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A ‘Nation of Slaveholders’: Highlights from Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922

Posted on 09/14/2016

The August release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia includes publications with differing religious perspectives on American slavery. Highlighted here are works by one of the founders of the United States General Convention of Universalists, Elhanan Winchester, and by two lesser-known authors.


The Reigning Abominations, Especially the Slave Trade (1788)

By Elhanan Winchester

Elhanan Winchester was an itinerant preacher, five-time husband, and a founder of what became the Universalist Church of America. He was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1751 and was ordained a Baptist minister 20 years later. During his ministry, Winchester travelled to South Carolina and Virginia preaching to both blacks and whites and sharing openly the gospel with slaves. In 1781 his congregation was excommunicated by the Baptist Church.

Describing his experience in Virginia, Winchester writes:

Though I have been in Virginia but a few days, I have seen and heard that which greatly affects my heart, and I shall therefore take notice of some of those abominations which, I fear, greatly prevail in this country, and which threaten it with ruin and desolation, unless repentance and reformation prevent.

Winchester first concerns himself with the abominations of blasphemy and drunkenness. The former he considers so consequential he is “astonished that every one who takes the name of God profanely into his lips is not immediately struck dead.” He continues, eventually reaching what he considers the greatest wrong:

Sabbath-breaking, contempt of the gospel, uncleanness, idleness, &c. some of which I shall have occasion to speak of presently; cheating, lying, defrauding, &c. which horrid crimes too much prevail in this land; but above all, there is one abomination more that prevails in this country, that calls aloud not only for fighting and crying but for a speedy reformation and turning therefrom, if we desire to prevent destruction from coming upon us; I mean, the SLAVE TRADE.

A TRADE, conceived in iniquity, carried on in the most base and barbarous manner, productive of the worst effects, and big with the most horrid and dangerous consequences.

Winchester persists, reminding his readers of the trade’s human cargo:

Blush, O ye Christians, to think that ye are the supporters of a commerce that employs these, and many other vices to carry it on! Could you but think seriously of the disgraceful and cruel manner in which slaves are obtained, methinks you could not attempt to justify the horrid practice. Numbers are stolen while going out on their lawful business, are never suffered to return home to take leave of their friends; but are gagged and bound, then carried on board the vessels which wait for them, never more to see their native land again, but to drag out a miserable existence in chains, hunger, thirst, cold, nakedness, hard labor, and perpetual slavery.


On the Subject of Slavery (1856)

By Col. James C. Zabriskie

Responding to a speech at the Republican Party’s 1856 Pittsburgh Convention, James C. Zabriskie embraces an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and a literalist understanding of the Bible to argue in favor of slavery.  

The fanatics now declare their determination to prohibit slavery in all the Territories of the United States. They repudiate the doctrine of the “sovereignty of the people” as applicable to Territories. The most cherished doctrines of the Revolution – doctrines to which our fathers clung with a death like pertinacity – doctrines for the security of which they required the most sacred guarantees of Congress before they would consent to form this Union, are now boldly repudiated, to enable a reckless faction to persist in efforts to demolish the glorious institutions of our country.

Turning to the competing religious views on slavery, Zabriskie asserts:

Ministers of the Gospel (so called) have disgraced their calling, and polluted the sacred desk by inflammatory appeals to the fanatical feelings of the North. This they have done in palpable violation of the sacred duties enjoined in both the Old and New Testament, and the glorious example of our Savior.

He continues:

Did our Savior rebuke slaveholders, or denounce slavery as a sin. Not one word like it is to be found in the sacred Scriptures.

And finally:

Whence these modern reformers derive their moral principles, and a knowledge of their religious duties, I know not. The Scriptures furnish no authority or justification for the outrages they have perpetrated.  


Review of the Lectures of Wm. A. Smith, D.D., on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery (1859)

By John H. Power

Although responding to William A. Smith’s lectures, John H. Power’s points are applicable to those made by Zabriskie. Power begins his review of Smith’s speeches with this seemingly incongruous observation:

I deem it due…to say in this prefatory note, that, although I have discussed the subject with a pointedness which I believe its magnitude and character merit, I have not, knowingly or with intention, treated you personally with the least discourtesy whatever. I have found much in your book that has surprised me; some things that might seem to implicate your integrity or your intelligence, and some of them as I conceive, incompatible with the moral principles of the Gospel…

Powers turns his attention to a scriptural inconsistency regarding the sanctity of slavery, writing:

Here, according to fact, it was wrong for the Egyptians to hold slaves; and according to your assumption, it was right for the Hebrews. On the same principle that, by the will of God, it was wrong for the Egyptians to hold slaves, but right for the Hebrews to hold them, it may have been right for the Hebrews – which, however, I deny, that they ever held slaves as chattels with the approbation of God; but wrong for Christians. You can take either position as may best suit your convenience; but I repeat the denial, and demand the proof, that God ever sanctioned, as morally right, slavery in its chattel and property sense, either among heathens, Hebrews, or Christians.


The same facts and conclusions apply to your assertion that the Jews were a “nation of slaveholders” in the days of the incarnation of the Savior, and that he sanctioned the system of slavery. For if the will of God made it a national crime deserving and receiving the most exemplary punishments in the Egyptians, but a national virtue, meriting and receiving the sanction of the Son of God, the same sovereign will can make it a crime, instead of a virtue, in every nation on earth.

For more information about Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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