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Methodist Newspapers and the Fugitive Slave Law: A New Perspective for the Slavery Crisis in the North

  • Ralph A. Keller (a1)


Nineteenth-century denominational newspapers, relatively unavailable to historians until recently, constitute an important untapped source of information regarding public attitude toward national issues. Unlike the more commonly cited religious quarterlies and convention records, the weekly newspapers sought to provide their readers with regular news and comments about secular events. To be sure, articles on doctrine and evangelism seldom relinquished the prominence of page one. But news of the latest steamboat disaster, the new moldboard plow and last week's congressional proceedings were regularly mixed with local church items on pages three and four. And as the nation faced crises of significant proportion, editors often felt it their duty to offer their prescriptions in lengthy editorials on page two. Nowhere in the church apparatus was there a more obvious place for secular concerns to receive religious scrutiny. Widely circulated, welcoming reader response and edited by clergymen responsible to the denomination as a whole but particularly to the churchmen of their respective regions, the papers provide the best running account of religious response to troubles of the nation. For an age still steeped in the discourse and habit of churchly practice, they provide a perspective which historians can ill afford to neglect.



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1. The American Theological Library Association has been microfilming a number of these papers. See American Theological Library Association Board of Microtext, “List of Microfilms Available” (revised edition, New Haven, 1971). The highly theological content of them may well have discouraged any historian who did take the trouble briefly to scan the papers. Cross, Whitney R., The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intelectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 18001850 (New York, 1965), p. 108.

2. Of 2,024 weeklies, both secular and religious, published in the nation in 1850, only 100 had a circulation of 5,000 or more. Yet all the official papers of the Methodist Church in the North, with which this article deals, exceeded that figure:

Christian Advocate and Journal (New York) (hereafter CAJ) 30,000

Western Christian Advocate (Cincinnati) (hereafter WCA) 18,000

Northern Christian Advocate (Auburn, N.Y.) (hereafter NCA) 13,000

Zion's Herald (Boston) (hereafter ZH) 8,000

Pittsburgh Christian Advocate (hereafter PCA) 7,000

The Christian Advocate and Journal was one of only eight weeklies in the nation—the only religious one—with a circulation exceeding 25,000. See Kennedy, J. C. G., “Catalogue of the Newspapers and Periodicals Published in the United States, compiled from the census of 1850,” Livingstons Law Register (New York, 1852). A broader study found the average circulation of 38 religious weeklies in 1850 to be 6,433, compared to an average of only 1,316 for weeklies of all types. Keller, Ralph A., “Northern Protestant Churches and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1969), p. 47.

3. Actually the popularity and influence of the churches, measured in terms of church membership, had grown twice as rapidly as the population in the first half of the nineteenth century. Since the number attending worship services was normally two to three times the number of members, and since churches usually considered their constituencies to include twice the number regularly attending, estimates are that as much as seventy- five percent of the population were “influenced by” or “under the care of” the churches in some more or less regular manner. Hofstadter, Richard, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York, 1963), p. 89; Miyakawa, T. Scott, Protestants and Pioneers: Individualism and Conformity on the American Frontier (Chicago, 1964), p. 18; Hudson, Winthrop S., Religion in America (New York, 1965), pp. 129130. According to census statistics of church seating accommodations in 1850, sixty-five percent of all the people in the fifteen northern free states could have been seated in the various churches of those states at one time. U. S. Bureau of the Census, Seventh Census of the United States (Washington, 1853). As for the influence of clergymen upon American society, estimates vary. Cole, Charles Jr, believes that their status as community leaders had been somewhat eclipsed by mid-century. The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists, 18261860 (New York, 1966), pp. 219220. But Allan Nevins asserts that Protestantism had more clergymen of learning and eloquence at this time and that their influence and authority within American society were greater than in any period before or since. Ordeal of the Union (New York, 1947), 2:130.

4. The Christian Advocate and Journal of New York, called the “great official”, had been established to serve the entire denomination; however, its constituency was largely in the eastern border region, particularly Maryland and Virginia. Zion's Herald of Boston, technically unofficial since it was locally owned, was regarded as the spokesman of New England Methodism. Editors were normally elected by the General Conference of the church (Zion's Herald was an exception), but regional preference was normally heeded. Mott, Frank L., A History of American Magasines, 18501865 (New York, 1930), pp. 6667; Jennings, Henry C., The Methodist Book Concrn: A Romance of History (New York, 1924), pp. 141144.

5. Comparable membership statistics are difficult to obtain. For careful analyses see Gaustad, Edwin, Historical Atlas of Religion in America (New York, 1962), pp. 52, 7481, and Smith, Timothy L., Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America (New York, 1957), pp. 2021. In terms of numbers of churches in the fifteen free states, the 1850 census shows Methodists with 6,356, far ahead of their nearest competitors, the Baptists at 3,712, and third-place Presbyterians at 2,959. Insofar as the amount of money spent on houses of worship can give a rough indication of economic status, the 1850 census, which included both total value and total seating accommodations of churches, shows Methodists at the bottom. The value per seat of Methodist churches was only $4.35, compared to Lutherans at $5.26, German Reformed $5.51, Baptists $5.67, Friends $6.12, Universalists $7.84, Presbyterians $801, Congregationalists $9.86, Episcopalians $22.04, Dutch Reformed $22.68, and Unitarians $23.19. H. Richard Niebuhr, however, says Methodists were rapidly rising in social status at the time and were destined by their essentially middle-class ethic to become the religion of the business classes. The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Cleveland and New York, 1962), pp. 6572.

6. The average circulation of the five Methodist weeklies was 15,200 compared to an average of only 6,433 for the 38 Protestant weeklies cited above (see n. 2). Other denominations envied the Methodists for their circulation success. A Presbyterian editor gave grudging credit and explained why the Methodists had done so well: “It is a reflection upon other denominations, some of whom have been accustomed rather to boast of their superior intelligence, that they have allowed the Methodists so to outstrip them in the diffusion of periodical literature. Our Methodist brethren owe their success, in a large measure, to the universal and energetic cooperation of their ministers. Whereever a Methodist preacher goes, he introduces one of the numerous family of Advocates. The papers themselves, too, abound in rallying paragraphs and appeals to all subscribers to exert themselves to send on new names. The united efforts of both preachers and people secures the favourable result.” Presbyterian (Philadelphia), 12 20, 1856, p. 202.

7. In William Hosmer and his Northern Christian Advocate Methodism did have a representative of radical abolitionism, though Hosmer's position was sometimes less extreme than that of the New York Independent and the Oberlin Evangelist, both Congregational papers, and the Free-Will Baptist Morning Star of Dover, New Hampshire. Methodism had no paper as conservative as the New York Churchman or the Boston Christian Witness and Church Advocate (both Episcopal papers), the German Reformed Messenger of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, the Old-School Presbyterian New York Observer or the Dutch Reformed Christian Intelligencer, also of New York. Most northern church papers and editors, however, would have fallen within the range represented by the Methodists. Milton B. Powell names three of the Methodist editors—George Peck, Abel Stevens, and Matthew Simpson—as “conservatives” on the issue of slavery; yet there were important differences among them, as this paper indicates. See his, “The Abolitionist Controversy in the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1840–1864,” (Ph.D. diss., State University of Iowa, 1963; copy from University Microfilms, Ann Arbor), pp. 82–83.

8. The best analysis of Methodist relationship to slavery up to 1844 is Mathews, Donald G., Slavery and Methodism, A Chapter in American Morality 1790–1845 (Princeton, 1965). For my description of the major factions within antebellum northern Methodism I am dependent particularly upon the dissertation by Powell. Also, Smith, H. Shelton, In His Image, But….: Racisim in Southern Religion, 1790–1910 (Durham, North Carolina, 1972), pp. 364794114, and Gravely, William B., “Methodist Preachers, Slavery and Caste: Types of Social Concern in Antebellum America,” Duke Divinity Review 34, no. 3 (Autumn 1969): 209229.

9. Hamilton, Holman, Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (New York, 1966), p. 172, says Congress spent little time on the fugitive slave bill compared to the other parts of the compromise; furthermore, considering the uproar once the bill had been passed, the opposition offered in Congress was very moderate.

10. The view that northern clergy generally said little or nothing against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law in particular is expressed by Allan Nevins in his Ordeal of the Union, 1:383, 400; 2:125, 129; and in Campbell, Stanley W., The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law 1850–1860 (New York, 1972), pp. 6672. Such writers have too easily accepted negative judgments of abolitionist clergymen toward their fellow ministers, or have quoted a few ultra-conservatives who upheld the status quo. Ministers who did not want to be associated with the Garrisonians, yet were strongly antislavery, have been largely neglected. An exception, however, is Nye, Russel, Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy 1830–1860 (East Lansing, Michigan, 1963), p. 266, who found clergy opposition to the law far greater than clergy support.

11. Elkins, Stanley, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (New York, 1963), pp. 2829.

12. That the slavery controversy in the churches should be regarded as one of the important antecedents of the social gospel is expressed in Hudson, pp. 199–200; Timothy Smith, pp. 149–151; Gravely, p. 221; Powell, pp. 234–236.

13. Though no history of the law has been written, information about its background and the constitutional issues raised by it can be found in McDougall, Marion Gleason, Fugitive Slaves, 1619–1865 (Boston, 1891); Campbell, pp. 348; passim, Hamilton; Yanuck, Julius, “The Fugitive Slave Law and the Constitution,” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1953); Gara, Larry, “The Fugitive Slave Law: A Double Paradox,” Civil War History 10 (09 1964): 229240; Johnson, Allen, “The Constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law,” Yale Law Review 31 (1921): 161182.

14. See Litwack, Leon, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 17901860 (Chicago, 1961), for a discussion of Northern attitudes toward race.

15. Hosmer objected to the Garrisonians' denunciation of the churches for being the main bulwark of slavery. While chagrinned over the concessions many churches had made, he felt some were holding true to course and believed that with American separation of church and state, political approbation could continue even if all the churches were right on the subject. See his editorial “Mr. Thompson in Auburn,” NCA, Mar. 12, 1851, p. 198; also Hosmer, William, Slavery and the Church (Freeport, New York, 1970; originally published in Auburn, New York, 1853).

16. NCA, February 6, 1850, p. 178; February 20, p. 186; March 20, p. 202.

17. Stevens was only 35 in 1850 but had been editor of Zion's Herald for 12 years, a post for which he had been recommended by President Wilbur Fisk of Wesleyan University. In frail health most of his life, he was yet a prolific writer, best known for his excellent three-volume History of the Religious Movement of the Eighteenth Century, called Methodism (New York, 18501861), about the English origins of the denomination, and the four-volume History of The Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States (New York, 18641867). Biographical information is found in Simpson, Matthew, ed., Cyclopedia of Methodism (5th revised edition, Philadelphia, 1882), p. 831, and Malone, Dumas, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (New York, 1933), 17: 604605, (hereafter DAB).

18. Stevens bridled at the charge that he was an abolitionist. See his reaction to that charge as leveled by the Southern Methodist Richmond Christian Advocate, which became much alarmed at Stevens' course because it considered Zion's Herald the most influential of all the northern Methodist papers, ZH, April 3, 1850, p. 54. Stevens had opposed the antislavery movement within the Methodist church led by Orange Scott which had culminated in the Wesleyan Methodist defection of 1843. CAJ, June 26, 1856, p. 26. For the fullest exposition of Stevens' views on slavery see the Methodist Quarterly Review (New York) 17 (1857) 260279, 437463.

19. ZH, February 13, 1850, p. 26; February 20, p. 30.

20. Ibid., March 13, p. 42; March 20, p. 46.

21. Ibid., March 27, p. 50. William Hosmer also lauded Seward and the supremacy of the higher law. NCA, March 27, p. 206. He dedicated his book on the subject to Seward: The Higher Law, In its Relations to Civil Government: With Particular Reference to Slavery, and the Fugitve Slave Law (New York, 1969; originally published in Auburn, New York, 1852).

22. ZH, April 3, p. 54.

23. Soon to become the best known Methodist in the nation, Simpson had come to his editor's post in 1848, after nine years as president of Indiana Asbury (DePauw) University. He would be elected bishop in 1852. Malone, DAB, 9: 181–182. Biographies of Simpson include Crooks, George R., The Life of Bishop Matthew Simpson (New York, 1890); Clark, Robert D., The Life of Matthew Simpson (New York, 1956).

24. WCA, March 6, p. 37.

25. Ibid., April 3, p. 53.

26. Ibid, May 1, p. 70.

27. An immigrant from Ireland as a boy, Hunter had become a Methodist in 1828 at the age of 27. Licensed to preach in 1832, he served churches in Pennsylvania and later in West Virginia and Ohio. By 1850 he had edited the Pittsburgh Christian Advocate and its predecessor for a total of ten years. From 1855 to 1870 he would be Professor of Hebrew and Biblical Literature at Allegheny College. Simpson, p. 459.

28. Peck had come to the denomination's largest paper in 1848 after eight years as editor of the Methodist Quarterly Review. A native of New York, he had four brothers all of whom were Methodist ministers. Peck was a member of every General Conference from 1824 to 1872. “Through almost a half century of the church's life history he had an important part in shaping its legislation.” Malone, DAB, 14: 374–5; Simpson, p. 698. His memoirs are preserved in Peck, George, The Life and Times of Rev. George Peck, D. D. (New York 1894).

29. PCA, August 14, p. 261; December 4, p. 389.

30. CAJ, March 21, p. 46.

31. Ibid., March 28, p. 50.

32. Ibid., June 6, p. 91; July 18, p. 115.

33. Quoted in ibid., October 17, p. 166.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid., October 10, p. 163.

36. ZH, September 11, p. 146; September 25, p. 154; October 30, p. 174; NCA, October 9, p. 110; November 6, p. 126.

37. NCA, October 9, p. 110; November 6, p. 126.

38. ZH, November 20, p. 186. Stevens did admit, a month later, that he had been tempted to believe that disunion might be the best solution. Ibid., December 18, p. 202.

39. Ibid., October 9, p. 162; November 20, p. 186.

40. Ibid., October 9, p. 164; October 16, pp. 165, 168; November 6, p. 177; NCA, November 20, p. 134; see also NCA, October 9, p. 112; October 16, p. 114; October 23, p. 114; November 13, p. 128; November 20, p. 136; December 18, p. 150.

41. WCA, October 9, p. 162.

42. Simpson was well known there, having taught at Indiana Asbury (De Pauw) College.

43. Brown's editorial was quoted in its entirety in WCA, November 20, p. 186.

44. Ibid., November 20, p. 186.

45. See his impassioned renunciation of “resistance” in ibid., November 13, p. 182.

46. Ibid., October 23, 1850, p. 170.

47. Among the Simpson papers is a letter from a Bloomington, Indiana lawyer who agreed with Simpson's position but warned him that it threatened to drag the whole Methodist Church “into the whirlpool of politics.” David McDonald to Matthew Simpson, January 9, 1851. Matthew Simpson Papers, Library of Congress.

48. WCA, January 29, 1851, p. 18. See also the letter of G. Battelle to Matthew Simpson, December 29, 1851. Matthew Simpson Papers, Library of Congress.

49. See letter of Daniel Curry, ZH, December 4, 1850, p. 194. Curry admitted that Peck had registered support for the resolutions both orally and by his vote at the meeting.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid.

52. CAJ, December 12, 1850, p. 198. This phrase had gone through an interesting evolution within American Methodism, from “to reform the Continent, and to spread scriptural Holiness over these lands” in 1784, to “to reform the continent by spreading scriptural holiness over these lands” by as early as 1816. Gravely, pp. 209, 215. Peck obviously used it in the latter sense.

53. ZH, December 18, 1850, p. 202.

54. In his autobiography, written some ferty years later, Peck still claimed that tensions had been so high at the time that he felt one editorial by him could have destroyed the Advocate and Journal and seriously threatened the country. Peck, p. 328.

55. CAJ, December 26, 1850, p. 206.

56. ZH, January 1, 1851, p. 4.

57. CAJ, January 9, 1851, p. 6.

58. ZH, January 15, 1851, p. 10.

59. Peck and Hosmer were at this time engaged in a controversy over the doctrine of Christian perfection, though that does net seem crucial here. See Peters, John L., Christian Perfectionism and American Methodism (New York, 1956), pp. 121123. In November and December Hosmer had dealt specifically with the issue of religious antislavery agitation in two editorials, one in response to the Southern Methodist Nashville Christian Advocate, the other to the Geneva (New York) Gazette. NCA, November 6, p. 126; December 4, p. 142. In the latter, Hosmer drew a parallel between what some people were demanding of ministers now and what was expected of them at the time of the American Revolution: “When but three millions of white men were improperly burdened by the mother country with a paltry tax, torrents of blood were shed, and hundreds of millions of money were spent, and all the piety of the land invoked, to remove the burden; but now, when three millions of negroes are stripped of every civil right, and reduced in perpetual bondage, even the ministers of Christ may not open their mouths in favor of the oppressed.”

60. NCA, January 8, 1851, p. 162.

61. Ibid., January 8, p. 162; January 29, p. 174.

62. Ibid., January 8, p. 162.

63. CAJ, January 23, p. 14; February 6, p. 22.

64. PCA, December 4, 1850, p. 389; January 21, 1851, p. 17; February 25, 1851, p. 57.

65. The correspondent illustrated what he believed to be the real sentiment of New York City by citing two incidents of mob protection of blacks from alleged kidnappers. Ibid. November 20, 1850, p. 376.

66. Ibid., September 4, 1850, p. 292; October 9, 1850, p. 333; November 13, 1850, p. 365.

67. Ibid., December 4, 1850, p. 389.

68. Ibid., January 21, 1851, p. 17.

69. Ibid., February 25, 1851, p. 57.

70. CAJ, February 6, p. 22; ZH, December 25, 1850, p. 206; NCA, January 1, 1851, p. 158; PCA, February 25, 1851, p. 57.

71. Persual of the Congressional Globe 31st Congress 2nd Session, pp. 230, 247–249, 369, 425, 491, 575–580, clearly shows an informal gag rule in operation against the few who sought to revive the issue.

72. Stevens thought the law by that time had been effectively nullified, and continued to argue so even after the Shadrack and Sims fugitive cases in Boston. ZH, April 16, 1851, p. 62. Hosmer considered it his duty to keep his readers aware of their “liabilities” under the law. NCA, April 27, 1853, p. 66.

73. At the 1850 meeting of the Amerian and Foreign Antislavery Society, chairman William Jay praised the religious press for its strident opposition to the bill even before it was passed. And in its report of the following year, that society particularly commended the religious press for its leadership in the whole battle. American and Foreign Antislavery Society, Annual Report 1850 (New York, 1850), p. 9; Annual Report 1851 (New York, 1851) p. 39.

74. Hamilton, p. 168.

75. The Pittsburgh Christian Advocate, most conservative of the five papers dealt with here, on March 14 and June 6, 1854, lashed out at the Nebraska Bill, bitterly complaining of betrayal after so reluctantly acquiescing in 1850 to the Fugitive Slave Law. A survey including both anti-Nebraska petitions to Congress, and reaction in church newspapers in 1854, shows that many northerners—churchmen and non-churchmen alike—accompanied their vehement protests against the Nebraska legislation with expressions of extreme disgust at having endured the Fugitive Slave Law for four years. Keller, pp. 294–299.

76. Journal of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1852, pp. 185187.

77. By 1852 the fugitive slave debate had given way to another which it had helped accentuate, that is, church membership for slaveholders; but the basic cleavages were the same.

78. Both sides of the controversy appear in NCA, July 23, 1856, p. 118; July 30, p. 122; August 6, p. 126.

79. ZH, June 2, 1852, p. 87.

80. Mott, p. 67; CAJ, June 7, 1860, p. 90; June 14, 1860, p. 93; Powell, p. 231.

81. The American and Foreign Antislavery Society in 1851 rejoiced that the past year had seen more ministers than ever before—especially young ministers—preaching antislavery sermons and standing up against “inquitious laws and party schemes”in behalf of human rights. Annual Reports 1851, p. 39.

82. The concept was stated succinctly in November 1850, by the Reverend Wiliam Adams, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in New York City, in a sermon prompted by the Fugitive Slave Law: “Begin, as God does, with the heart of individual man; acquaint him with his destiny, and qualify him for it; and you may leave all other questions to an easy, natural, and inevitable solution.” Christianity and Civil Government (New York, 1851), p. 28.

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