“A ‘Middle Passage’ of Slavery and Darkness”: Lyman Beecher’s Six Sermons on Intemperance

Lyman Beecher

Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) was a Presbyterian minister and seminary president, and 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). In the early 19th century, evangelicals were increasingly active in a multitude of reform movements, and Beecher was one of the most active. Among other issues, Beecher was particularly concerned about the sin of intemperance. 

Beecher first engaged intemperance formally in 1812 when he chaired a committee on temperance for the Connecticut General Association of Congregational Churches. His work reached the national stage, however, in 1826 with the publication of Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance, published by the American Tract Society. Beecher had preached this series of sermons after visiting a parishioner and finding him drunk (see Lyman Beecher, Autobiography, Correspondence, Etc., of Lyman Beecher, D.D., vol. II (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1866), 34–38). The Sermons would be widely printed, distributed, reprinted, and even translated, going through twenty printings from 1827 to 1838 (Mark Noll, America’s God, 526).

A Foundational Document

Beecher, Six Sermons

The sermons are widely recognized as foundational to the temperance movement that was developing in the 1820s:

  • “Perhaps no man in America has done more to mould public opinion on the temperance question than Lyman Beecher… Dr. Beecher’s celebrated ‘Six Sermons on Intemperance,’ delivered in 1826 and published in book form in 1827, mark a most important epoch in the temperance movement. Reprinted abroad and eagerly read by many thousands, they did more than any other agency to create a distinct and practical temperance sentiment and were recognized as the standard authority on the temperance question for many years” (The Cyclopaedia of Temperance and Prohibition (1891), 43, 44).
  • “Reprinted during the next decade by almost every temperance or organization of consequence, the sermons were as widely read and exerted as great an influence as any other contribution.” (John Allen Krout, The Origins of Prohibition (1925), 105–6.)
  • “In the fall of 1825 Beecher preached six thunderous sermons on temperance; these were published the following year and had a tremendous influence, both at the time and over the decades.” (Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers, 1815-1860 (1978), 126.
  • “In 1825, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, gave a series of six sermons which helped to launch the temperance movement” (Cynthia Hamilton, “Dred’: Intemperate Slavery,” Journal of American Studies 34.2 (2000): 257)
  • “the social organization of the temperance movement begins in earnest in the 1820s in Boston, with the American Temperance Society (ATS) and its cofounder, the abolitionist Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher.” Beecher’s Six Sermons were a “foundational document of the temperance movement” (Mark Lawrence Schrad, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition (2021), 313).
  • Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition” (2011) opens with a dramatization of Lyman Beecher and the Six Sermons (“Introduction to Nation of Drunkards“).

Slavery and Intemperance

There is much to digest and analyze in the Six Sermons, but I wish to highlight one issue in particular: Beecher’s rhetorical use of American slavery to argue against intemperance. This particular feature has been noted by Charles Cole, Cynthia Hamilton, and Mark Schatz:

  • “Noteworthy in Beecher’s work is the connection he made between the evils of intemperance and slavery. The sale of ardent spirits, he believed, was just as vicious as the slave trade and the fight for the abolition of the enslavement to drink just as noble as the plea for the cause of the Negro. Both were enormities that had to be eradicated.” (Charles C. Cole, Jr., The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists 1826-1860 (1966), 118–19).
  • “Beecher used the slave trade as a moral yardstick for the evils of intemperance.” (Hamilton, “Intemperate Slavery,” 257).
  • “Like many abolitionist activists, Beecher reasoned that drunkenness was actually a greater threat than slavery: one-tenth of the American population were subjugated to the slave-master, while all of humanity was vulnerable to being enslaved to the liquor trader. The slave-master went home after sundown, they reasoned, while liquor’s grasp knew no rest” (Schatz, Smashing the Liquor Machine, 315).

Beecher uses the issue of slavery rhetorically in several different ways in the sermons, both implicitly and explicitly. He implicitly ranks the sins of slavery and intemperance, he describes intemperance using the imagery of slavery, and he compares intemperance and slavery and the efforts to eradicate them.


The first “reference” to slavery is not a reference at all, but rather an implicit ranking of two issues:

“Intemperance is the sin of our land, and, with our boundless prosperity is coming in upon us like a flood; and if anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, which hang upon our experiment of civil liberty, it is that river of fire which is rolling through the land, destroying the vital air, and extending around an atmosphere of death.”

Six Sermons, 7–8.

Alcohol was indeed a big problem in the 19th century: “By the 1820s, the typical adult white American male consumed nearly a half pint of whiskey a day. This is about three times the present consumption rate” (W. J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Very Short Introduction (2020), 9).

However, the issue of slavery was continuing to grow as well. The population of enslaved people in the United States increased over 30% (from 1.5 million to over 2 million) between 1820 and 1830 (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).

Yet, comparing the two issues, Beecher asserted that intemperance, rather than slavery, was “the sin of our land.”


In the next reference to slavery, Beecher describes intemperance in terms of slavery:

“many a wretched man has shaken his chains and cried out in the anguish of his spirit, Oh, that accursed resort of social drinking: there my hands were bound and my feet put in fetters ; there I went a freeman, and became a slave—a temperate man, and became a drunkard.”

Six Sermons, 19.

For Beecher, intemperance was a form of slavery, and this may be why he felt so comfortable comparing the two issues throughout the sermons.


In addition to ranking and describing, Beecher includes many comparisons between slavery and intemperance, their evils, and their remedies:


“This however cannot be done effectually so long as the traffic in ardent spirits is regarded as lawful, and is patronized by men of reputation and moral worth in every part of the land. Like slavery, it must be regarded as sinful, impolitic, and dishonorable. That no measures will avail short of rendering ardent spirits a contraband of trade, is nearly self-evident” (64–65).

“It is admitted that the trade employs and sustains many families, and that in many instances the profits are appropriated to useful purposes. But this is no more than might have been said of the slave-trade” (67).

In a striking passage, Beecher elaborates at length on the similarities—in his mind—between American slavery, including the middle passage, and intemperance:

“We execrate the cruelties of the slave-trade—the husband torn from the bosom of his wife—the son from his father—brothers and sisters separated for ever— whole families in a moment ruined! But are there no similar enormities to be witnessed in the United States? None indeed perpetrated by the bayonet, but many, very many perpetrated by intemperance” (70).

“We have heard of the horrors of the middle passage, the transportation of slaves, the chains, the darkness, the stench, the mortality, and living madness of woe, and it is dreadful. But bring together the victims of intemperance, and crowd them into one vast lazar-house, and sights of woe quite as appalling would meet your eyes. 

Yes, in this nation there is a “middle passage” of slavery and darkness and chains and disease and death. But it is a middle passage, not from Africa to America, but from time to eternity, and not of slaves whom death will release from suffering, but of those whose sufferings at death do but just begin. Could all the sighs of these captives be wafted on one breeze, it would be loud as thunder. Could all their tears be assembled, they would be like the sea” (71).

Beecher also believed that the same remedies that he thought were adequately addressing slavery would also work to address intemperance:

“And what has been done justifies the expectation that all. which yet remains to be done will be accomplished. The abolition of the slave-trade, an event now almost accomplished, was once regarded as a chimera of benevolent dreaming. But the band of Christian heroes who consecrated their lives to the work, may some of them survive to behold it achieved. This greatest of evils upon earth, this stigma of human nature, wide-spread, deep-rooted, and intrenched by interest and state policy, is passing away before the unbending requisitions of enlightened public opinion” (84).

“Men who are mighty to consume strong drink, are unfit members of that kingdom which consisteth not in “meat and drink,” but in “ righteousness and peace.” The time, we trust, is not distant, when the use of ardent spirits will be proscribed by a vote of all the churches in our land, and when the commerce in that article shall, equally with the slave-trade, be regarded as inconsistent with a credible profession of Christianity. All this, I have no doubt, can be accomplished with far less trouble than is now constantly occasioned by the maintenance or the neglect of discipline, in respect to cases of intemperance” (90).


Beecher’s rhetorical use of slavery reveals a few things about his views of American slavery. Though he was personally opposed to slavery, and believed it to be a sin, he was quite optimistic that the institution would inevitably decline and disappear from American culture. In his 1826 Sermons, Beecher felt that slavery was well on its way to being “expelled from the world,” that it was “an event now almost accomplished.” Unfortunately, slavery and the Southern “Slave Power” would grow and increase for 40 more years, and would only be expelled violently through a bloody civil war.

Because he thought slavery was well on its way out, he did not feel the same sense of urgency in addressing it as he felt about intemperance, a fact noted by abolitionists:

“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.

Beecher himself demonstrated his “lukewarm” position on the issue of slavery when controversy erupted at Lane Seminary where he was president, and he joined other faculty and trustees in shutting down the student abolition society there (see ““Social Intercourse Irrespective of Color”: Lyman Beecher and the Lane Seminary “Rebellion” of 1834“).

Thirty years later, the American Tract Society (which had published Beecher’s sermons in 1826) itself came under severe criticism over the issue of slavery (see “‘Fraternal’ to Whom? White Evangelicalism’s Centuries-long Problem with Race”). In the midst of that controversy, in 1857, William Jay published a lengthy letter criticizing the American Tract Society’s willingness to publish tracts on the sins of “all who sell or drink intoxicating liquors,—who read novels, play cards, attend horse-races, join in the dance, go to the theatre, and either smoke or chew tobacco,” even though many evangelical Christians disagreed on those things, yet refused to publish a word on slavery (William Jay, A letter to the committee chosen by the American Tract Society : to inquire into the proceedings of its executive committee, in relation to slavery (1857), 5). . Beecher’s Six Sermons was one of those publications they had published on liquor.

By contrast, one of Beecher’s students at Lane Seminary, Theodore Dwight Weld, inverted the priority and urgency of the two issues:

“As Weld put it to Tappan in late 1835, the abolition cause “not only overshadows all others, but it involves all others and absorbs them into itself. . . . revivals, moral Reform etc., etc., will remain stationary until the Temple is cleansed.”

Weld to Tappan, Nov. 17, 1835, in Bames and Dumond, Weld-Grimké Letters, I, 244; in James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery, 45.

J. Earl Thompson compares up Beecher’s activity on slavery and intemperance and sums it up thus:

“During his career he gave barely a respectable amount of time and attention to the slavery question, and it can hardly be placed at the top of his list of favorite reforms— a position that was occupied probably by Sabbatarianism and the temperance movement for him and the many other evangelical reformers who reached the apex of their dynamism and influence in the 1820s.”

Thompson, “Beecher’s Long Road,” 108–09.

The larger movements of abolitionism and temperance reform are quite illustrative and fascinating to compare, with many overlapping figures (including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and others), and overlapping concerns. Lyman Beecher’s Six Sermons offer a vivid illustration of the way one prominent white evangelical viewed these social ills and the rhetorical use he made of one in combatting another.


[Nine of] Eleven Letters by Chorepiscopus [Robert Lewis Dabney] to the Richmond Enquirer, on “The Moral Character of Slavery,” (1851)

In April and May 1851, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898), a Presbyterian pastor in Tinkling Spring, Virginia, published eleven letters in the Richmond Enquirer on “The Moral Character of Slavery.” The letters have been referenced in handful of articles and books, but the letters themselves have never been accessible, other than in newspaper archives. Here, for the first time, is a transcription of nine of these letters, with footnotes added indicating the sources that Dabney interacts with. (Two of the letters, from May 6, 1851, remain elusive):


PDF files of the original issues of the Richmond Enquirer are available on the Library of Congress’s “Chronicling America” site here: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024735/issues/1851/


Robert Lewis Dabney (1862)

Dabney started pastoring at Tinkling Spring, Virginia, in 1847 at the age of 27. He started writing for newspapers and periodicals, publishing sermons, letters, and articles in 1848. His biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, notes that he “found time for special study along chosen lines” and had been purchasing a number of books for that study (Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 127). Among the books cited in the letters are Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1812), Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution: In a Correspondence Between the Rev. Richard Fuller of Beaufort, S. C., and the Rev. Francis Wayland, of Providence, R. I. (1847), and Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution: With Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery (1850).

Quite a bit was happening in 1850–51. In September 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, which law which had the support of Northern moderates, but which alarmed abolitionists and resulted in intensified activism amongst those engaged in the fight for liberation. In June 1851, a month after Dabney’s letters were published, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would begin to appear in serialized form in newspapers. 

In January 1851, Dabney wrote a letter to his brother Charles on slavery, feeling that “the ethical character of the relation of slavery ought to be vindicated before the great public” (LLD, 128). Charles shared the letter(s?) with the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, who “expressed his great readiness to have the suggested articles.” In all, eleven articles were published in April and May 1851, signed by the pen name “Chorepiscopus,” a transliteration of the Greek for “Country Bishop.” Johnson notes that this was the name that “most of his contributions in the Watchman and Observer, also, had appeared” (LLD, 128), and Morton Smith includes a nearly complete list of articles and letters written by Dabney, signed “Chorepiscopus,” and notes that these are “identified by a manuscript list of his publications in the Union Seminary Library” (Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 340).

I can’t find any evidence of anyone responding directly to Dabney’s articles at the time. The editors of the Enquirer puffed them like this: “We commend these admirable letters to the people of the South as well as the North. The arguments, if circulated and studied, must do much to pierce the film of prejudice and error, and strengthen the bulwarks of Southern Rights” (preface to Letter 1). As the last letter was published, the editors said this: “We today conclude the philosophical and truly able Nos. of our accomplished correspondent. We trust that our readers appreciate, as highly as we do, the force and truth of his lucid arguments and masterly array of facts, which will do more to throw a shield of protection around the institutions of the South than all the schemes of the South Carolina disunionsts” (Letter 11). Johnson credits Dabney’s letters published in these papers as helping to build Dabney’s reputation in Virginia Presbyterian circles: “These articles, and others which he published in this period, gave him a well-deserved reputation for vigor and learning, as well as for sound conservatism. They no doubt served to show the church, and especially the Synods of Virginia and North Carolina, his fitness for service as a professor in the Seminary at Hampden-Sidney” (LLD, 130). Indeed, just two years later Dabney was offered the chair of Ecclesiastical History and Polity at Union Theological Seminary, thus beginning Dabney’s thirty year tenure (1853–1883), serving also as professor of Theology for many of those years.

Thirteen years later, in 1863, these letters would serve as the basis for Dabney’s full-throated A Defence of Virginia: (And Through Her, of the South). Johnson again describes the process: “Securing a copy of his articles on slavery, published in the Enquirer, he revised, recast, and enlarged them” (LLD, 273). Indeed, what amounts to around 50–60 pages of material in 1851 was expanded to over 350 pages. Nevertheless, almost everything found in the letters in 1851 remains as the foundation in 1863 (though the book would not actually be published until 1867).

These letters are significant in studies of Dabney, especially as a slight correction to the portrayal of the development of his thought. Some have pointed to the Civil War as a turning point in Dabney’s life, and Johnson says that the fall of the Confederacy was “epochal in Dr. Dabney’s life” (LLD, 292).  One does indeed note a sharp bitterness in Dabney after the Civil War that never goes away, but without accounting for these letters, a full decade before the war, one can make too much of this. For example, Sean Michael Lucas points out a contradiction in Dabney’s views between 1840 and 1867, noting that Dabney had “willingly recognized” the abuses of slavery at the earlier date (see his letter to Mr. G. Woodson Payne, in LLD, 67), but that “by the time he wrote Defense of Virginia, he saw these abuses as unimportant or generally nonexistent, contradicting his earlier opinions” (Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 125–26). There is certainly a marked contrast between 1840 and 1867. Yet, Lucas groups Dabney’s 1851 views with his earlier views, citing a small section of a letter quoted in the Johnson biography (LLD, 128–29) but not interacting at all with the letters themselves. The full context of the letters published in the Enquirer shows that Dabney’s views in 1851 are fully in line with his views in 1867, and are themselves in sharp contrast with what he says in 1840. In other words, the shift came much earlier than the Civil War.

J. Albert Harrill makes a similar assessment when referencing one of Dabney’s pro-slavery arguments in Defence of Virginia, describing it as tinged with “post-Civil War racism and resentment of the abolition of slavery” (“The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” 170). Dabney’s argument is this: “This [abolitionist] hypothesis represents that Saviour who claimed omniscience, as adopting a policy which was as futile as dishonest. He forbore the utterance of any express testimony against the sin of slaveholding, say they [the abolitionists], leaving the church to find it out by deduction from general principles of equity” (Defence of Virginia, 203, in Harrill, “The Use of the New Testament,” 170). Yet, this very argument was used by Dabney in his 1851 letters (Letter 7), a full decade before the Civil War and emancipation. The venomous racism was fully present pre-Civil War, and the resentment over abolitionism grew from a full-hearted opposition to it beforehand.

Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy are on full display in these letters, and in fact, they may be the earliest record of his views that we have. He later puts his white-supremacy on full display in the aftermath of the Civil War as he bitterly fought against the efforts of Reconstruction (see “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?“), but these letters move the record of his strong racial views up into his earliest chapter of ministry, before even his appointment to professor of theology at Union. Reading through the letters, one can see the breadth of Dabney’s whole-hearted support for slavery, and its roots in venomous white-supremacy. This was no “blind spot” for him—it was foundational to his entire ideology, intellectual, theological, spiritual, philosophical, and political.

(Note: for brief commentary on each of the letters, see Part 2: “Worse than Questionable”: Commentary on Dabney’s 1851 Letters on Slavery.

Additional reading:

Carrigan, William D. “In Defense of the Social Order: Racial Thought among Southern White Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century.” American Nineteenth Century History 1.2 (2000): 31–52.

Giles, Kevin. “The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics.” The Evangelical Quarterly 66 (1994): 3–17 (available here).

Harrill, J Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture 10.2 (2000): 149–86 (available on JSTOR).

Lucas, Sean Michael. Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005).

Maddex, Jack P. “Proslavery Millennialism: Social Eschatology in Antebellum Southern Calvinism.” American Quarterly 31.1 (1979): 46–62 (available on JSTOR).

“Not excepting Garrison himself”: Charles Spurgeon’s Abolitionism

I found out about Charles Spurgeon’s outspoken and anti-slavery stance in recent years, due particularly the work of Dr. Christian George:

George does a great job describing Spurgeon’s overall anti-slavery stance, in particular, the violent reaction (including threats and book-burning) that ensued throughout the South. I wanted to find the context for the original quote, so I went digging.

In one article, George cites “Pike, The Life and Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, p. 331,” and Pike devotes a whole chapter to “Mr. Spurgeon and the Americans,” including the saga over slavery. Pike was the one who pointed me to the original source in the Christian Watchman and Reflector:

The “thunderbolt,” or, as the author himself regarded it, the “red-hot letter,” duly appeared in The Watchman and Reflector, and had the slave-holders been actually attacked with heated shots the excitement could hardly have been greater (331).

I highly recommend reading George’s articles for a broad exploration of this incident, including articles and sources from several newspapers at the time. This article explores a more focused view: Spurgeon and slavery as reported in the Christian Watchman and Reflector.

1859 – “plainness and pungency”

On March 10, 1859, the Watchman and Reflector published a short article, “The Courier and Mr. Spurgeon” (original pdf here). A paper in London had hinted at “Mr. Spurgeon’s probable treatment of slavery in his visit to this country [America]” and an American paper called the Courier threatened potential violence: “We do not pretend to say what might occur to brother Spurgeon, if he should count too much upon the liberties of fraternal relations in his efforts to stir us up on slavery. But we doubt very much whether our people would hear him as indifferently as they do the railings of our own anti-slavery volunteer orators.” The editors of the Watchman and Reflector condemned the Courier for “inviting mob-law against the preacher,” and replied: “we presume the London preacher will speak with plainness and pungency of any sin the Bible condemns, even if, like Paul at Ephesus, it may excite commotion among the silversmiths or cotton-merchants.”

On June 23, 1859, the Watchman and Reflector published some “Familiar Letters from Europe” (original pdf here). A correspondent from Europe, one “W.C.C.,” visited London and heard Spurgeon preach. Afterward, they “sat awhile with him in his vestry, and enjoyed a very pleasant conversation with him. Socially, he is exceedingly agreeable. He told us how negotiations failed, which contemplated his visiting America, and uttered the strongest expression of abhorrence to slavery that we ever heard from human lips, not excepting Garrison himself.

1860 – “I do from my inmost soul detest slavery anywhere and everywhere”

As news of Spurgeon’s views on slavery began to leak, the reaction and speculation grew steadily stronger, until Spurgeon finally penned his “red-hot letter” to be published in the Watchman and Reflector. This letter is the source of one of his most well-known quotes on slavery:

I do from my inmost soul detest slavery anywhere and everywhere, and although I commune at the Lord’s table with men of all creeds, yet with a slaveholder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind. Whenever one has called upon me, I have considered it my duty to express my detestation of his wickedness, and would as soon think of receiving a murderer into my church, or into any sort of friendship, as a manstealer.

The full text of the letter can be found here: Spurgeon’s “Red-Hot Letter” on American Slavery.

The letter was subsequently reprinted in full in a number of other newspapers, including The Liberator (see pdf here).

Spurgeon’s 4th Letter: “The dangers of nations lie in their sins”

Spurgeon followed up on this in his fourth official letter to the Christian Watchman and Reflector, on “The Crisis now in Europe and America”: 

“The dangers of nations lie in their sins, and both the old country and the new have a full measure of in­iquity to answer for. Other nations may go unpun­ished because they have not our light and knowl­edge, and therefore God winketh at their sins of ig­norance, but of us the Lord may well say, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; there­fore I will punish you for your iniquities.” Surely you are not so blind a lover of your republic as to hold her guiltless, while before the entire world she scourges her helpless captives, and makes merchan­dize of the flesh of men. No, my friends, we may alike expect the chastening of the Lord upon our fellow-citizens; for the lands are defiled by our in­iquity against God and the oppression of men.”

“Mr. Spurgeon will do no good by the agitation of this question”

Predictably, Spurgeon’s “red-hot letter” set off a flurry of reactions, including in the Watchman and Reflector itself. The first came on March 22, from a reader in Alabama (original pdf here). “I had fondly hoped for much enjoyment from the perusal of Mr. Spurgeon’s letters, which are to be contributed to your columns; but judging from the sentiments and feelings of his second letter, which reached me last week, I fear I shall be doomed to disappointment.” “We are on the verge of a revolution” the writer goes on, “Volunteer companies are being organized and armed throughout the entire South.” Further, he had heard that there were some in England planning to fan the flames “in the hope thereby of producing a dissolution in the Union.” He hopes “Mr. S will have the good sense and Christian modesty to let alone the agitation of a subject upon which too much has already been said… With all due respect for Mr. Spurgeon as a theologian and successful preacher, I am free to say, he will do no good, but much evil by the agitation of the slavery question.”

Scotch Ministers

Apparently two Scottish ministers, “Drs. Candish and Guthrie” expressed similar sentiments as Spurgeon (original pdf here). It was reported that they made the toast: “The next negro insurrection, may it be successful.” The Watchman and Reflector reprinted an article from the Christian Intelligencer complaining that “the effects of immediate emancipation would be worse to the slave even than to the master.” The editors of the Watchman and Reflector find it a sorry situation that one can be more condemned for speaking out against slavery than for it.

“A Vindictiveness Approaching to Malignity”

On June 7, the editors published a letter from James B. Taylor in Richmond Virginia on “The Irrepressible Conflict: A Southern View” (original pdf here). They introduce his letter by saying, “His views diverge from ours almost as widely as the Poles, but it is only by temperate discussion in a Christian spirit that differences of opinion can be reconciled.” The letter is filled with positive portrayals of Southern slavery. Taylor portrays slaves in the south as better treated than freedmen in the north: “I am greatly mistaken, if the black man in the South is not, physically, intellectually, socially and religiously, elevated many degrees above his brother at the North.” He goes on: “the truest friends of the blacks are found in the southern countries, and a more fearful evil could not befall them, than the immediate abolition of slavery, scattering the emancipated ones among the whites of the North.” He laments the split between Northern and Southern Baptists over slavery, then turns to Spurgeon. “This leads me to refer to the position taken by Mr. Spurgeon on this subject, induced manifestly by some appeal from this side of the water. There is, it seems to me, a vindictiveness approaching to malignity in his allusion to slaveholders, so little in keeping with the genius of the Gospel.” He laments that Spurgeon would praise John Brown, “an infidel!” Taylor hopes that God will “still the tumult of the people, and preserve this American people, one and indivisible.”

Given that many in the south burned Spurgeon’s sermons after his letter was published, it is not surprising to read such vehement rejection from a Southern reader.

“It Has Not Convinced Us”

In an article published on June 21, 1860 (original pdf here), the editors of the Watchman and Reflector call James Taylor on his false representation of southern slavery. They indicate that they have read James Taylor’s letter two or three times, “but it has not convinced us. What seems to our brother too clear to be called in question, seems to us accordant neither with reason, nor scripture, nor fact. He may reasonably doubt our ability to discuss matters with which we have little practical acquaintance. We must doubt, in turn, the clearsighted impartiality of a southern mind in discerning moral issues which involve so many pecuniary and social interests. If the northern conscience tends to fanaticism, from want of a through knowledge of slavery as it is, the southern conscience must tend to blindness and insensibility, from the bias of personal interests. The vender of opium, or of intoxicating drinks, who is accumulating a fortune, does not readily discern the unlawful nature of the traffic.” The editors then dismantle his letter point by point with reasoned arguments. They particularly address the issue of John Brown: “Our brother, too, ought to know that we at the North, and Mr. Spurgeon and the Englishmen in general, look on the character of John Brown in quite another light from his. If we accepted Romish testimony against Luther, we must regard him as a lying, profane, and licentious reprobate… And, if we accepted the testimony of one or two southern men (who reported conversations in his cell,) against John Brown, we should be compelled to believe him an infidel. But we have learned to distrust the testimony of inimical parties, and have no more faith in the assertions of these men than in the assertions of the Romish traducers of Luther… If Mr. Spurgeon believed that John Brown ever used such language as our brother quotes, (taken, we believe from the report of a Methodist clergyman,) he would have no kind words to say of his Christian character. But he believes them as little as he credits Mary’s account of her interviews with John Knox.”

1861 – “the most beautiful and eloquent prayer”

The American Civil War officially began in April 1861. On June 27, an account appeared in the Watchman and Reflector from a correspondent who visited a prayer meeting and heard Spurgeon pray regarding the war: “A gentleman informs me… that he heard a prayer by Rev. Mr. Spurgeon… in favor of President Lincoln and the cause of the North, which he characterizes as the most beautiful and powerful prayer he ever heard in his life. The whole audience was moved to tears, and even sobbed aloud at the eloquent preacher’s appeals to God and to civilized mankind in aid of so holy and so righteous a cause as that in which the North is engaged.” Spurgeon’s anti-slavery stance was not limited to his letters or private conversations–it infused even the public life and corporate prayer time of at the London tabernacle.

1862 – When principled non-violence meets abolition

After the Civil war had progressed for several months, but the slaves had not been emancipated, Spurgeon undertook to write again to the Watchman and Reflector. This letter was perhaps an even bigger bombshell than his “red-hot” letter, in that it enflamed the north as much as the south.

Many in Britain thought that the war would result in emancipation, but the North had not done so. Spurgeon: “The universal conviction in England is, that the leaders of your government care nothing about slavery, and that they make you fight for empire and not for freedom… It is no one’s business here which of you conquers, as long as slavery is not at issue.”  This came at a time when there were growing tensions between the north and England. The “Trent Affair” had occurred in November 1861, and many in England had begun to view the North as adversaries, and not allies. Spurgeon’s is a fascinating window into how a preacher and the people he represented viewed the American Civil War from across the pond. “Halting between two opinions has ruined the cause. The friends of Africa are sick at heart. Your government has fooled you.” “We both seem to be drifting most ridiculously, but most lamentably from our proper positions. Our place is at your side in a great moral conflict, yours it is to make that conflict moral.” Spurgeon’s purpose in the whole letter is twofold: to encourage the North toward emancipation, and to assuage the growing hostilities between the North and England. The whole letter is incredible, and is available to read in full here.

The reaction to this letter was enormous, with no less than thirteen letters received and printed, including an immediate response from the editors of the Watchman and Reflector themselves. This whole saga is worthy of its own focused treatment, as a study in the motivations and strategies of the North and the relationship between the war and slavery.


It is fascinating to read the reactions provoked by Spurgeon’s letter. It is amazing to read in real time the debates between Northern anti-slavery Southern pro-slavery Baptists. It is encouraging to know that there were Christians in that time who stood firmly against slavery, and expressed their opposition clearly and courageously. Spurgeon is hero of mine for that reason, and even though the editors of the Watchman and Reflector sometimes seem to try to toe a moderate line, they should also be commended for giving voice to sentiments like Spurgeon’s.

(Photo by Shaojie on Unsplash)

The Edwardseans and Immediatism

From Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 622:

“New England Congregationalism showed a moral intensity that could be traced back to Edwardseanism. ‘It is only when we have in hand the puzzle piece of the ethics of disinterested benevolence,’ write Sweeney and Guelzo, that we can grasp ‘the fiery urgency of William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. Indeed, it was on the topic of slavery that the Edwardseans became known for their radicalism. By 1771, [Samuel] Hopkins was preaching against the slave trade. By 1773, he was attacking slavery itself. Hopkins’s moral radicalism and theological intransigence prepared him to be the preacher of abolition in Newport, Rhode Island—the epicenter of the American slave trade. He won a following in among African Americans in Newport, as well as enduring hostility from slave ship owners. For Hopkins, slavery was a flagrant offense against benevolence and the result of a ‘most criminal, contracted selfishness.’ The only remedy was immediate emancipation, as Hopkins argued in A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans (1776). Similarly, Jonathan Edwards Jr. wrote in The Injustice and Impolity of the Slave Trade and of Slavery (1791) that ‘I conceive it [the slave trade] to be unjust in itself’ and ‘contrary to every principle of justice and humanity.’ Nathanael Emmons also denounced slavery from the pulpit. ‘Immediatism’—the demand for immediate, unconditional emancipation of all slaves, rather than gradual or partial solutions—was the socio-political correlate of Hopkins’s view of conversion and his call for ‘immediate repentance.’”

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“Not [only] as a slave but [also] as a brother”

Last year I did a fresh reading of the book of Philemon for a hermeneutics class at Bethlehem College & Seminary and was struck by how masterfully Paul orchestrated the situation in order to display the power of the gospel to transform the heart of a slave-owner such that he would free his former slave while his whole house-church and all  of Paul’s companions looked on.

Or so I thought. Apparently, not everyone has read the book of Philemon this way.

R.L. Dabney, in his A Defense of Virginia and the South has a chapter on the “New Testament Argument” for slavery, and within it, a section on “Philemon and Onesimus” (176–185). For Dabney, “the Epistle of Philemon is peculiarly instructive and convincing as to the moral character of slavery. This Abolitionists betray, by the distressing wrigglings and contortions of logic to which they resort in the vain attempt to evade its inferences” (176). Indeed, “such are the wretched quibblings by which abolitionism seeks to pervert the plain meaning of God’s Word” (185).

To the contrary–I hope to demonstrate that it is Dabney who has cleverly wriggled out of the clear inferences of this epistle.

The main verses that I wish to highlight are 15–16:

For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Τάχα γὰρ διὰ τοῦτο ἐχωρίσθη πρὸς ὥραν, ἵνα αἰώνιον αὐτὸν ἀπέχῃς, οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον, ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν, μάλιστα ἐμοί, πόσῳ δὲ μᾶλλον σοὶ καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ.

In particular, note carefully the phrase in verse 16:

οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν
no longer as a slave but more than a slave a brother beloved

When I read this verse in a “simple” “straightforward” manner this verse says that Paul is urging Philemon to liberate Onesimus: “no longer as a slave.”

So how does Dabney (and others) get around this verse? By adding some words to their translation and interpretation. He starts by quoting at length “the judicious Dr. Thomas Scott” who was himself “a declared enemy of slavery.” Scott commented on verse 16 with this:

“In this case he knew that Philemon would no longer consider Onesimus merely as a slave, but view him as ‘above a slave, even a brother beloved” (179).

Note the addition: the verse says “no longer as a slave”; Scott’s paraphrase is “no longer merely as a slave.”  See how much hangs on even a single word. That one word–“merely”–is the difference between slavery and freedom!

Dabney knew that some had found in this epistle an argument against slavery. They “learn that he was manumitted by the letter of Paul; so that they find here, not a justification of the slaveholder [which Dabney has found], but an implied rebuke of slavery… The ground claimed for the latter position is, v. 16” (184).

After relying on Scott earlier, Dabney does the same thing. He adds words to text of Scripture in order to suit his favored interpretation:

“Now the obvious sense of these words is, that Philemon should now receive Onesimus back, not as a slave only, but as both a slave and Christian brother.”

I must confess, the sense is not “obvious” to me at all; in fact, precisely the opposite. Dabney’s reconstruction has no basis the original text of Scripture itself:

οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν
no longer as a slave but more than a slave a brother beloved
not as a slave [only] but as [both] —— a slave [and] a brother [Christian]

You should know that Greek has a way of saying “not onlybut also Y.” In fact, it does this pretty regularly. The phrase is Greek is “οὐ μόνον X ἀλλὰ καὶ Y.” It appears in a number of verses:

Matthew 21:21 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done.

John 5:18 Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.

This combination appears dozens of times in the NT, and Paul uses it quite frequently:

Romans 1:32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

2 Corinthians 7:7 and not only by his coming, but also by the [a]consolation with which he was comforted in you, when he told us of your earnest desire, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced even more.

Ephesians 1:21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

Philippians 2:27 For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.

1 Thessalonians 1:5 For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake.

(There are many more; see also: Rom 4:12, 4:16, 5:3, 5:11, 8:23, 9:10, 9:24, 13:5, 16:4; 2 Cor 8:10; 8:19; 8:21, 9:12; 1 Thess 1:8, 1 Thess 2:8; 1 Tim 5:13; 2 Tim 2:20; 4:8)

Clearly, Paul has resources in the Greek language for saying “not only X but also Y.” If he had wished to urge Philemon to receive Onesimus “not only as a slave but also as a beloved brother” he could easily have said that. He says it all the time elsewhere; but that is emphatically not what he says. He says–unambiguously–that Philemon is not to receive him as a slave any more — that relationship has been dissolved by the power of the gospel of King Jesus — but instead is to receive him as he would receive Paul himself (v. 17), as a beloved brother.

Paul uses this particular constructions two other places in his epistles (“οὐκέτι X ἀλλά Y” — “no longer X but Y”):

Galatians 4:6–7 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

Ephesians 2:19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

How ironic (and sad) that the two other places Paul uses the construction speak of our own deliverance from slavery (Gal 4) and our reconciliation with God and our fellow man which crosses ethnic barriers and walls of hostility (Eph 2). If we treated these passages the way Dabney (and others) treat Philemon 16, we would subvert the central message of the gospel itself.

Those who sought to defend slavery from the Bible did not simply read the text in a “straightforward manner.” In at least this case, they had to resort to adding to the words of scripture to make it mean precisely the opposite of what it actually says. Such Scripture-twisting, and the fruit that resulted from it, is abominable and deserves a verdict like this:

“the distressing wrigglings and contortions of logic to which he resorts in the vain attempt to evade its inferences; the wretched quibblings by which he seeks to pervert the plain meaning of God’s Word.”