Two 19th Century Opponents of the Sin of Man-Stealing

As we have earlier noted, Reformed Presbyterian minister Alexander McLeod (1774-1833), who was born in Scotland, as early as 1802 testified against the sin of man-stealing in Negro Slavery Unjustifiable: A Sermon on the Unlawfulness of Holding Men in Perpetual Slavery Through Man-Stealing. Previously, McLeod had declined a pastoral call to the RP church at Coldenham, New York, because their were slaveholders who had signed the call; his stand on this issue ultimately led both to a unanimous 1800 ruling by the Reformed Presbytery of America that "no slaveholder should be allowed the communion of the church" and to his accepting the pastoral call at Coldenham. 

Within the main body of American Presbyterianism, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia issued a deliverance urging the eradication of slavery in the United States as early as 1787. This ruling was further republished by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1793. The following year, the General Assembly then issued a statement on Question 142 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, which in its list of sins forbidden by the Eighth Commandment, including the sin of "man-stealing." The explanatory statement was then appended to copies of the Westminster Standards (as amended by the PCUSA in 1788), and it is worth reproducing here in full (Puritan Matthew Poole's Synopsis Criticorum is cited in conclusion): 

"I Tim. i.10. The law is made for man-stealers. This crime among the Jews exposed the perpetrators of it to capital punishment, Exodus xxi.16; and the apostle here classes them with sinners of the first rank. The word he uses, in its original import, comprehends all who are concerned in bringing any of the human race into slavery, or in retaining them in it. Hominum fures, qui servos vol liberos abducunt, retinent, vendunt, vel emunt. Stealers of men are all those who bring off slaves or freemen, and keep, sell, or buy them. To steal a freeman, says [Hugo] Grotius, is the highest kind of theft. In other instances, we only steal human property, but when we steal or retain men in slavery, we seize those who, in common with ourselves, are constituted by the original grant, lords of the earth. Genesis i.28. Vide Poli synopsin in loc." 

Though this statement continued to be published with copies of the Westminster Standards, and was followed by another denunciation of slavery in the 1795 minutes of the General Assembly, no efforts at enforcing this ruling against slaveholding were made in the following years. Enter George Bourne (1780-1845) - British-born, but by 1815, he was a Presbyterian minister serving in the Harrisonburg, Virginia area - who brought a resolution to the 1815 General Assembly of the PCUSA calling slaveholding a sin and requiring the excommunication of slaveholders. This action by Bourne led to the 1816 General Assembly officially removing the above-referenced footnote on Q. 142 from copies of the Westminster Standards (which is discussed by B.B. Warfield in The Printing of the Westminster Confession, p. 69). It was in that same year that Bourne published The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, which became a leading abolitionist work and which was to influence William Garrison (Bourne later republished this book in expanded form under the title Picture of Slavery in the United States of America (1834)). Opposed by his own Harrisonburg congregation, Bourne was deposed from the ministry by the 1818 General Assembly for "bringing reproach on the character of the Virginia clergy." This same General Assembly, however, also issued a ruling that stated that slavery was "inconsistent" with the law of God (to love our neighbor) and the gospel of Christ. Bourne was later re-ordained as a Presbyterian minister by the New York Presbytery in 1824. He wrote on a variety of topics, but none more so than slavery. He details the history of the General Assembly's actions on slavery in several of his works, such as An Address to the Presbyterian Church, Enforcing the Duty of Excluding All Slaveholders from the "Communion of the Saints" (1833); Picture of Slavery in the United States of America (1834); and Man-Stealing and Slavery Denounced by the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches (1834). He authored several other works in opposition to American slavery, including A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument (1845), which includes a chapter specifically on man-stealing.

George Bourne is not as well-known today as he ought to be. But his 19th century writings in opposition to slavery, along with Alexander McLeod's, can be downloaded and studied today. The arguments made within these works against man-stealing on a Biblical and confessional Presbyterian basis may be of particular interest to readers of the Log College Press. 

Negro Slavery Unjustifiable - by Alexander McLeod (1802)

It is unfortunate that this 1802 discourse by Alexander McLeod, a Reformed Presbyterian Church minister in New York, did not have a greater impact upon Presbyterians across the nation. How different would our nation's history, and present, be if his arguments had pricked the hearts and changed the minds of his contemporaries, particularly if they had been able to reach into the South.