Presbyterians and slavery

To the editor:

In his Guest Commentary “Slavery: divinely inspired and medically approved,” George J. Bryjak notes that Rev. Benjamin M. Palmer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, was an ardent supporter of slavery on theological grounds. I’d like to note that, despite Rev. Palmer’s sentiments, Presbyterians were a vital and significant force in the abolitionist movement. I’ll share just one story from the records of the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Presbyterian minister and editor Elijah P. Lovejoy was a fierce opponent of slavery and America’s first martyr to the abolition movement. The son of a minister, Lovejoy grew up in Maine and, after college, settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as editor of the Presbyterian weekly newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. He was subsequently ordained and became pastor of the Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. His editorials for the St. Louis Observer strongly condemned slavery. St. Louis was a major port in a slave state, and Lovejoy’s writings angered pro-slavery factions in the city. On three separate occasions, pro-slavery mobs destroyed his printing presses, attempting to silence him.

Because of rising tensions in St. Louis over slavery, Lovejoy moved his family across the river to Illinois, a free state, in 1836. There he settled in the town of Alton, founded the Alton Observer and continued to publish and distribute anti-slavery tracts. Alton was a center of abolitionist activity and a hub on the Underground Railroad, but the town was often raided by slave-catchers and was home to pro-slavery forces. A mob of pro-slavery partisans raided the warehouse where Lovejoy had hidden his printing press in November 1837. Lovejoy died from a shotgun blast defending his press as the mob tried to burn down the warehouse. The mob broke up the printing press and threw the pieces into the Mississippi River.

In Hudson, Ohio, where John Brown was living at the time, a local church held a memorial service for Elijah P. Lovejoy. At the conclusion of the prayer service, John Brown, sitting silently in the back, rose and lifted his right hand, saying, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” Brown’s public oath upon Lovejoy’s murder was in 1837. Twenty-two years later, John Brown was hanged from a gallows that, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brown made “glorious like the Cross.”

Respectfully submitted,

Rev. Joann White

First Presbyterian Church

Saranac Lake


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