A racial and ethnic divide has plagued our country throughout history, and it continues today. In order to move forward, we need to view our history accurately and understand the mistakes that were made.
One moment that stands out surrounds Pastor George Bourne. In 1816, Bourne wrote his most important work, “The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable.” He wrote: “Therefore, every man who holds Slaves and who pretends to be a Christian or a Republican, is either an incurable Idiot who cannot distinguish good from evil, or an obdurate sinner who resolutely defies every social, moral, and divine requisition. Evangelical charity induces the hope that he is an ignoramus.” 1
The basic argument of Bourne’s book was that slavery was, in fact, man-stealing and therefore a real, personal, and heinous sin. Through his biblical study, he concluded that slavery was a violation of the 9th commandment, in lying that slaves were less than full humans; a violation of the 10th commandment in coveting their very persons as possessions; and a violation of the 8th commandment in stealing them and treating them as property. Because of this, the Church could not tolerate a position that advocated for gradual emancipation. The Church must demand that Christians, and particularly elders and pastors, repent immediately and free those that they have wrongfully enslaved or face censure.
Bourne consistently applied these views as he withheld communion from slaveholders. However, as his views got out to the other ministers in his Presbytery (several of whom were slaveholders), Bourne was brought up on charges and removed from ministry at the General Assembly of 1818.
The General Assembly
The General Assembly of 1818 is a study in contradictions. Why? It includes one of the strongest condemnations of slavery prior to the Civil War by any Presbyterian body. Yes, you read that right.
The General Assembly of 1818 condemned both slavery and George Bourne (who condemned slavery). Upon further investigation, this condemnation actually meant very little. The statement from the General Assembly defined slavery as a “gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God.”
And yet as something which “creates a paradox in the moral system” and a “practice into which Christian people have most inconsistently fallen” which sounds similar to Aaron’s defense of the golden calf before Moses. It includes an exhortation to those who “forbear harsh censures, and uncharitable reflections on their brethren, who unhappily live among slaves whom they cannot immediately set free.” This essentially means Bourne hurt some feelings as if it was acceptable to compromise truth and black lives for the sake of the feelings of white masters.
The statement promoted the current thoughts of gradual emancipation and colonization based on the “number of the slaves, their ignorance, and their vicious habits generally.”
When viewed against the backdrop of the prevailing views throughout the United States at this time, it seems that the assembly adopted the popular beliefs that blacks were inherently inferior and freeing them would ensure revolution and destroy the peace of the nation. Although it put out an anti-slavery position stronger than any assembly had before, the statement and its universal acceptance by even slaveholders had almost no positive change. There was no accountability. There were no threats of disciplining slaveholders but only expressions of “tender sympathy.”
It is hard to improve upon the conclusion of Christie and Dummond in what is one of the only histories written on Bourne: “In all respects, the emphasis was not on rights and equality of all men but upon welfare and harmony within the Church. The resolution was a pious declaration, both a generalization and a rationalization, an ever ready defense for inaction. It was a fitting climax to the endorsement of expulsion from the Gospel ministry of a great intellect, and man of courage, by what, on careful examination, bears all the markings of a Kangaroo Court.” 2
The trajectory of inaction
I believe this General Assembly set a trajectory for the way that many white Christians responded to (and continue to respond to) issues of racial injustice. It is one of white supremacy and inaction. This stance of slavery as evil, but not something that the Church will do anything about intensified the abolitionists and hardened the pro-slavery Presbyters.
This is one of the key points in which the Assembly of 1818 erred. By condemning slavery as evil, but stopping short of Bourne’s condemnation of it as a personal sin, the Assembly effectively handcuffed itself from further action. The second negative consequence of the 1818 assembly is that its arguments for gradual emancipation and colonization continued on the false footing of white supremacy.
The combination of inaction and racial bias against blacks mark the missed moment for American Presbyterians specifically on the question of slavery and more broadly on the question of race in America. The Assembly had the opportunity to set the trajectory towards an affirmation of the humanity of those who had been sinfully reduced to property.
What if the assembly had sided with Bourne? Would deposing slaveholding presbyters, affirming the dignity and full humanity of blacks, and fighting for immediate emancipation have had a substantial impact on ending slavery or preventing the Civil War? We cannot answer with certainty. However, looking at the impact George Bourne went on to have and the subsequent history of the Presbyterian Church, I wonder and shudder at the missed opportunity to stand with the Lord over and against the evil of this world which had so deeply penetrated the thinking and practice of the church. What would the relationship between white and black Christians be now?
Are we still missing it today?
These realities stemming from inaction and white supremacy continue to plague us today. It is easy (or at least it should be) in our day to condemn the obvious white supremacy that shows up in ways similar to the past. However, there is still a hesitancy at best to confront the more subtle and systemic ways in which the culture and even the church continue to uphold white supremacy. The Assembly of 1818 did what the white American Church has continued to do in light of racial injustice: declare pious statements that condemn such injustices as evil, without taking any real action to ensure that the Church bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
We must seek to dismantle any vestiges of racial superiority and white supremacy in our lives, our churches, and society. This dismantling won’t be completed on this side of glory. But while we await the return of King Jesus, we are to be his ambassadors in the world, bringing the fruit of his Kingdom into every sphere.
We can and should hold our leaders accountable for the sins of racism. We can and should tell the truth about our history as a nation. We can and should advocate for diverse leadership structures so that minority Christians are given a voice and positions of power to influence our church structure.
We can and should stand against injustice in our land whether that is racial bias in housing, wealth inequality, hiring practices, mass incarceration, or police brutality. We can and should call out racist attitudes in our friends, family members, and church members. We can and should create partnerships across racial and ethnic lines.
As we do, we must make our churches a place that truly welcomes the diversity of our communities and seeks to share power and empower minority leadership –not photo op diversity, but dinner table diversity. Unfortunately, it is all too true that American Churches today do not look much different demographically than we did 50 years ago. Let us use the example of the courageous George Bourne to commit ourselves to praying and working towards a truly multiethnic American Church for the glory of King Jesus.
- John W Christie and Dwight L. Dumond, George Bourne and the Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, Presbyterian Historical Society. (Baltimore, MD: Historical Society of Delaware, 1969), 105. ↩︎
- Christie, 64, emphasis mine. ↩︎