A Baptist Abolitionist Appeals to Thomas Jefferson

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The Rev. David Barrow came of age during a time when white Virginia evangelicals might be opponents of slavery. During the era of the American Revolution—and before the rise of the Cotton Kingdom—antislavery sentiment was not unusual among white Baptists and Methodists. But the depth of Barrow’s antislavery conviction was unusual. It made him an antislavery activist, and prompted his move to the relatively freer climes of Kentucky in 1798. As his Library of Congress biography notes,

David Barrow (1753–1819), Baptist minister and abolitionist . . . joined the Baptist Church about 1770, was ordained around 1772, and served as a minister in Isle of Wight County [Va.], 1774–97. Barrow freed both of his slaves in 1784 and often spoke out thereafter about the evils of slavery. After two preliminary trips to Kentucky, he moved there permanently in 1798. In a letter he published that year, Barrow explained that he left Virginia partly because he could not prosper there without slaves. His support for emancipation led to several church schisms after his arrival in Kentucky, but he continued to preach. In 1808 Barrow published an important antislavery tract and helped to organize the Kentucky Abolition Society.

In 1815, Barrow engaged in a remarkable exchange of letters with retired President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson always professed to be opposed to slavery, but as he aged he became more and more reluctant about taking any practical steps toward restrictions on white southerners’ ownership of African laborers. Barrow hoped he might stir Jefferson’s conscience once again, through an appeal to the ethics of Jesus, for whom Jefferson expressed admiration.

I trust that Bigotry, that tarnishes the Aspects & sours the Tempers of so many of the Professors of Christianity, has never influenced your Prejudice so as to bias your Judgment, relative to the great Subject of Religion: and I live under flattering Expectations that the Tolerance of our Government, will ultimately have the goodly Effect to remove those Animosities & party Spirit, that is too visible among the different Christian Sects, and that they will be led under the Influence of that “Charity that never fails” [I Cor. 13:8] to meet & embrace one another upon pure Apostolic Grounds, and thereby manifest to an admiring World, the native Beauty and Utility of the Doctrines & Morality of the Lord Jesus.

The enclosed Scraps [of antislavery writings] will furnish you with a more general Idea, of some Things that have been agitated in this Quarter, than I have Time or Room at present to insert.—I forward them with a Hope, that at some leisure Hour, you may find Freedom to drop me some Hints, that your Knowledge, Feelings & Observations on the Subjects of Slavery & emancipation may dictate, which may be helpful to us in our present Struggles.

And now Dear Sir, I most sincerely pray, that after a Life of public Toil & Usefulness you may through Divine Grace, be found among the heavenly Songsters rendering “Blessing, and Honour, and Glory, and Power unto him who sitteth upon the Throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.” [Rev. 5:13]

Jefferson took the time to reply. Although he privately expressed revulsion at evangelical ministers and Trinitarian doctrine, he also had a long history of congenial relations with evangelical allies, especially Baptists like Barrow, who were among his most avid supporters. But Jefferson would not give his blessing to Barrow’s abolitionism, because abolition was going to take time.

Unhappily it is a case for which both parties require long and difficult preparation. The mind of the master is to be apprised by reflection, and strengthened by the energies of conscience, against the obstacles of self interest, to an acquiescence in the rights of others; that of the slave is to be prepared by instruction and habit for self-government and for the honest pursuits of industry and social duty. Both of these courses of preparation require time, and the former must precede the latter. Some progress is sensibly made in it; yet not so much as I had hoped and expected. But it will yield in time to temperate & steady pursuit, to the enlargement of the human mind, and its advancement in science.

We are not in a world ungoverned by the laws and the power of a superior agent. Our efforts are in his hand, and directed by it; and he will give them their effect in his own time. Where the disease is most deeply seated, there it will be slowest in eradication. In the Northern states it was merely superficial, & easily corrected. in the Southern it is incorporated with the whole system, and requires time, patience, and perseverance in the curative process. That it may finally be effected and its progress hastened will be the last and fondest prayer of him who now salutes you with respect & consideration.

Deist (or better, Unitarian) though he was, Jefferson was also a providentialist, and he remained confident that God would eventually bring about the abolition of slavery everywhere. Yet such a view of time and moral progress also gave Jefferson a convenient way to deflect immediate progress toward abolition. Jefferson’s family and (troubled) finances were too deeply intertwined with slavery for him to take decisive action against slavery in the short term. One wonders whether he would have taken the same providential reading of the Civil War, which in time did bring an abrupt end to American slavery, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives.

See also Hannah Spahn, Thomas Jefferson, Time, and History (University of Virginia Press), and Keith Harper, “’A Strange Kind of Christian’: David Barrow and Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery, Examined,” Ohio Valley History [subscription].

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