Prior to the Civil War, antislavery clergyman William Henry Furness advocated for pacificism in this 1860 sermon. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
William Henry Furness (1802-1896) was a nationally-recognized religious opponent of slavery. He graduated from Harvard in 1820, obtained his divinity degree from there in 1823, and later received honorary degrees from Harvard and Columbia. He served as pastor at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia from 1825 until 1875.
Furness delivered this sermon as a guest at the Music Hall, the popular site of Theodore Parker’s church-less ministry in Boston. At the point Furness delivered the sermon in March 1860, the United States was less than one year away from civil war and the probability of domestic conflict was increasingly clear following John Brown’s raid in October 1859. Furness responds to this growing division of northern and southern opinion with a call both against slavery and against a fight over slavery.
He begins by identifying the current historical moment as equally momentous as the moment before Christ’s crucifixion, and American slaves as the incarnation of Christ. (7) The fate of slaves in the United States, Furness argues, is pivotal to freedom throughout the world, for “precisely as the fate of Jesus of Nazareth once changed the condition of mankind, so the whole course of human history now waits upon the fortunes of slaves.” (8) Furness employs apocalyptic imagery of fire and purification arriving as instruments of divine justice. He does not, however, endorse either John Brown’s raid or slave insurrections to gain freedom. Furness argues that John Brown relied on “a certain degree of physical force, in order to aid the deliverance of the oppressed” but he sought to assist only escape and never contemplated general insurrection. (12) Furness absolves the antislavery movement of support for such measures and writes “I do not imagine there is a man among us so destitute of common sense and humanity as to think of inciting the slaves…” (12)
While honoring John Brown for “his generous purpose and for his heroic courage,” (14) Furness holds Brown to have been in error for resorting to violence. To engage in violence is to succumb to demons and the rule of unreason. Moreover, since violence produces violence, Furness suggests, the first victims were civil conflagration to have spread, would have been the black population and especially free blacks. (15-16) The better response to slavery, he asserts, is to non-violent invocation of the truth. Basing himself on the command of Jesus to Peter to desist from fighting (John 18:11), he supports William Lloyd Garrison’s pacifism (17) and argues for “the immeasurable superiority of intellectual and moral power over…revolvers and rifles and artillery…” (19) Returning to Brown as his example, Furness writes “It was when the sword of steel was taken out of the hand of John Brown…and he was left with only the Sword of the Spirit, that he had a new experience of a higher power than the force of arms.” (22)
For further on Furness, see Elizabeth M. Geffen, "William Henry Furness: Philadelphia Antislavery Preacher," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 82 (1958) 3:259-292.
- Joe Lockard