Some Reformed Churches Rejected American Slavery From The Beginning

American slavery and continuing difficult relations between blacks and other Americans have been a central problem in American life from its beginning. Supporters and opponents of American slavery before the Civil War used legal, economic and scientific arguments to bolster their positions. Most of all they used Scripture. An early ecclesiastical attack on American slavery came from the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) Church, the most theologically conservative descendants of the Scottish Presbyterian Reformation.1 From 1800 onward it would not permit church members to hold slaves. Citing the text “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you,” (Deuteronomy 23:15) members were later active in the Underground Railroad and its preachers were active in Abolition activities.2 The Reformed Presbyterian Testimony, adopted in 1806, stated flatly:

The holding of human beings, of whatever race or color, as slaves, being in every respect opposed to the word of God, and inconsistent with the principles of the gospel of Christ, a gross infringement upon the rights of man, and so a sin against God, should be held and treated by national authorities as a crime. Nor can any constitution of government be just or moral which does not provide against the commission of such a crime within its jurisdiction. Ex 21:16, I Ti 1:9-10, I Co 7:21, Ro 13:4, Is 58:63

How was it that a church so staunchly conservative as the Reformed Presbyterian Church so adamantly opposed American slavery? We are accustomed to thinking of supporters of slavery as conservative and its opponents as liberal, the Old South as conservative, the North as liberal. The Covenanters don’t seem to fit: they were not liberals. On what Scriptural grounds did the Covenanters oppose slavery? The Bible is full of references to slavery, rules concerning the holding of slaves, admonitions to slaves and masters about how to behave, enough so that supporters of American slavery felt confident in appealing to the Bible. How did the Reformed Presbyterians argue from the Bible that American slavery was wrong? Read more»

Bill Edgar | Why Did the Reformed Presbyterian Church Oppose Slavery? | n.d.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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