Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Seventh Day Baptists and slavery

Several years ago I posted a series about the history of Seventh Day Baptists one of which was “A Nation cannot long endure…” about Seventh Day Baptists and abolitionism. That post was later reprinted in the Sabbath Recorder (September, 2011). The post (and the article) included this passage, referring to the only known Seventh Day Baptist church that had a slave owner as a member:
Unlike many other denominations, Seventh Day Baptists had few churches in slave states, and so there was little division on the question. A member of the Lost Creek Church, in Virginia [soon to be West Virginia], owned slaves he had inherited and that elicited general condemnation from other Seventh Day Baptists.
That was a very brief reference to a very interesting controversy. I received a communication yesterday from a descendant of a member of that church. Lynn Arden FitzRandolph writes:
I am not of that particular Lost Creek family, but please allow me to present some information.... The “slaves” in question were a mother and son who were both physically incapacitated. In today’s terminology we could say that they were in an “assisted living” arrangement in a Lost Creek, Virginia (now West Virginia) home. Under the laws of the State of Virginia they certainly were not free to walk away; had they been found “at large” in Virginia, they would have been arrested and sold at auction. All blacks were, under existing Virginia law, either owned or possessed by someone or were fugitives. They also had nowhere else to go, and no one else to care for them. ....
Mr. FitzRandolph referred me to Corliss Fitz Randolph's A History of the Seventh Day Baptists in West Virginia, a book that includes a chapter about the controversy. It summarizes the circumstance that gave rise to the anguish:
Deacon Abel Bond of the Lost Creek Church married, in Maryland, a wife, whose uncle made her a present of a slave girl. This slave girl, on reaching womanhood, married against the wishes of Deacon Bond, but nevertheless with his permission. She raised a family of children, who, according to the laws of slave-holding states, were born into bondage. Deacon Bond offered to set the family free and to pay their expences to a free state, but they preferred to remain with him, as he was a kind master exercising only such authority over them as the laws of the state and of humanity demanded at his hands. Deacon Bond provided in his will that they should be freed as soon as circumstances should warrant, but soon after his death all the coloured family died but the mother and one son, who was not physically strong. Deacon Bond's son, into whose care they were committed at the death of his father, again offered them freedom, but they still chose to remain where they were. ....
My own understanding is that the mother was elderly and that the surviving son was considered "simple" and that it was thought neither could survive on their own.

When the Lost Creek church applied to join the Eastern Association and it became known that one of its members was, at least formally, a slaveholder, controversy ensued, including considerable strongly stated correspondence in the Sabbath Recorder. Objections were particularly strong from the North-Western Association (Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, etc.). A "special committee" was appointed by the Eastern Association to investigate Lost Creek's attitude toward the institution and that committee questioned the delegate of the Lost Creek church, Elder S.D. Davis, eliciting these responses:
...[T]he committee propounded to Bro. Davis, the delegate from that church, four questions, which were answered as follows:-

1st. Does your church have or hold any sympathy, in any sense, with American Slavery? Ans. It does not.

2nd. Does the church hold that American Slavery ought to be abolished, as a sin against God and man? Ans. It does.

3rd. In what sense, if not as slaves, are those persons, understood by some as such, held by a member or members of your church? Ans. If held at all, it is to shield them from the action of the laws of the state that would otherwise enslave them.

4th. What would the church do with a member who should buy or sell or hold a person as property? Ans. It would exclude him.

The committee also found, that the Lost Creek Church, by its delegates, adopted the following resolution, at an association held in Ritchie County, Va., Sept. 1854:
"That we regard American Slavery as a sin of great magnitude in the sight of God, and a flagrant violation of the rights of our fellow men, and that it is our duty to use all of our influence against it."
From these and other facts before them, the committee came to the following conclusions:
1st. That the relation of master and slave does not exist in the Lost Creek Church, in the proper sense of the phrase, and only technically, and that the church is not justly chargeable with sustaining slavery.

2nd. That we deeply regret the acrimonious spirit, and the personal reflections and accusations, made against brethren, in the discussion had upon the subject in the denominational paper.

3rd. With regard to the resolution of the North-Western Association, we think the language used is stronger than the facts warrant, and that the regret expressed by that association results from the manner in which the subject has been discussed, more than from the existence of slavery itself.

The Lost Creek church, however, felt that the ongoing investigation was inquisitorial and withdrew its application. It wasn't until 1881 that all was resolved.

Corliss Fitz Randolph notes that of all the Seventh Day Baptists in West Virginia, only two fought for the Confederacy while every church contributed volunteers to the Federal forces [one of my Bond great great uncles among them].

Lynn FitzRandolph, in his most recent communication:
The wisdom that I glean from reading the accounts of this controversy is the realization that it is possible to become so emotionally invested in a moral issue that one becomes blinded to goodness, presented in this case in the form of the Good Samaritan “slave owner” and his local church — acting morally and openly in violation of local (Virginia) customs. This realization, I believe, is an appropriate and constructive epitaph to the controversy.

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