[This post is the second part of a brief essay that I wrote on the debate over the issue of slavery that divided the American Baptists prior to the Civil War]
The Preface of the Debate
As in any debate, those who come to present their case must be fully convinced of their position and, to that end, Fuller and Weyland were. The precipitating letter for the debate, itself being a response to accusations, presented a keen case for its proponent and Fuller “brings the heat” in his opening volley, when he writes, “…I do deny that slavery is a moral evil…,” because if it is a sin, as the charges he is responding to asserts, “If, however, slavery be a sin, surely it is the immediate duty of masters to abolish it, whatever be the result…”(6) In building his case, consistent with a tradition that arises from the Reformation, Fuller appeals to what is considered to be authoritative in order to draw meaningful conclusions, those being what is recorded in Scripture, or the Bible.(7) The most devastating refutation to any argument raised by the other side, that he sees, especially to the man who would become his opponent-in-correspondence is in Weyland’s own published concession that, “…the Saviour nor his apostles commanded masters to emancipate their slaves ; nay, they ‘go further,’ he adds, ‘and prescribe the duties suited to both parties in their present condition’…”(8)
Weyland’s initial response seems somewhat measured and congenial. He does make a note of some importance when he writes, “The ground which is at present taken by the South, in regard to the whole question of slavery, seems to me to be of recent origin.”(9) Weyland recounts instances in the decades preceding them that there had been a rather contentious and animated debate that had existed in associations that had strong emotions towards the subject, noting, “…the right or wrong of slavery was considered throughout the Union as a perfectly open question…”(10) While Fuller seemed to think that the issue was closed based upon no clear statements from that which was considered authoritative, Weyland argued that the fact that such discussions had been occurring pointed to something that couldn’t be settled by simply appealing to authority, but required a measure of reason and thought.
Given the necessity of brevity, in looking at these two men in the context of their arguments, only a general summary of arguments can be made. Aaron Menikoff, reflecting on the debate, summarizes Fuller’s argument thusly, “[…]If Old Testament saints owned slaves, and if the apostle Paul preached ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27) without explicitly prohibiting slavery, then no man can rightly call slavery, in principle, a sin.”(11) Menikoff also notes that Fuller had already given some ground in regard to the treatment of slaves, even bragging about how he treated his own slaves, so that may make Fuller’s arguments seem self- serving and self-righteous.(12) Weyland’s response, he asserts, was that of the seasoned exegete and academician: “…Fuller [had] failed to read Scripture in its immediate, literary context.”(13)
Weyland’s arguments, therefore, might seem, to some, to be engaging in hair-splitting, esoteric, and even highly subjective. This view may be due to the fact that that the scholarly consensus on exactly how to engage in a consistent interpretation of the biblical material, when it is discussed in public forums, seems so broad and, well, subjective.(14) So, Fuller’s arguments, since he appears to be arguing in a straight-forward “what the text says”-method, may seem more powerful and more persuading to his readers then and even today.
Given that their debate-in-writing occurred two years after the split which created the Southern Baptist denomination, the exchange may appear to be merely death-throws of an argument, but Fuller was merely accepting an invitation to define and defend his position.(15) Weyland’s response was the result of Fuller using arguments derived from his work on ethics to compose his arguments.(16) The two, at times, seem to be talking past one another, as Fuller notes in one response to an argument made by Weyland, “The case to be proved was, that slavery is always a crime, a crime amid the most favorable and extenuating circumstances. The case made out is, that slavery created by murder and arson, and perpetuated by oppression and cruelty, is a crime.”(17) Fuller seems to admit that the institution could harbor immorality, but argues that Weyland failed to demonstrate that the institution itself was immoral.(18) Fuller defends his position via application of, “…a typical Baptist (and restorationist) primitivist hermeneutic…,” depending on a, “…‛plain’ literal reading of the Bible” in order to argue that, “…that the apostles would have surely criticized slavery if it was immoral.”(19)
7. Fuller, Richard and Wayland, Francis. Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution: In a Correspondence Between the Rev. Richard Fuller of Beaufort, S. C., and the Rev. Francis Wayland, of Providence, RI. New York, NY: Lewis Colby Publisher. 1845. p. 4
9. Ibid. p 15.
10. Ibid. p. 19.
11. Menikoff, Aaron. “How and Why Did Some Christians Defend Slavery?”
14. Thomas, Robert L. “The Relationship Between Exegesis and Expository Preaching” The Master’s Seminary Journal Vol. 2 No.2 (1991) p. 186.
15. Hill, Matthew S., “God and Slavery in America: Francis Wayland and the Evangelical Conscience.” Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2008. p. 119.
17. Fuller. p. 130
18. Hill. p. 136-7.
19. Weaver, Doug. “Review: Domestic Slavery as Scriptural Institution.”