An 1858 speech to the American Abolition Society by famed abolitionist clergyman George Barrell Cheever. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
George Barrell Cheever (1807-1890) was an internationally-known Congregationalist minister, best recognized as pastor of the Church of the Puritans in New York City beginning 1846. Born in Maine, Cheever graduated Bowdoin College in 1825 and Andover Seminary in 1830. Hawthorne and Longfellow were his classmates at Bowdoin and they were frequently classed together. Already known as a writer while a student, Cheever quickly became a controversial minister, evangelist, and temperance campaigner in Massachusetts during the 1830s. After a year as a foreign correspondent in Europe and the Orient for the New York Observer, Cheever assumed the pastorate of the Allen Street Presbyterian Church in New York City in 1839. He became an advocate for capital punishment, and in 1841 published God’s Hand in America to advocate concepts of special providence in the creation of the United States, American moral mission, and divinely-guided national destiny.
In 1844 Cheever traveled abroad again to Europe for two years as a correspondent for the New York Evangelist, publishing a volume of travel writings upon his return. He later became editor of the Evangelist and published books and articles on a wide variety of religious, literary and social topics. This included a campaign for Bible-reading in public schools. Cheever became best known for an amalgam of orthodox evangelical theology combined with antislavery fervor. He published The Guilt of Slavery and the Crime of Slave-holding Demonstrated from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures (1860), a lengthy summation of biblical antislavery arguments. He traveled once more to England during the Civil War to encourage support for the Union among British churches. Cheever retired from the pulpit in 1867 and lived in retirement in New Jersey until his death. For further, see Henry T. Cheever, Memorabilia of George B. Cheever, D.D., Late Pastor of the Church of the Pilgrim (New York: John Wiley, 1890, vii-xviii)
Cheever’s forum for this address, the American Abolition Society (a name also used by an earlier group), was established in 1855 on a constitutionalist platform that argued the federal government had the necessary constitutional authority to abolish slavery. Its supporters, who included abolitionists Lewis Tappan and William Goodell, split from William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society over the issue of Garrison’s rejection of the US constitution.
Although delivered in a secular setting, this speech adopts a sermonic form. It exemplifies a complete fusion of religious and political opposition to slavery. Cheever begins the speech with a denunciation of Christian clergy who pursue “a fearless, unmuzzled, faithful ministry” (4) against slavery. Arguing that slavery promotes sin, he asserts that opposition to sin must constitute opposition to slavery. He focuses on the production of slave children as a native industry and means of property increase, denouncing this as sin and crime (5-6). Turning to the domestic arrangements of slavery, Cheever asserts that by demanding subservience to a master, the institution contradicts the obedience due to enslaved fathers by their wives and children according to the “laws of God” (6). In a prophetic tone, Cheever informs his audience that the sins of slavery are ever-growing and “The guilt is increasing, but all the while the conscience in regard to it is diminishing and being seared.” (7)
The speech came in the wake of the Dred Scott decision and Cheever makes many references to it in order to condemn the state as sin-riddled. “Our iniquitous and cruel career against the African race came to its climax in the Dred Scott decision,” he writes, “for when iniquity takes the place of national law, and is enthroned in the tribunal of justice, it can not well go higher; and now that decision, unresisted, uncorrected, is producing its fruits.” (8) Cheever traces the legal consequences of Dred Scott and concludes “if God’s word be not thundered against such crimes, the Church and the ministry do, by their silence, set the seal of a Christian approbation to all this.” (9) For Cheever, the churches constitute the conscience of the nation; if they fail to speak, then “indeed the nation is ready to perish.” (11) Since the state and churches have failed, “The conscience of the people is the last defense of liberty—the last element of righteous power.” (12) Should this too fail, he warns, the nation will reap a divine whirlwind. The United States, according to Cheever, exists in a precarious state of national sin because of the existence of slavery on its soil. Since “Satan will never cast out Satan” (14) and silenced righteousness has allowed iniquity to control the branches of government, it remains for the ministry to speak “God’s word” and awaken public conscience to the sins of slavery.
Also see a sermon by his brother, Rev. Henry T. Cheever: Tract for the Times, on the Question, Is It Right to Withhold Fellowship from Churches of from Individuals that Tolerate or Practise Slavery? (1859)
- Joe Lockard