The Presbyterian Church: Architect of the Anti-Slavery Movement

U.S. History Tutorial

The Presbyterian Church: Architect of the Anti-Slavery Movement


18th Century American Presbyterians were Protestant, Anglo-Saxon American settlers who lived by the religious creed:

“If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master” (Deuteronomy 23:15).

Sample Problem

America’s founding fathers permitted slavery, but early Presbyterian settlers detested the practice.


Historical Context

18th Century American Presbyterians were Protestant reformers;dissenting members of the Churches of England and Scotland who settled in the new American colonies.

Presbyterian settlers were fully reformed.They believed that only Christ,not the Pope,a monarch or any other man could be the head of the reformed church.

Presbyterian Opposition to Slavery

The Catholic Church tolerated, if not supported the transatlantic slave trade from Africa to Europe and the Americas.

In contrast to the Catholic Church, Presbyterians adhered strictly to Bible scriptures that impose the death penalty on men who kidnap humans for slavery,and those that prohibit the return of escaped slaves to their masters.(Deuteronomy 24:7,23:15).

In 1800,the Presbyterian Church forbade its members to own slaves subject to ex-communication.

In 1802,Presbyterian minister Alexander McLeod penned the historic discourse Negro Slavery Unjustifiable, and he refused the call to lead a congregation in New York because some members were slaveholders. Mc Leod’s refusal prompted the reformed Presbyterian Church of America to declare slaveholders ineligible to receive communion.

in 1807, after years of pressure from Quakers and Presbyterians,Congress outlawed the importation of African slaves. However,the U.S.government permitted individual states to continue to trade slaves within the country.

States passed pro-slave legislation that automatically enslaved children born to slave mothers,even if the father was a slave master.

Hence,future generations of slaves were not kidnapped Africans, but Americans bred in captivity. In addition,fugitive slave laws empowered Southern slaveholders to recapture escaped slaves within free territory.

Around 1822,in defiance of fugitive slave laws,Presbyterian minister John Rankin built a home on a steep hill along the Ohio River.His home was a primary station of the Underground Railroad.Rankin hid thousands of escaped slaves, and helped them to freedom in Canada.Rankin House is now a U.S. historic landmark.


Finally in 1863 after the North won the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery within the United States. From its inception, the Presbyterian Church has been an agent of change against the evil of human bondage in America.

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