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The Old School General Assembly Douglass Papers

The nationwide meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1860 happened in June of 1860 in Rochester, NY, the year before the denomination (and country) split over the issue of slavery. The following article is a summary written by the prophet from Rochester, Frederick Douglass, in his newspaper, “The Frederick Douglass Papers.”

You can see a PDF scan of the paper here:

The entirety of the text is transcribed below. The church needed to be better. It still does.

The Old School General Assembly.

This body (we say nothing of its soul) which has been (literally) spending a week or two with us in Rochester, has at last adjourned, and its members have, we suppose, returned to their homes in the different sections of the country from whence they came. They were well treated in Rochester, and must have been well pleased with their entertainment. Before they came to town, ‘bed and board’ had been bespoken for them from most of the evangelical pulpits of the city, and the most wealthy and influential members of our congregational and Presbyterian churches promptly and generously flung open their hospitable doors, and their airy apartments, to the distinguished strangers. Rochester is not a very servile town. It is indeed quite individual and independent in character, but not at all indifferent to the good opinion of the outside world. Our citizens ‘laid their pockets’ (if not themselves) out to admiration. That must have been a dainty appetite, and a most unreasonable taste, that was not greatly surprised, eminently pleased, and highly gratified with the bountiful tables, the elegant and splendid apartments which everywhere invited the members of the General Assembly. If the religious hospitality of Rochester does not now receive special, and we may say enthusiastic and eloquent commendation in all the public journals of Old School Presbyterianism, it will be less the fault of Rochester, than of those who were the recipients of her profuse and brilliant entertainments. Everything was done compatible with good taste to make these religious guests comfortable and happy during their stay with us. Our citizens did their very best to make a good impression. In this respect we fear some of them went a trifle beyond what was required by the rules of true, manly hospitality. It is no part of a man’s duty to hide his opinions, because they may be distasteful to his guest, and it is mean, base, false and cowardly to seem to concur in opinions and sentiments to which we are opposed for any reason whatever. The temptation to do something like this must have been very strong to those who had opened their doors to members of the assembly from South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and other slaveholding, slave-breeding, slave-driving, and slave-starving localities in the ‘Capital States.’ Having invited them, with all their prejudices in favor of man-stealing into the sanctuary of your homes, it would hardly be counted good breeding to shock the nerves of these heralds of the cross of Christ, by intimating to them that in your judgment to enslave a fellow man is a sin in the sight of God – for such an intimation on the part of wife, daughter, son, or brother would bring the ‘irrepressible conflict’ right among the dishes.

We apprehend that the subject was avoided, except in so far as the men-stealing divines themselves brought the subject forward. In such cases the Christian gentlemen and ladies of Rochester listened in the most amiable, attentive and respectful manner possible to the eloquent descriptions of the good condition of the slaves, their contentment, their intelligence and happiness, how they love their masters, how they hate the idea of being free, how they refuse their freedom when it is offered to them, how that slaveholders would be glad to get rid of their negroes, and how impossible it is for Christian ministers in a slave state to get along without slave servants, how the gospel is preached to them, how they get religion, and how they go to heaven when they die. To all this, you in your hospitality listened, and was too polite to contradict or call in question these miserable coverings of slaveholding villainy. You have the courage to take up the cross of Christ, which is fashionable, but none to take up that of his down-trodden and imbruted children.

We have yet to hear that a single pulpit in Rochester was refused to any slaveholding member of the General Assembly. When Rev. George B. Cheever, who happens to believe in other than a man-stealing God, comes here, he finds the doors of our evangelical Christian churches bolted and barred against him. Amidst all our churches, he goes to Corinthian Hall, and stands up to preach Christ where Christy’s Minstrels dance the Virginia breakdown. Not so with the Thornwell’s of South Carolina, and the Smiths of Virginia. These men, dressed up in the price of innocent blood, could be warmly welcomed to preach in all our fashionable evangelical pulpits. How flagrantly disgraceful is the contrast! No wonder that one of the members of the Assembly on the day before the meeting closed, should boast as he did that a few more meetings of the General Assembly held here would cure Rochester of its Abolitionism. The moral effect of the Assembly, so far as we have been able to discern it, was decidedly bad. It was a full dose of moral chloroform to the conscience of the place, and we are glad that the houses, streets, and pulpits of Rochester are no longer infested with the members of their brotherhood of man-stealers.

We received calls from several members from the slave States, who wished to see Frederick Douglass, as one of the curiosities of Rochester. We received them with neither bowie-knife nor revolver, but by faithful dealing endeavored and succeeded in making our office so warm that their visits were somewhat hasty ones.

During the whole two weeks the General Assembly was in session here, during all its utterances sky-ward, earth-ward and hell-ward, never a word was uttered which could in any way offend the most obdurate slave-holder or negro-hater, or infuse a ray of hope into the troubled bosom of the American millions in bondage. They passed a resolution declaring it was inexpedient to say anything on the subject of slavery, and went on fighting the Devil, and serving God with Bibles, prayers and psalms. Such is the stupendous religious sham which has just taken itself out of Rochester. It professed a deep solicitude for the poor heathen in the easter world, thousands of miles away, but had no concern for those in our own land. It clattered away about the great sin of idolatry in India, but had not a word to say about the horrid abominations of slavery. Its religion is one of new moons, Sabbaths, burnt offerings, sacrifices and solemn assemblies, and it has no heart to melt in mercy to the bondsman, and no arm of justice to break the slave’s chain. From such a church we reverently pray good Lord deliver us!

Our sin lies in our shameful acts, but also our shameful silence. The only true repentance for this is to use our voices loudly enough that there won’t be any more letters like this.



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