Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 May 2021
It is often said that the ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign was a failure. Certainly Candlish and Cunningham managed the concerns of most of the Free Church members very skilfully. Considering the ‘American letter’ at the General Assembly of 1846, Candlish noted that while it ‘contains a clear and unequivocal disapproval of the system of slavery, your committee find several points upon which they are not prepared to agree with what seem to be the sentiments entertained by their brethren’.
At the end of the debate, the wording of the reply – which gently rebukes the American churches for their lack of vigour in challenging the ‘circumstances’ in which its ministers find themselves – is approved and adopted. But it is prefaced with the following remark:
It is not with a view to a prolonged discussion between you and us, far less with any thing like a desire to bring about ultimate severance, that we again return in a few sentences, to a subject which has already forced itself into our communications with one another.
Frustrated at not getting their voice heard, Michael Willis and James MacBeth formed the Free Church Anti-Slavery Society that summer. They published a number of pamphlets, one of them authored by George Gilfillan, but without making much impact. At the General Assembly in 1847, two petitions were quickly dismissed, and with the loud abolitionists now out of the country, the issue was reduced to a humorous remark as Cunningham was greeted by laughter and cheers after characterising their campaign as a ‘device of Satan’. Like characters in a Victorian novel, Willis soon gave up the fight and accepted a position in Toronto, while MacBeth, plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct – eventually withdrawn or declared unproven by the church authorities but (together with the scurrilous rumours about Douglass spread by Smyth when he visited Belfast from Charleston) indicative perhaps of the lengths to which some supporters of the Free Church would go – also left for Canada. And the matter was not raised by the General Assembly again.
There was little likelihood of any other outcome. Did Douglass and the Glasgow Emancipation Society miscalculate by making ‘Send Back the Money!’ the focus of their activity?