Review: Domestic Slavery Considered As a Scriptural Institution
Richard Fuller and Francis Wayland. Domestic Slavery Considered As A Scriptural Institution. Edited by Nathan A. Finn and Keith Harper. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2008. xii + 204 pp. ISBN 978-0-88146-107-7.
Domestic Slavery is a collection of letters written by two leading Baptists from the middle of the nineteenth century: Richard Fuller, a South Carolinian pastor, and Francis Wayland, President of Brown University and leading northern Baptist statesman. They engaged in a literary debate over slavery from 1844 to 1845 in the pages of a Boston, Massachusetts newspaper, the Christian Reflector. The debate over slavery was intense beyond Baptist circles, of course. But Baptists split in May 1845 over slavery, and specifically, over whether a mission sending agency would appoint a slaveholder.
Many elements that one would expect in a religious discussion of slavery are in the letters. Fuller relies on the “plain” literal reading of the Bible to defend the practice of slavery (152). Like his predecessor from South Carolina, Richard Furman, Fuller contends that the apostles would have surely criticized slavery if it was immoral. Utilizing a typical Baptist (and restorationist) primitivist hermeneutic, Fuller notes that Baptists simply adhered to the New Testament pattern of apostolic practice. He moreover charged anti-slavery advocates with willingly abandoning biblical authority. In perhaps the best line of the exchange, Fuller tells Wayland that the northerner’s position requires a “laborious, up-hill, Sisyphus-task, of overcoming the word of God” (117).
For his own part, Wayland assumes a “moderate,” or gradualist, perspective on emancipation. Like Fuller, he criticizes immediate emancipation, reasoning that slaves were not prepared for freedom. He additionally suggests that abolitionist fanaticism was the cause of the “universal irritability” of southerners (17). As for scripture, Wayland advocates a “progressive revelation” reading of the text. In the New Testament, Wayland finds evidence that Christians should follow biblical “principles” and individual conscience rather than “precepts.” In this way, the Golden Rule and “to love neighbor as yourself” trump any literal application of specific slavery passages to the nineteenth century (56, 70).
The exchange of letters draws a picture of two statesmen who admired and respected each other, and they occasionally found common ground. Fuller made multiple attempts to say that slavery in every case is not sin; Wayland would agree. Where criticisms appear, they are carefully crafted.. Fuller tells Wayland that the abolitionists will take advantage of him because of his understanding of scripture. Wayland tells Fuller that he is naïve—his focus on the benefits of slavery for slaves belied the corruption and abuses that Fuller seems to deny. Their rhetoric reveals that they do not want their regions/denomination to split, even though Fuller predicted that abolitionism will cause a rupture.
Finn and Harper’s edition of Domestic Slavery provides helpful annotations to the text. Ten letters are from Wayland; six are from Fuller. My only wish is that the editors—both perceptive historians—would have provided a more in-depth introduction. Still, their purpose was to provide this “classic” primary source to contemporary readers. Mercer University Press—which has previously published other editions of primary sources by Harper (of Southern Baptist missions icons, Lottie Moon and and Annie Armstrong)—is to be commended for providing these resources. As a primary source collection, I have used the book in a graduate seminar on Baptists of the period. The letters of Wayland and Fuller are a good and fascinating read and as the editors indicated, an illustration of how two public figures differed on a volatile topic without impugning each other’s character. Domestic Slavery is also, as it should be for readers today, a troubling read.