has a character yet to form, confidence to earn, and funds for its complete endowment to collect; its patrons, past and to come, are deeply committed on both sides of this question [of slavery].

“Statement of the Faculty,” 35.

Another consequence was the affect on recruiting Southern students. In their response to the students, the faculty complained that the anti-slavery society “repelled the accession of southern and western students” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 43). Several years later, Beecher was able to reassure an Old School Presbyterian leader in Virginia, in an 1840 recruitment letter: 

“Our trustees and faculty are not abolitionists—and our students are conservatives rather than ultra and young men from the south will not be annoyed here or disqualified for usefulness at home.’” 

Vincent Harding, “ Lyman Beecher and the Transformation of American Protestantism” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Chicago, 1965), p. 624, n. 1.—cited in Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 105 n. 97.

The “interests” of the seminary, both in terms of fundraising and enrollment, meant that pro-slavery patrons could not be provoked by the outrageous behavior of students in promoting anti-slavery and living out the principles of equality in the city of Cincinnati. When push came to shove, Beecher’s personal “anti-slavery” sentiments were pushed aside in light of these more compelling interest of the school.

The Students’ Response

Theodore Dwight Weld

The students met to consider the recommendations of the faculty to cease their activities, and responded with their own report. They outlined what the anti-slavery society had done in its official capacity, and what members had done “as individuals.” As individuals, they had done four things: 

1st. Engaged in instructing in the elements of science and in religion, the colored population of Cincinnati. 

2d. Written for the newspapers. 

3d. Avowed opposition to the principles of the American Colonization Society. 

4th. Visited, eaten, and boarded with colored people.

“Statement of the Faculty,” 39.

They agreed with the faculty that it was especially Number 4 that had incited the opposition of the community:

“But the great stone of stumbling to the community seems to be found in the fact, that some of our number have associated with the colored people upon terms of equality, have visited and eaten with them ; and, especially, that an individual, late a member of this institution, in the course of his missionary operations, has boarded in a colored family.” 

“Statement of the Faculty,” 39.

The students defended this practice at length, and their reply provides a great contrast to the more blatant paternalism of their faculty:

But as the measure, to which he [that student] has resorted, involves a principle of action, to which the faculty have called our attention, the frankness which we mean to manifest, forbids that we should conceal our sentiments upon this point, especially as such a perfect unanimity of sentiment obtains among us. The following considerations have had great weight with your committee: 

1st. The objection is unintelligent and founded in prejudice. 

2d. Public sentiment upon this subject is partial. It is found essential to success in all foreign missions, for the teachers to associate intimately with the people they instruct. It is essential to the gaining of that confidence, without which all efforts to good will fail in time to come, as they have in time past. The same thing, which so scandalizes the public here, is practised without reproach at Liberia upon similar communities ; nay, it is even commended by the same public who condemn it in our brother.

3d. He, whose example it is our business and our glory to imitate, once suffered detriment to his popularity by ‘sitting at meat with publicans and sinners.’ Surely their condition and the estimation with which they were regarded, gave them no advantage over the African race. Surely their color would have been a bar to free intercourse, with such as hold the sentiments of the Caucasians of this generation.

If he, who was harmless, undefiled, and thus separate from sinners, did nevertheless associate with those whose hearts were stained with sin, we are ashamed to claim his image, and then shut in our social sympathies from the children of God, because their skins independently of volition, absorb the rays of the sun.

It is fundamental to our principles to treat men according to their character without respect to condition or complexion. Thus we have learned the law of love. Thus we would act against the pride of caste. Thus we would practise as we preach—the only mode to get credit for sincerity or to influence others.

“Statement of the Faculty,” 40.

The students concluded their report with a number of formal resolutions, including this:

Resolved, That we cannot censure the practice of our members in eating, visiting, and boarding in colored families, on any principle of religion or of reason.

“Statement of the Faculty,” 41)

The faculty considered this report by the students in the anti-slavery society to have an “ungracious aspect” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 41).

Immediate Action

The term ended, and students went on summer vacation. The faculty had been willing to wait and hope that the controversy (like slavery itself) would fizzle out over time. However, in contrast with the issue of “immediate abolition,” they soon found themselves pressed to immediate action regarding the anti-slavery society:

“During the vacation, and in the absence of a majority of the faculty, events occurred which brought upon the executive committee, the necessity in their judgment of immediate action. The urgency of this necessity was greatly increased during their attention to the subject, by another visit to the seminary, of a carriage of colored persons. This augmented greatly the public exasperation, and occasioned, as the committee believed, a necessity for suspending the Abolition Society in the institution. 

“Statement of the Faculty,” 42. 

Again, the faculty repeated, the main problem with the society was not their ideas; the suspension of the society “had in its origin no reference at all to the rights of discussion and free inquiry, or to the question of abolition as right or wrong, expedient or inexpedient, or to the rights of the students to associate for the discussion and the propagation of abolition principles” (“Statement of the Faculty,” 42).

Rather, the problem was their direct association with Black people:

…there was a frequency and familiarity of intercourse between the students and the colored families of the city, which was on some accounts inconvenient to them, and occasioned animadversions, which we cannot repeat, but which subjected the students to ridicule, and were derogatory to the dignity and propriety, which ought ever to characterize young men who are in preparation for the ministry. These attentions of the young men to the colored people of the city, were also reciprocated with great frequency at the institution, and by invitations to dine with the students and other marked attentions, they were encouraged to come ; and these things, which were done, with the amplifications and invidious insinuations to which they gave occasion, went out over the city and over the West, and rendered the institution an object of intolerable odium and indignation. 

“Statement of the Faculty,” 42.

The faculty again made themselves very clear: 

And if, at any time, the committee or the trustees have spoken of abolition in terms of strong aversion, or expressed their determination to rid the institution of it, it has always been abolitionism associated with the doctrine of immediate equalization irrespective of color, and the attempt to reduce it to practice, and in view of the inflammatory influences, and odium, and peril thus brought upon the institution. 

“Statement of the Faculty,” 43, italics original.

By way of contrast, all other manner of voluntary reform societies were still approved: 

…we also regard with favor, voluntary associations of students designed to act upon the community, in the form of Sabbath schools, tract, foreign mission, temperance, and other benevolent labors in subordination to the great ends of the institution, of which, in all instances, the faculty, as the immediate guardians of the institution, must be the judges. 

“Statement of the Faculty,” 44.

In the end, the faculty blamed the students for the whole thing: 

…no impediment has existed, to the full exercise of free inquiry and benevolent action, which the abolitionists did not themselves create, by pressing upon public sensibility the doctrine, and countenancing and justifying the practice, of intercourse irrespective of color. 

“Statement of the Faculty,” 47.

The “Statement of the Faculty” reports were signed by Lyman Beecher, Thomas Biggs, and Calvin Stowe.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown describes in grossly offensive terms how the news was reported to the anti-slavery philanthropist Arthur Tappan, who had helped to fund Lane: 

“Hence, it came as a shock to Arthur Tappan when the board of trustees threatened to expel Weld’s company because of their ‘n*ggerism’”

(Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery, 127, {citing Huntington Lyman to James Thome, August 17 1834, Robert S. Fletcher File, Oberlin College Library}).

This incident is reflective of Beecher’s general views on slavery in America. Though he was personally opposed slavery, and hoped and believed it would fade away from American society, he held antipathy for “both sides” of the controversy, and felt that the abolition movement was just as much a divine punishment on the country as the slaveholders in the South. A few years after the Lane controversy, he expressed himself on the subject:

I regard,” writes Dr. Beecher, March 1838, “the whole abolition movement, under its most influential lead­ers, with its distinctive maxims and modes of feeling, and also the whole temper, principles, and action of the South in the justification of slavery, as signal instances of infatuation permitted by Heaven for purposes of national retribution. God never raised up such men as Garrison, and others like him, as the ministers of his mercy for purposes of peaceful reform, but only as the fit and fearful ministers of his vengeance upon a people incorrigibly wicked.

Autobiography, Correspondence, Etc., of Lyman Beecher, vol. II, 426.

Thompson notes that “This opinion, uttered in 1838, was never retracted or altered.” (Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 102).

Conclusion

When considering the issue of slavery in the United States, it’s easy to oversimplify the matter. The slaveholding south was bad, the free north was good; simply being opposed to slavery surely is enough to be on “the right side of history,” right? Lyman Beecher gives us a great case study of a conservative evangelical minister, and we can learn much from his example. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, he saw no place for Black people in what he saw as a white Christian America. Though he was perfectly happy for white people to “help” Black people from a distance, he felt that “social intercourse” on equal terms was too scandalous. Though the issue of slavery carried little urgency for him, the issue of whites and Blacks associating together carried great urgency, and moved him to take immediate action to shut down the anti-slavery society.

Christians today who look around and see the problems in their country, issues of systemic racialized injustice, often want to do something about it. They can think that simply by noticing the evil, and being personally opposed to it, they are doing the right thing. They can even get involved in “helping”—many white Christians get involved in missionary and non-profit work to address the ills they see. But is their effort to “help” constrained by an unwillingness to actually join the community they seek to serve? Are they more concerned with losing donors and constituents, then they are with living and acting consistently with their stated beliefs? Is their perception of the “problems” in the target community colored with an unrecognized assumption of their own cultural superiority? Do they maintain a careful distance from those they are seeking to help? Or are they cultivating genuine partnerships, partnerships established on the basis of “equality irrespective of color,” partnerships that involve walking together, eating meals together, and even living together, mutually giving and receiving from each other?

These are some of the lessons we can learn when we move past simplistic portrayals of the past, and dive deeper into the details.

Recommended Reading

1834 – “Statement of the Faculty Concerning the Late Difficulties in the Lane Seminary” in Fifth annual report of the trustees of the Cincinnati Lane Seminary : together with the laws of the institution and a catalogue of the officers and students, November, 1834 (Cincinnati: Corey & Fairbank, 1834).

1834 – A Statement of the Reasons Which Induced the Students of Lane Seminary, to Dissolve Their Connection with That Institution (Cincinnati, 1834).

1973 – J. Earl Thompson, “Lyman Beecher’s Long Road to Conservative Abolitionism,” Church History 42.1 (1973): 89–109 (on JSTOR)

1980 – Lawrence Thomas Lesick, The Lane Rebels: Evangelicalism and Antislavery in Antebellum America, First Edition. (Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1980).

2009 – Jeremy Land, “Lyman Beecher : Conservative Abolitionist, Theologian and Father,” Madison Historical Review 6.1

4 thoughts on ““Social Intercourse Irrespective of Color”: Lyman Beecher and the Lane Seminary “Rebellion” of 1834”

  1. Thank you, Daniel, for continuing to research and expose less obvious forms of racism — sin which we have tolerated far too long in the church.

    I literally laughed out loud (actually, it was more of an involuntary snort of agreement) when I read this: “…we are ashamed to claim his [i.e., Jesus’] image, and then shut in our social sympathies from the children of God, because their skins independently of volition, absorb the rays of the sun.”

    Like

  2. Was cheering and praising God for the students’ timeless (ie biblical) rebuttal of the seminary leadership’s craven policies. I wonder what “interposition of a
    powerful influence from abroad” was all about?

    Like

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