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“What, then, is the Church?”: The Perpetuation of Racial Injustice and the Failure of Repair at Columbia Seminary in the Antebellum United States


In 1851, James Henley Thornwell delivered a report on the relationship of the Church to slavery to the Synod of South Carolina. The synod’s desire for a more precise theological expression defending slavery emerged at a meeting in Columbia, South Carolina four years prior. It is not hard to imagine why Thornwell was tasked with the assignment to write this crucial document. Between the years of 1847 and 1851, Thornwell taught as a professor at South Carolina College, founded the influential Southern Presbyterian Review journal, and was elected as Moderator of the General Assembly in his denomination. He was regarded as among the most gifted church leaders because of his sharp intellect and deep piety. In 1855, Thornwell joined the faculty of Columbia Seminary to teach theology.

Thornwell began his report observing how much had changed from when the synod had met in 1847. Two other Protestant denominations, Methodists and Baptists, had divided over slavery in 1844 and 1845 respectively. But the subject at hand took on “additional importance” because of the “portentous calamities” and “gloomiest forebodings” surrounding the disintegration of the nation.[1] Political disputes in the U.S. Congress over slavery culminated in 1850 with five bills designed to serve as a compromise between northern and southern states. The most controversial bill was the new Fugitive Slave Act, which criminalized the act of assisting enslaved persons seeking freedom in any way and mandated local authorities in the northern states respect the rights of slaveholders seeking the return of their lost human property. Although the fugitive slave law was a part of a series of legislative acts intended to maintain an uneasy peace between northern and southern states, it ended up inflaming massive dissent in the northern states. One historian, Andrew Delblanco, identifies the years after the introduction of the fugitive slave law and before the Civil War as a “war before the war” for the ways in which “it implicated northerners in the business of slavery in a way they had never felt before” as they were compelled by law to participate in the pursuit and return of runaway enslaved persons.[2]

Thornwell therefore believed the most pressing matter to “save the Country from disaster and the [Presbyterian] Church from schism” entailed answering the following question: “What, then, is the Church?”[3] This essay interrogates Thornwell’s understanding of the Church, his defense of slavery, and the larger social context of Columbia Seminary to explain how the seminary actively perpetuated racial injustice and abjectly failed to repair the sins of slavery. In doing so, I examine how Thornwell and others at Columbia Seminary interpreted the magnitude and morality of slavery to construct a “middle way” approach to racial injustice and repair that was met with fierce criticism from black and white abolitionists and rife with inconsistent application and naively narrow prescriptions divorced from the everyday realities and lived experiences of black and white persons in the slaveholding South.

The Magnitude of Slavery

In 1846, Albert Barnes, a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia, lamented that slavery was a central feature of life across the United States. All the “great questions of industry, literature, agriculture, commerce, and morals” involved slavery such that there was not a town, school, or church throughout the northern and southern states untouched by this unjust practice.[4] Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and technological advances within the textile industry in the early nineteenth century made cotton one of the most profitable plants to cultivate. Whitney’s cotton gin made the process of separating cotton from seed far more efficient and the development of new weaving and spinning machines transformed cotton manufacturing. The rise of slavery was directly related to the increasing profitability of cotton. Between 1790 and 1810, Georgia’s cotton production grew from 3,138 to 177,824 bales and the state’s slave population increased from 29,000 to 105,000 persons.[5]

In addition to the cotton industry, the rapid growth of the rice industry also created more demand for enslaved labor. By the start of the Civil War, two-thirds of the wealthiest Americans lived in the southern states. In 1860, 80 percent of the nation’s gross national product was connected to slavery.[6] In the 1860 U.S. Census, there were over 100,000 more enslaved African Americans (402,406) than white persons (291,300) in South Carolina. In the United States, the slave population increased from approximately 700,000 in 1790 to 4,000,000 in 1860.

The ubiquity and centrality of slavery troubled Presbyterian abolitionists like Barnes. Because the immoral practice was pervasive, he thought it should be abolished immediately. Others agreed with Barnes that slavery was a great evil, but they wrestled with the magnitude of its existence. Some struggled to imagine viable pathways for emancipated African Americans to live and thrive in the country. In 1802, Alexander McLeod, pastor of First Reformed Presbyterian Church in New York City, addressed three prevailing plans of his day: “To export them to Africa would be cruel. To establish them in a separate colony would be dangerous. To give them their liberty, and incorporate them with the whites, would be more so.”[7] Even supporters of the first plan, such as the American Colonization Society (ACS) in their work to send free African Americans to Liberia, realized there were too many African Americans (and too few who desired to migrate) for this project to be feasible. Presbyterian minister Robert Finley founded the ACS in 1816 in part because he believed anti-black prejudice among whites was “too deep rooted to be eradicated” and that there was no part of the country, even westward territories, where African Americans would be sufficiently free of white contempt to flourish.[8]

The magnitude of slavery did not trouble Thornwell, at least not in the same way. Slavery, after all, had existed throughout history, with clear, direct, and numerous references to it in the biblical record. Thornwell found the Bible addressed slavery in “cool, dispassioned, [and] didactic” language and treated it as a hierarchical relation alongside husbands and wives, parents and children, and magistrates and subjects.[9] In a sermon from 1850, Thornwell understood slavery as “a part of the curse which sin has introduced into the world” and compared it to poverty and war as earthly phenomena that would persist until the eschaton.[10] Christians were therefore responsible for exhibiting righteousness and extending mercy at an interpersonal level, from individual to individual, but they were not called to social engagement that sought to upend larger structures and systems. Although the increasing slave population alarmed abolitionists, Thornwell’s gaze was fixed on defending the practice of slavery and encouraging individual slaveholders to treat enslaved persons humanely and grant them access to Sabbath rest and Christian worship.

The Morality of Slavery

In 1834, Charles C. Jones, a professor at Columbia Seminary for two stints, first from 1835 to 1838 and again from 1848 to 1850, inherited four enslaved African Americans, a young woman named Cora and her three children, from Andrew Maybank, a plantation owner in Liberty County, Georgia. In his will, Maybank also instructed Jones to sell the “balance of his property,” which included lands, animals, boats, and fourteen enslaved African Americans, “as a fund for the Georgia and South Carolina Theological Institution.” Six years after its founding and three years after its first classes, Columbia Seminary received $3,603.25 in its permanent endowment from the sale of eighteen enslaved African Americans. Jones questioned the morality of slavery during his studies at Princeton Seminary and considered emancipating the nearly one hundred enslaved African Americans belonging to his family. But after he returned home to Liberty County, he decided instead to work as a missionary among enslaved African Americans and advocate for reforms to make the practice of slavery more humane.[11]

Unlike Jones, who wrote in a letter to his fiancé, Mary, in 1830 that the “principle of slavery” was morally wrong, Thornwell’s report did not equivocate on the moral questions regarding slavery. He observed that “the master is nowhere rebuked as a monster of cruelty and tyranny” and “the slave is nowhere exhibited as the object of peculiar compassion and sympathy” in the Scriptures. Thornwell was confident in the testimony of the biblical witness, which did not condemn slavery as evil but instead authorized the relationship between master and slave.[12]

Thornwell connected his defense of the morality of slavery to his understandings of biblical interpretation and the Church’s mission. He possessed a rigid and restrictive literalism when applying scriptural teachings with a four-fold rubric such that Christians must: (1) Announce what the Bible teaches, (2) Enjoin what the Bible commands, (3) Prohibit what the Bible condemns, and (4) Enforce church discipline through spiritual sanctions. Christians were not permitted to speak apart from the Scriptures. Moreover, the Church was compelled to be silent and “put her hand upon her lips” on issues like slavery where there was no explicit condemnation in the Bible.[13] Scriptural appeals from Christian abolitionists, including those within Thornwell’s own denomination, uncover one of the obvious challenges to these prescripts. Thornwell was not humbly encouraging Christians to obey God’s authority as revealed in the Scriptures. Rather, he was audaciously calling for others to submit to his interpretations of what the Bible teaches, commands, and condemns.

Thornwell also set severe restrictions on the very nature of the Church itself. In answering his question, “What, then, is the Church?”, Thornwell began by identifying what the Church was not. The Church was not “a moral institute of universal good” and did not have a divine commission to “construct society afresh” or “rearrange the distribution of its classes.” Rather, the Church, as Thornwell saw it, was a strictly spiritual entity responsible for biblical teaching, administering the sacraments of baptism and communion, and discipline solely within congregational and denominational confines. Charles Hodge, a contemporary of Thornwell who taught at Princeton Seminary, agreed with Thornwell on the point that the Scriptures did not provide direct instruction to support abolition, but Hodge found Thornwell’s position on the Church’s exclusive identity as a spiritual organization absurd because it denied any opportunity for Christians to mobilize against social evils.[14]

The Middle Way

In Erskine Clarke’s history of Columbia Seminary, he finds in Thornwell’s deliberations on slavery a larger epistemological pattern of pursuing a middle way between two extremes that would emerge as “the most fundamental character of the seminary’s life.” In the case of slavery, Clarke sees Thornwell as a Presbyterian leader “constantly searching for some middle way between radical proslavery southerners and radical abolitionists.”[15] Thornwell emphasized the doctrine of fallen humanity within the Reformed tradition to undergird the need for an ordered society in a sinful world. He disagreed with proponents of slavery that contended African Americans did not share the same humanity and the same imago Dei as whites. But he believed abolitionists were “exaggerating the nature and extent of human rights” and misinterpreting the gospel message. Just as Thornwell taught the church was not a “moral institute of universal good,” he preached the “Gospel does not propose to make our present state a perfect one—to make our earth a heaven.”[16]

Yet, this middle way approach was inconsistently practiced and sharply condemned on the matter of slavery. Thornwell was pleased the General Assembly of his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, maintained a moderate position on slavery that denounced it as incompatible with scriptural teachings yet denied any action to bar slaveholders from church membership and leadership. But Thornwell was aggrieved when the denomination sought middle ground on doctrinal controversies. In 1852, Thornwell expressed bitter disappointment to his friend and future faculty colleague, John Adger, after the General Assembly made concessions to be more open and sympathetic to Presbyterians subscribing to modified Calvinist formulations on doctrines like original sin and predestination. Adger replied to Thornwell that he too “felt sick of the misplaced charity which reigned in the Assembly.”[17] In contrast to their approval of their denomination’s moderate approach to slavery, Thornwell and Adger despised compromises on other issues they felt sullied the spiritual integrity of the Church.

Other Presbyterians believed the denomination’s compromises on slavery were destroying their Church’s mission and witness. Some also found the middle way approach espoused at Columbia Seminary hypocritical and no less evil than radical proslavery. Theodore S. Wright, the first African American graduate of Princeton Seminary and pastor in New York City, charged that the cruel, dehumanizing, and racist elements of slavery wounded both black bodies and souls in a speech before the New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1837. In his 1865 address before the U.S. Congress, Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and the first African American to speak in the Capitol Building, defined slavery as “snatching man from the high place to which he was lifted by the hand of God, and dragging him down to the level of the brute creation” with the pernicious effect of obliterating the imago Dei within the enslaved person.[18] In their minds, there was no such thing as a faithful middle way on slavery. White Presbyterians, and white Christians more broadly, were confronted with two paths, good and evil, and had to decide which path to follow.

What is glaringly missing in Thornwell’s preaching and writing on slavery is any mention of the widespread physical abuse and sexual violence that enslaved persons experienced. There is no attempt to address abolitionist criticisms of southern slavery as unjust and anti-Christian because of the absence of laws protecting the marriages and families of enslaved persons from separation when slaveholders decided to sell them and the prevalence of white slaveholders raping enslaved African American women. One would think even a moderate approach to reforming the practice of slavery, despite the faulty premise, would seek to protect families from separation and women from sexual violence. Yet, Thornwell’s sermon from 1850 and report from 1851 focus exclusively on the duties of slaveholders to provide enslaved persons with regular access to Christian education and worship. The documents reveal a man invested far more in defending slavery than reforming it. In the former, 3 of 51 pages are devoted to ensuring enslaved persons have access to Christian education and worship. In the latter, 1 of 17 pages are devoted to such.


When the Synod of South Carolina met in the town of Winnsboro in 1851, the pastors and elders there unanimously adopted Thornwell’s report on the relation of the Church to slavery. It is evident that Columbia Seminary also fully participated in perpetuating a racially unjust system that abused, harmed, and violated millions of African Americans physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It does not take 170 years, from 1850 then to 2020 now, to confirm Thornwell’s vision of the Church and the seminary’s middle way approach failed to repair the sins of slavery. We need not the benefit of hindsight to know this is true. There is enough evidence demonstrating that Presbyterians and others knew Thornwell and Columbia Seminary were wrong in their day. Yet, as we continue to grapple with the pervasive realities of racial prejudice throughout the United States in our day, Thornwell’s question remains before us, “What, then, is the Church?”

[1] James Henley Thornwell, “Relation of the Church to Slavery,” in “The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, Vol. IV,” edited by John B. Adger and John L. Girardeau (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1873), 381-382.

[2] Andrew Delblanco, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 9.

[3] Thornwell, 382.

[4] Albert Barnes, An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery (Philadelphia: Perkins & Purves, 1846), 19-20.

[5] Gene Dattel, Cotton and Race in the Making of America (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2011), 33-40.

[6] Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 10-11.

[7] Alexander McLeod, Negro Slavery Unjustifiable: A Discourse (New York: T. & F. Swords, 1802), 41.

[8] Robert Finley, Thoughts on the Colonization of Free Blacks (Washington: s.n.), 5.

[9] Thornwell, 385.

[10] James Henley Thornwell, The Rights and the Duties of Masters: A Sermon Preached at the Dedication of a Church, Erected in Charleston, S.C., for the Benefit and Instruction of the Colored Population (Charleston: Walker & James, 1850), 31 and 45-46.

[11] Erskine Clarke, To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2019), 17-18.

[12] Clarke, 13, and Thornwell, “Relation of the Church to Slavery,” 385.

[13] Thornwell, 384.

[14] Thornwell, 382-383, and Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 312.

[15] Clarke, 55-58.

[16] Thornwell, The Rights and the Duties of Masters, 30-32. Italics in original.

[17] John B. Adger, My Life and Times, 1810-1899 (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1899), 205-208. At this time, Adger, Thornwell, and Columbia Seminary belonged to the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). They split from the PCUSA in 1861 to be a part of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA), which was renamed the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) after the Civil War. Columbia Seminary remained in the PCUS until a reunion of geographically divided Presbyterian denominations formed the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1983.

[18] Theodore S. Wright, “A Speech to the New York State Anti-Slavery Society, 1837,” in The Presbyterian Experience in the United States: A Sourcebook (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), edited by William Yoo, 59-62, and Henry Highland Garnet, A Memorial Discourse (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1865), 74.