from Sidelights on Brethren History, by Freeman
©1962, The Brethren Press, Elgin, IL, pp. 91-98, reprinted by permission.
Troubles Over Slavery
One of the most costly institutions ever thrust upon the American people was that of human slavery. Inasmuch as many of the Brethren settled in two of the leading slaveholding states, Maryland and Virginia, it was inevitable that they would continually come up against problems connected with slavery. The founders of the Brethren Church were to a large degree dispossessed persons who had come to the colonies to secure physical and spiritual freedom. It then could hardly have been otherwise than that they would look with misgivings, if not with actual loathing, upon the enslaving of any individual regardless of race or color.
Not having the records of most of the earliest Annual Conferences, we cannot know just what may have been said or done at them concerning slavery. The problem first shows up in the minutes of the Conference of 1797, held in Blackwater, Virginia but we would be unfair and shortsighted to assume that this was the first time the matter had been considered. Article One of this Conference goes into a considerable amount of detail as to the manner of dealing with Negroes: "It was considered good, and also concluded unanimously, that no brother or sister should have negroes as slaves; and in case a brother or sister had such he (or she) was to set them free." The person who either bought slaves or would not emancipate any he already had could have no fellowship with the church.
Slavery and related problems were discussed at the Annual Conference of 1813, held at Coventry, Pennsylvania. One query brought to it was concerned with the holding of slaves. It was unanimously considered that slaveholding was wrong. The minutes go on at some length regarding the matter. Inasmuch as the Brethren were admonished to aid in their education and training, the next step would naturally be in regard to their spiritual status.
What should be done about church membership for Negroes? The first record that we have of this on the minutes of the church is reported from the Annual Meeting in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, in 1835. It was not so much a question of receiving them as members as it was of what status should be theirs after they became members. Should they be received and treated like white members? (We know that there were colored members in some of the Maryland churches.) A section of the minutes concerning the answer to the query reads as follows: "It is considered, that inasmuch as the gospel is to be preached to all nations and races, and if they come as repentant sinners, believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and apply for baptism, we could not confidently refuse them." If they proved faithful they were treated upon a full-membership basis.
When the Annual Meeting was held in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1845, problems related to slavery again came up for consideration. The action was not basically different from that of the Annual Meeting of ten years before. However, there was added another matter which was causing much trouble: What should the Brethren do about hiring slaves from their masters? This was a common practice in the slave territories. For various reasons, many citizens of the Valley of Virginia would contract from year to year with the slaveowners from the eastern section of the state for the services of their slaves. This was usually done at the beginning of a calendar year and became such an accepted and established practice that New Year’s Day came to be known as "slave hiring day." In the Valley there were some members of the Brethren Church who, though not owning slaves, thought that it was permissible to hire them from those who did own them. Yet from the earliest date the most of the Brethren stood uncompromisingly in opposition to this traffic in human lives in whatever form it took. The Roanoke Annual Conference said in answer to the above-mentioned query that "it would be best for a follower of Jesus Christ to have nothing at all to do with slavery."
Problems related to slavery came up so often at the Annual Meetings and were of such importance that we give in detail the action taken by a special committee which met at the old Linville Creek church in 1855.
"Rockingham County, Virginia, March 2, 1855.
"We, the Brethren of Augusta, Upper and Lower Rockingham,
Shenandoah and Hardy counties having in general council meeting
assembled at the church on Linville Creek; and having under
consideration the following questions concerning those Brethren holding
slaves at this time and who have not complied with the requisition of
Annual Meeting of 1854, conclude 1. That they make speedy preparation to
liberate them either by emancipation or by will, that this evil may be
banished from among us, as we look upon slavery as dangerous to be
tolerated in the church; it is tending to create disunion in the
Brotherhood, and is a great injury to the cause of Christ and the
progress of the church. So unitedly we exhort our brethren humbly, yet
earnestly and lovingly, to clear themselves of slavery, and that they
may not fail and come short of the glory of God, at the great and
notable day of the Lord.
"Ordained Elders. Benjamin Bowman, Daniel Yount, John Kline, John Wine, John Harshberger, George Shaver, Daniel Brower, Jacob Brower, Selectine Whitmore. Ministers. Abraham Knupp, Martin Miller, Solomon Garber, Joseph Miller, Jacob Miller, Daniel Thomas, John Brindel, David Kline, John Miller, Christian Wine, Martin Garber, John Neff and John Wine."
Despite these strong decisions, slavery continued to plague the Virginia churches. Some of the Brethren, likely witnessing the apparent profits of their slaveholding neighbors, found that it was not always easy to abide by the councils of the church. The next year, in September of 1856, the matter came to the forefront again. Once more the Brethren met at the Linville Creek church. John Kline states in his notes that it was "a very delicate matter to act upon in the present sensitive condition of public feeling over slavery. But it is the aim of the Brethren here not to offend popular feeling, so long as that feeling does not attempt any interference with what they regard and hold sacred as their line of Christian duty. Should such opposition arise, which I greatly fear will be the case at no distant day, it will be seen that it is the fixed purpose and resolve of the Brotherhood to obey God rather than man."
Only a fragment of the minutes of that September day in 1856 remain, but that which remains speaks in no uncertain terms: "That no members should be received by baptism into the church until they have first manumitted or set free all slaves, or slaves over which they have lawful control, which manumission is to be effected by putting on record in the clerk’s office of the community a letter of freedom, with an agreement to assist them with means of transportation, provided that they cannot be tolerated long enough with their masters after their freedom to earn the amount of their emigration. We do not hereby wish to force them from their former masters if they wish to stay with them after they are twenty-one years of age, then the masters may agree with them as with all other free persons and pay them wages or take care of it for them."
An excerpt from a letter written that same year will focus additional light upon the slavery problem as the Brethren were related to it. This letter is from Cornelius Shaver, son of Elder George Shaver of Maurertown, the first minister of the Brethren of the Woodstock congregation. Cornelius was an older brother of the late E. B. Shaver of Maurertown, an uncle of the late Mrs. Glenn Locke of Woodstock, and a great-uncle of John Locke of Maurertown. He had moved from Shenandoah County to Augusta County; here he reared his family and here his descendants may be found today. Apparently George Shaver had visited his son and had incidentally done some preaching while in the community. On November 6, Cornelius, concerned specifically, in one part of the letter, with the problem of human ownership and the hiring of slaves, wrote to his father:
"In about a week after you left, my black man was taken up for assault and battery on the man who owns his wife. It was done in the public road. He was taken before a magistrate and committed to [jail] for trial. It was thought by the white man that he could have him hung or at least transported, but his master gave security for 2,000 dollars promising to sell him out of the state. He took him and handcuffed him and took him to Richmond and from there to the South. So I was out of a hand. I was sorry for the poor negro for he was a good hand and obedient. I hired an irishman that could not hitch a horse right, but now I have a native for 8 dollars per month for the irishman. I had to give 50 cents a day. I need not pay for the time lost, just for the time the black man worked."
In spite of all that was done by Annual Conference and by council meetings, the matter continued to disturb the Brethren as late as 1863, when a query came to the Annual Conference held in the Clover Creek church in Blair County, Pennsylvania. This was during the Civil War, when passions were enflamed, with the war two years yet to run. D. P. Sayler was at this meeting and spoke out fearlessly against the institution of slavery. The query was: "What should be done with a brother that would preach that slavery was right according to the Scriptures and caused discord among the Brethren?" After prayerful consideration the following decision was given: "In as much as the Brethren always believed, and believe yet, that slavery is a great evil, and contrary to the doctrine of Christ, we consider it utterly wrong for a brother to justify slavery either in public or in private, and that he should be admonished, and if obstinate, shall be dealt with according to Matt. 18."
Although they, as a Christian group, were opposed to slavery, the Brethren could not escape some of the baneful effects of it. Many of them had to live in a social order corrupted in part by it. Many suffered in one way or another for their opposition to it, some of them losing property or life, or both, when the seething social and political cauldron finally erupted, engulfing the entire nation in its devastating overflow.
Those among the Brethren who may have been willing to permit the institution to continue, and may even have fought for it, were doubtless relieved when it was abolished. One such was Elder Arthur B. Duncan, who was in charge of the Oak Hill, West Virginia, church when the author assumed that pastorate. One day, in the course of our conversation, he commented, "We thought we were right, but things turned out for the best."
In this attempt to show something of the attitudes of the Brethren toward slavery and its attendant evils it has not been implied that only the Brethren were opposed to it. Sensitive souls throughout the period of more than two centuries before the close of the War Between the States were deeply concerned about this poisonous thorn in the side of humanity. George Washington, who owned many slaves, said that one of his foremost wishes was to see some plan adopted whereby slavery might be legally abolished. James Madison and Patrick Henry opposed the principle of slavery. Thomas Jefferson, speaking of the institution, said that he trembled for his country when he remembered that God is just; he too was a slaveowner. Many who were opposed to it - and that number doubtless included the most of the Brethren - felt that the nation was so hopelessly enmeshed in it that there was no certain way to escape from its demoralizing and degrading effects.
Slavery was ended nearly a hundred years ago, by means which the Brethren could neither approve nor support. During the intervening century the Negro has demonstrated to the world - with outstanding proof such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, and Ralph Bunche - his basic equality with the white man. On their part, the Brethren still have a largely unused opportunity to show the colored people of the nation that their concern for them is one of deep-rooted, genuine brotherly love and goodwill.
Other chapters in Freeman Ankrum's book
related to the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg and "the little Dunker Church":
David Long: Civil War Preacher
John Lewis and the Antietam Bible
Return to "The Little Dunker Church" page