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Albion Tourgée on evolution of Christianity which ultimately led to accepting and endorsing U.S. slavery in An Appeal to Caesar, 1884


Albion Tourgée on evolution of Christianity which ultimately led to accepting and endorsing U.S. slavery in An Appeal to Caesar, 1884


In this excerpt from Tourgee's An Appeal to Caesar he lays out the way through which Christianity eventually condoned the slavery of African Americans in the United States. Essentially Tourgee describes it in steps with the first being that the Christian religion began with an emphasis on liberty and equality in which no one should hold claim on another human being. However, after the end of the Middle Ages there came an era in which the exploration and conquest of new lands was highly importance. During this time when Christian voyagers came to new realms they attempted to make the natives Christian as well. This was decided under the pretense that it was lawful to enslave an individual in order to help them come to faith but it wasn't right for one Christian to enslave another brother in the Lord. Thus, it was understood that once a slave became a Christian, it would be not right to continue holding them in bondage so they would be freed. However, this quickly became problematic in the case of American slavery in the 1800s. Even if slave masters were Christian (which many of them were) they still cared deeply about their pivotal economic situation and would choose to safeguard that over their Christian values. This meant that slaveholders wouldn’t allow slaves to be freed upon their conversion to the Christian faith. Thus, this led to the passage of laws in many states such as South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia which stated that baptism didn't free slaves. This was the understanding in the time surrounding the Civil War.


Albion Tourgée


Tourgée, Albion. An Appeal to Caesar. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1884.



Original Format



The relations of Christianity to Slavery are among the most curious facts of history. It is unquestionable that until the discovery of America the Christian religion had been one that tended to liberty and equality. Among the early Christians it had been the universal solvent of the bondman's shackles. No believer was allowed to hold another believer in bondage. When the era of awakening came after the long slumber of the Middle Ages, one of the greatest of the incentives to discovery was the conquest of new realms and the conversion of other races to the faith of the Church. In return for this material recognition of her authority, the Church granted its blessing and gave " the heathen for an inheritance" with lavish profusion to kings and queens, navigators, adventurers, and whosoever promised to extend her power or increase her wealth. Servitude was imposed upon these subjugated heathen as a punishment for unbelief, and perhaps in some cases as an inducement for them to espouse, in the loose and merely formal manner of that day, the tenets of Christianity. From this custom undoubtedly sprung the Christian 
slavery of the New World. The heathen were enslaved under the shallow pretense of Christianizing and civilizing them thereby. There is a chapter of our history bearing on this subject which is of peculiar interest, showing as it does in very sharp relief the relations between Slavery and Intelligence, and Christianity and Bondage, in this country. It is a fact not generally known that, at the time of the introduction of slavery into the colonies, the idea was widely prevalent in the Anglican Church, as well as among the leading sects of dissenters, that while it was no sin to enslave an unbeliever, it was contrary to the teachings of Christianity to hold a brother-Christian in bondage. In 1696 this question was brought before the Court of King's Bench (Chamberlain v. Hervey, 5 Modern Reports); and though the case went off on a decision as to the form of the action, so that there was no decision upon the merits, yet the grounds on which it was argued by counsel give the general belief of that day, and the reasons therefore. “Being baptized according to the use of the Church," argued the counsel, "the slave is thereby made a Christian, and Christianity is inconsistent with slavery. When the popish religion was first established [in England], as appears by Littleton, if a villein entered into religion, and was professed, as they called it, the lord could not seize him ; and the reason there given is because he was dead in the law, and if the lord might take him out of his cloister, then he could not live according to his religion. The like reason may now be given. Baptism having been incorporated into the laws of the land, if the duties which arise thereby cannot be performed in a state of servitude, the baptism must be a manumission. That such duties cannot be performed is plain, for the persons baptized are enjoined by several acts of Parliament to come to church. But if the lord hath absolute control over him, then he might send him far enough from those duties." He instances also the fact that " the Turks do not make slaves of those of their own religion; and if a Christian be taken captive in war, yet if he renounce Christianity and turn Mahometan, he doth thereby obtain his freedom." This curious argument is given both because of the quaint logic which underlies it, and as a fair statement of the view of Christian duty which even at that early day for a time bade fair to strangle slavery in its incipiency. Looking back upon its history now, it would seem almost impossible that there should be an American Christian who does not feel a pang of regret that this humane and righteous view did not then universally prevail, l^ot only the blood and sorrow which the nation has already known, but the danger that now impends would then have been unknown, — they might even have appeared to this generation as things impossible to have happened under any circumstances. On the contrary, it was at once declared by statutory enactment in the various colonies that this view of Christianity was unauthorized, incorrect, and unlawful. A law of Maryland adopted in 1692, according to the " Plantation Laws" published in London in 1705, provided as follows: " When any negro or slave, being in bondage, shall become a Christian and receive the sacrament of baptism, the same shall not nor ought to be deemed, adjudged, or construed to be a manumission or freeing of any such negro or slave or his or her issue from their servitude or bondage, but they shall hereafter at all times remain in servitude and bondage as before their baptism, any opinion or matter to the contrary notwithstanding/' Virginia in 1705 passed a law of similar char- 
acter, as follows :"It is hereby enacted and declared that the baptism of slaves does not exempt them from bondage." South Carolina in 1712 enacted and declared a law to the same effect, but most curiously worded, making it “lawful for a negro or Indian slave, or any other slave, to receive and profess the Christian faith and to be therein baptized," and providing that thereby no slave shall be deemed to be manumitted. Despite these enactments there still remained, especially in the mother-country, a very strong sentiment in the minds of leading churchmen, not only against slavery in the abstract, but especially in opposition to it as a repressive influence upon intelligence and genuine Christian liberty. Archbishop Seeker, in 1741, recommended "the employment of young negroes, prudently chosen, to teach" among the slaves. In 1744 Dr. Bearcroft, in an address before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, speaking of what the society had done since its previous session, said : " The society have lately fallen upon a happy expedient by the purchase of two young negroes, whom they have qualified, by a thorough instruction in the principles of Christianity and by teaching them to read well, to become schoolmasters to their fellow-negroes. The project is but of yesterday, but one school is actually opened at Charles Town in South Carolina, which hath more than sixty young negroes under instruction and will annually send out between thirty and forty of them well instructed in religion and capable of reading their Bibles, who may carry home and diffuse the same knowledge which they shall have been taught among their poor relations and fellow-slaves. And in time schools will be opened in other places and in other colonies to teach them to believe in the Son of God who shall make them free." Hardly any more pathetic picture can be presented to the minds of the thoughtful Christian of today than this quaint and humble effort to spread Christianity and intelligence at the same time among the slaves of the United States. How curious it seems to think that this little company of god-fearing men met in the Capital of Great Britain, seeking not only to extend the knowledge of religion but all the beneficent influences which attend true liberty, purchasing as one of their instrumentalities two young slaves, teaching those slaves not only the principles of religion but the rudiments of an English education, and sending them forth among the slaves upon the plantations of the South in order that their friends and fellow-bondmen might learn from them the knowledge which maketh free ! How terrible is the contrast between this effort to lift up the down-trodden and the oppressed, and those fearful laws which a century afterward, in the glare of Christian light, in the middle of the nineteenth century, were placed upon the statute books of these States ! We need quote but one of them, the statute of the proudest of the subordinate republics whose future we are considering, and the very one in which this early Christianizing effort was planted — South Carolina. This is the language of her law in 1834 :"If any person shall hereafter teach any slave to read or write, or cause or procure any slave to be taught to read or write, such person, if a free white person, shall be fined not exceeding one hundred dollars for each offense and imprisonment not less than six months; or, if a free person of color, shall be whipped not exceeding fifty lashes and fined not exceeding fifty dollars ; and if a slave, to be whipped at the discretion of the court not exceeding fifty lashes ; the informer to be entitled to one-half the fine, and to be a competent witness. And if any free person of color or slave shall keep any school or other place of instruction for teaching any slave or free person of color, he shall be liable to the same penalties prescribed by this act on free persons of color and slaves for teaching slaves to write." How terrible in the light of to-day are the words of this barbarous statute ! It was not singular in its refinement of cruelty. In every Southern State its equivalent was enacted. Our nineteenth- century Christianity denied to the slaves who thirsted for its sweets the knowledge which the Christians of an earlier day 
had sought with humble zeal to induce them to receive. 


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Albion Tourgée, Albion Tourgée on evolution of Christianity which ultimately led to accepting and endorsing U.S. slavery in An Appeal to Caesar, 1884, Civil War Era NC, accessed June 16, 2024,