The Emancipation Rupture in
Early Kentucky Baptist Churches - 1807.
Though the agitation of the emancipation of slaves began in 1789 in the meetings of Kentucky Baptists the rupture did not occur until 1807. "The first reference to the unlawfulness of slavery, found on the public records of Kentucky Baptists, is contained in the following queries, sent from Rolling Fork Church, in Nelson County, to Salem Association, convened at Cox's Creek Church in the same county, on the third of October, 1789: 'Is it lawful in the sight of God for a member of Christ's Church to keep his fellow creature in perpetual slavery?' The question was answered thus: 'The association judge it improper to enter into so important and critical matter at present.' This answer gave no relief to the church." (J. H. Spencer, "History of Kentucky Baptists," Vol. I, p. 183.)
The question of slavery, however, was already agitating our brethren in Virginia. Semple's History of Virginia Baptists, Revised Edition, (p. 102), says: "The next General Committee met at William's meeting house, Goochland County, Friday, the seventh of March, 1778." The date here evidently should be 1788, for the meeting just prior to this was 1787, and the one just following was August, 1788. It seems that the committee met oftener than once a year. Doctor Semple then adds as the third item of business, "Whether a petition should be offered to the General Assembly, praying that the yoke of slavery may be made more tolerable. Referred to the next session." It seems from the account of the next meeting, which was held at Dupuy's meeting house, August 11, 1788, the question of slavery was not taken up, but at the next meeting held in Richmond, August 8, 1789, the matter came up as follows, says Semple (p. 105): "The propriety of hereditary slavery was also taken up at this session, and after some time employed in the consideration of the subject the following resolution was offered by Mr. Leland and adopted. (The Rev. John Leland - Nowlin). Resolved that slavery is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature and inconsistent with a republican government, and therefore recommend it to our brethren to make use of every legal measure to extirpate this horrid evil from the land; and pray Almighty God that our honorable Legislature may have it in their power to proclaim the great Jubilee, consistent with the principles of good policy." Then on page 393 Semple says: "In 1787, the lawfulness of hereditary slavery was debated in the association. They determined that hereditary slavery was a breach of the divine law. They then appointed a committee to bring in a plan of gradual emancipation, which was accordingly done."
Thus it will be seen that the early Baptists in Virginia expressed opposition, in unmistakable terms, to slavery, as early as 1787. Our Kentucky associations were in correspondence with the Virginia associations, both by letter and messengers, and were therefore advised as to their actions. So it is no surprise to see the matter coming up two years later, than the above Virginia action, in a Kentucky association — the Salem. Elkhorn Association, at its meeting in August, 1791, says Spencer, (Vol. I, p. 184),"Appointed a committee of three to draw up a memorial to the convention to be held on the third day of April next, requesting them to take up the subject of Religious Liberty, and Perpetual Slavery in the formation of the constitution of this district, and report at the Crossing, on the eighth of September. Eastin, Garrard and Dudley were the committee. At the meeting at Great Crossings, in September of the same year, the 'Memorial on Religious Liberty and Perpetual Slavery was read and approved.' This action of the association did not meet the approval of the churches. Accordingly, the next association, which met at Bryants, in December of the same year, and which was probably convened, in extra session, for this express purpose, 'Resolved that the association disapprove of the memorial which the last association agreed to send to the convention, on the subject of Religious Liberty and the Abolition of Slavery.'"After this, it seems that the question of slavery did not come up in the association for several years. But the preachers were preaching on the subject and it was being discussed in the churches. Emancipation parties were formed in many churches, which was a source of confusion and disturbance. The association finally had to act on the question of the emancipation of slaves."Elkhorn Association, during its session at Bryant's, in 1805, again took up the subject and passed a resolution, that, 'This association judges it improper for ministers, churches or associations to meddle with emancipation from slavery, or any other political subject, and as such, we advise ministers and churches to have nothing to do therewith.'
"This resolution gave great offense to the emancipators. They became much more active and determined in their opposition to slavery. Even the earnest and laborious William Hickman was carried beyond the limits of prudence. On a fast day of that same year, he preached at Elkhorn Church, of which he was a member, and the pastor. His text was Isa. 58:6: 'Is not this the fast I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?" This sermon, says Theodrick Boulware, 'was disingenuous and offensive. The speaker declared non-fellowship for all slave holders. A few days afterwards he wrote a letter to the church, declaring his withdrawal.' Whether he went into the constitution of an emancipation church, or not, does not appear. John Shackelford was called to the care of Forks of Elkhorn Church for one year. Before his time was out Mr. Hickman returned and gave satisfaction to the church, and, when the year was out, resumed its pastorate." (Spencer, "History of Kentucky Baptists," Vol. I, p. 185).
This gives us some conception of the disturbance in the Elkhorn Association caused by the question of emancipation. About this same time John Sutton led off a party from the Clear Creek Church, which united with a faction led out of Hillsboro Church by Carter Tarrant, and formed an emancipation church, called New Hope, located in Woodford County, "the first emancipation church in this part of the world," says John Taylor, ("History of Ten Churches," p. 81).
The question of slavery caused a division in the North District Association in 1807. Spencer says, (Vol. II, 119 f): "In 1804, Thomas J. Chilton, from a party of South District Association, which afterwards took the name of South Kentucky Association, presented to North District, charges against Jeremiah Vardeman and John Rice. As the party represented by Mr. Chilton was not recognized by the association, the charges were not entertained. But the next year, the same body entertained five charges against David Barrow, the ablest preacher in their body. These charges were presented by the messengers from Bracken Association, and pertained to Mr. Barrow's sentiments on the subject of slavery. The association, after hearing him, in his own defense, decided that his explanations and apologies were sufficient. Some of the churches, however, were determined to get rid of him; and new provisions were made for his expulsion. 'Providence and Boone's Creek Churches inquire how a church shall deal with a minister who propagates doctrines that are unsound or pernicious to peace and good order? The association advises that a church, in such cases, withdraw all the power they gave such preacher; and (that) two preachers may suspend, or stop such preacher from preaching, until he can be tried by a council of five ministers, whose decision, in such case, ought to be obeyed, until reversed by the association.' This rule, however, unbaptistic, was applied to Mr. Barrow almost immediately after the association adjourned. At the next meeting of the body, in 1806, the following proceedings were entered on its minutes:
"'A committee or council of five ministers reported: That, agreeable to provision made last association, for the trial of ministers, they had been dealing with Brother David Barrow, for preaching the doctrine of emancipation, to the hurt and injury of the brotherhood. And the association, after considering the foregoing report, and hearing what Brother Barrow had to say, in justification of his conduct, on that subject, and Brother Barrow manifesting no disposition to alter his mode of preaching, as to the aforesaid doctrine, they proceeded to expel him from his seat in this association,' They also 'appointed a committee to deal with Brother Barrow, in the church at Mount Sterling, at their next monthly meeting, and report to next association.'
"Immediately after Mr. Barrow's expulsion from North District Association, he commenced arranging for the constitution of an Emancipation Association. A meeting was called to convene at New Hope, in Woodford County, on the twenty-ninth of August, 1807. Eleven preachers and nineteen other messengers were enrolled as members of the meeting. Preliminary steps were taken, for the organization of an association, which was constituted of nine churches, aggregating 190 members, the following September. This association, which took the name of Licking Locust, will be noticed in its appropriate place.
"North District Association saw the injustice of her rash act when it was too late to counteract its evil effects. At her annual meeting, in 1807: 'The association proceeded to annul and revoke the act of last association, in expelling Elder David Barrow from his seat in the association. But she had already lost at least three churches and two preachers by the transaction; and they did not now choose to return. The subject of slavery continued to be agitated, in the bounds of the association, nearly twenty years."
The forgoing shows that the agitation was long and bitter in this association. We are told by Spencer (Vol. I, p. 186) that "The excitement extended all over the settled portion of the state. Several churches in Bracken Association fell in with the emancipation scheme. Among these were Licking Locust, Lawrence Creek, Gilgal and Bracken. Among the churches that united in the movement from North District, were Mount Sterling and Bethel. These and a number of other churches effected an organization in September, 1807, under the name of 'The Baptized Licking-Locust Association, Friends of Humanity.' At their next meeting they resolved 'that the present mode of associations, or confederation of churches, was unscriptural.' They then proceeded to form themselves into an 'Abolition Society,' * * * In 1816 they met at Lawrence Creek meeting house, in Mason County, under the name of 'The Association of Baptists, Friends of Humanity.' The following churches were represented: Bracken, Gilgal, Lawrence Creek, Mount Sterling, Bullskin and Bethel. No account was received from New Hope in Woodford County.
"The preaching was by Jacob Mahan, Moses Edwards and _____ Alexander. The Lord's Supper was administered by David Barrow and _____ Thompson. There is a manifest tendency to 'open communion' and other signs of decay, exhibited in the meager journal of their proceedings. The body kept up a feeble, withering existence till about the year 1820, when it was dissolved."
It seems from this time on the emancipation question gave the churches in Kentucky little or no trouble. We are unable to understand why the agitation died down, and the Emancipation Association disbanded, unless the leaders came to realize they were fighting a hopeless battle; and that their energies could be more profitably spent along other lines.
From the history we have of the emancipation movement it accomplished little, or no good, and a vast amount of harm. It disturbed Baptist churches and associations in Kentucky for a period of more than thirty years, and passed away, leaving no permanent breach.
[From William Dudley Nowlin, Kentucky Baptist History, 1922, pp. 71-77. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
Go to Next Chapter
Baptist History Homepage