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Theophilus Wylie, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and Slavery

Written by Wylie House Spring 2020 intern, Abe Nemon, Masters in Information & Library Science with a Rare Books & Manuscripts Specialization

Books in the Theophilus A. Wylie Library, Photo credit: Tyagen Miller

In my previous post about the library of Theophilus Wylie, I mentioned that it offers a window into some fascinating developments in American history prior to the Civil War, and that one of the ways I came to learn about this history was through the library itself and through reading the journals Theophilus Wylie kept from 1835 until the end of his life. One of the first things I learned through reading Theophilus Wylie’s journal is that his family tree tightly wound him to a milieu dominated by ministers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, in which his father, Samuel Brown Wylie, was a major figure. The most unusual qualities of this small but influential sect were their radical assertion of the supremacy of God’s laws over civil institutions like the U.S. Constitution, and their early and vehement opposition to the institution of slavery.

Origins of the Reformed Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Church emerged as the Church of Scotland in the 16th century, following the reformation ideas of the Swiss theologian John Calvin. But from the beginning, the Church of England sought to bring the Scottish church under its sway, which lead to repeated uprisings on the part of Scottish Presbyterians, who declared their independence from the English church through a series of unifying documents called covenants, the most significant of these being the Scottish National Covenant of 1637 and the Solemn League and Covenant published during the English Civil War period in 1643. The covenants declared the right of the Scottish Presbyterians to practice their own religion free from the influence of Catholic foreigners or the Episcopalian Church of England, and were signed during periods when followers of the Church of Scotland faced violent repression for openly practicing their faith. Those who secretly remained loyal to the covenants became known as the Covenanters, and alternately, the Reformed Presbyterians (to signal their loyalty to the ideals of the Reformation). They rejected any kind of political settlement with the powers-that-be, with many instead opting to emigrate from Scotland to Ireland when thousands were being killed under a brutal crackdown on Covenanters during the reign of Charles II. In Ireland they took to practicing their faith in secretive meetings called conventicles, which were closed to outsiders in order to avoid attracting the notice of the authorities. Covenanters were held in suspicion by their neighbors and labelled as “Phanaticks,” and they in turn remembered the sacrifices and martyrdom of their forebears, which caused them to hold even tighter to their heritage.[1]

In an entry for his journal dated August 27, 1838, Theophilus Wylie criticizes the depiction of the old Covenanters he read in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Old Mortality, saying that Scott “showed himself a partial writer. Exaggerating the fanaticism of the covenanters, & there was enough without exaggeration, & theorizing a gloss over the atrocities & villainy of the minions of the king. – But even with his representation I would rather be of the insurgents than of those who were endeavoring to put them down.” It is likely that Wylie read about many Scottish leaders of this time period in his 1853 copy of John Howie’s Scots Worthies (TAW 0394).

A group of Reformed Presbyterians immigrated to America in the year 1718, ostensibly to escape persecution in Ireland, though once out of danger they reunited with the Associate Presbyterian Church in 1782, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America largely ended its existence in America for two decades. But a second Reformed Presbyterian Church in America was begun at the end of the 18th century, at a time when the French Revolution broke out and England went to war with France in 1793. Irish Republicans were agitating for a revolt against the English Crown, and Reformed Presbyterian ministers like Rev. James McKinney were forced to leave their homes in County Antrim in Ireland after facing potential imprisonment for sedition because they had suggested in sermons that the Revolution was a sign that the end-times were near at hand. There are also strong indications that McKinney, William Gibson, and protégés like John Black and Samuel B. Wylie had ties to the United Irishmen whose revolt against England was put down in 1798, causing many who had participated in the uprising to scatter to other lands.[2]

When Reformed Presbyterian Church ministers James McKinney and William Gibson arrived in the United States, they brought with them four students: John Black, Alexander McLeod, Thomas Donnelly, and Samuel Brown Wylie (the father of Theophilus A. Wylie.) They licensed all four as ministers in 1798, and assigned each young churchman a geographic region from which to grow their ministry, with John Black ministering to what was then the western frontier from Pittsburgh, McLeod to the Northeast United States from New York, Donnelly to the South in South Carolina, and Samuel Brown Wylie to eastern Pennsylvania and its environs as minister of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.[3]

A Big Presbyterian Family

Samuel Brown Wylie, Portrait by John Neagle

Intermarriage was common among these first families of Reformed American Presbyterians. After John Black established his ministry in Pittsburgh, Samuel B. Wylie officiated his marriage to Betsy Watson, and John Black in turn officiated at Samuel Wylie’s marriage to (Theophilus’s mother) Margaret Watson. Theophilus’s sister Mary Thompson Wylie married John Niel McLeod, who after serving as pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, NY, inherited the pastorship of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in New York City from his father, Alexander McLeod. When Alexander McLeod passed away, Samuel B. Wylie wrote an extensive Memoir of Alexander McLeod, which tells the story of the founding of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and when Samuel B. Wylie passed away in 1852, John Niel McLeod returned the gesture by writing his eulogy.

In a career spanning half a century, Samuel B. Wylie established himself as a significant figure not only in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, but in multiple educational institutions in Philadelphia. He became the pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1803, was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Pennsylvania in 1828, and afterwards was made professor of ancient languages, and then the Vice-Provost of the University of Pennsylvania from 1836 to 1845. Together with the Reverend James Gray, Samuel B. Wylie also started a primary school teaching English and Classics, which he later put in the charge of his nephew, Rev. Samuel Wylie Crawford. Referred to in Theophilus Wylie’s journals as “Cousin C,” Samuel Wylie Crawford is depicted in later memoirs of former students as a strict disciplinarian who did not spare the rod, though Theophilus Wylie seems to have had a good relationship with his cousin, for his library contains both a 1615 edition of the King James Bible (TAW 0524) Crawford had received from John Black’s son Alexander W. Black and an 1829 New Testament (TAW 0821) inscribed “To my Beloved Cousin, The. A. Wylie.” The English teacher of the school was the elder Thomas McAdam, and between 1833 and 1837, Theophilus Wylie, Thomas McAdam Jr., and William Alexander worked as assistant teachers at this school.

In addition to his many other roles, Samuel B. Wylie operated the largest Reformed Presbyterian seminary in the United States, with former pupils who would go on to make up a generation of Reformed Presbyterian church leadership across the United States. When considering the illustrious careers of Samuel B. Wylie’s other mentees and adopted sons – men like John McKinley, John Niel McLeod, Francis S. Beattie, John Fries Frazer, nephew Samuel Crawford Wylie, and even Theophilus’s younger brother Theodore W.J. Wylie, who became the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia after his father’s death in 1852 – it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Theophilus Wylie was far from the first in his father’s lights, and it becomes easier to understand why Theophilus so frequently describes in his journals having feelings of inadequacy. Even so, there is no little evidence both in Theophilus Wylie’s library and his journal that Samuel B. Wylie personally superintended his education and cared about his son’s future. In Theophilus’s 1818 edition of Clarke’s Homer (TAW 0452), he writes in an endearing, child-like hand, “This is my Homer. It belongs to T Wylie,” and in the back of the book he writes, “T. A. Wylie began this June 14 1824,” and “Read the whole Iliad with Father.”

Theophilus Wylie was also during these years studying to become a minister, a vocation he felt that he had neither the desire nor the aptitude to undertake, likely following the expectations of his father. While part of his father’s seminary, Theophilus was tasked with writing and delivering sermons to the congregation, a skill he assiduously tried to develop despite making efforts to learn. He frequently outlined sermons he heard by others in his journal, and regularly consulted reference works like A Concordance to the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament (TAW 0024) to come up with subject prompts for a given phrase from each week’s Bible chapter, an activity Theophilus frequently refers to in his journal as “writing from Brown.” He was also an avid reader of both secular periodicals like the Edinburgh Review as well as religious periodicals like The Christian Messenger, The Christian Record, and The Millenial Harbinger. He continued reading and writing sermons even after changing his primary focus to scientific matters after he obtained a position as a professor of natural philosophy at Indiana College in 1837, and from 1838 to 1869 he served as the pastor of Bloomington’s Reformed Presbyterian Church. Another activity Theophilus Wylie frequently engaged in – one of the most common book-related social activities of the literate classes in the United States during this time period – was attending literary societies, where the attendees would read and discuss passages in a book, though the content could range from fiction to science to religion. Religious societies served as another venue to hear sermons and speeches – the TED talks of their day.

While in Philadelphia, Wylie also attended a meetings of the Missionary Society organized by Samuel B. Wylie, which supported the mission of church elders Rev. James R. Campbell and James Craig to found a Reformed Presbyterian ministry in India, and a number of publications found in Theophilus Wylie’s library from the Reformed Presbyterian Board of Missions would have provided him with updates on the progress of missionaries sent around the world. In one remarkable dispatch to The Missionary Chronicle from 1845, Rev. James R. Campbell gives short sketches on the children at the orphanage that he founded in Saharanpur, India. The orphans have all been given names corresponding to figures in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Samuel B. Wylie: there’s a boy named Samuel B. Wylie, another named for Theophilus’s brother Theodore W.J. Wylie, a John Black, a John N. McLeod, a John McKinley, and even a boy named James R. Campbell; there is, however, no orphan at Campbell’s school named Theophilus Wylie.[4]

Despite his continued service as a minister, Theophilus Wylie seems to have been decidedly less sure of what he believed when it came to the great question of the day: slavery.

Reformed Presbyterians and American Slavery

Even in a new country, the Reformed Presbyterians retained their oppositional approach, for one key tenet of their beliefs was that God’s laws are supreme over the laws of human governments. In Ireland, Covenanter preachers would tell their parishioners not to pay taxes, since it was sinful to support a government that oppressed them, and which was founded on sin. In America, Reformed Presbyterian theologians would envision the new government not as one that ought to be founded on a division between church and state, but rather as one that ought to operate in comportment with the divine will. They believed the United States Constitution was a fatally flawed document. As William Melancthon Glasgow put it in his History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America:

Its willful omission of all reference to God the Author, Christ the King, and the Words of God as the Supreme Law of nations and civil government; its sanction and protection of human slavery, and other permissions of evil, excluded all conscientious Covenanters from swearing allegiance to it.[5]

There are two sermons in Theophilus Wylie’s library that directly address the issue of slavery. Though John Black was later to publish the sermon Slavery Contrary to the Bible (TAW 0363) in 1839, Alexander McLeod authored the earlier sermon, Negro Slavery Unjustifiable in 1802 (TAW 0548). McLeod had been asked in 1800 to become pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Coldenham, New York, but refused to accept upon learning that some of the parishioners owned slaves.[6] The roots of anti-slavery beliefs in the Covenanter church had actually gone back to the 17th century, when Presbyterians sent into exile were sold into indentured servitude, so that Covenanter ministers responded by denouncing human bondage in all its forms.[7] Shortly after Alexander McLeod raised his objection to slavery among the parishioners at Coldenham, the Rev. James McKinney called together a committee of their small group of churchmen, which promptly ruled that “no slaveholder should be allowed the communion of this church.” McKinney then embarked on a tour with Samuel B. Wylie to deliver this message to Reformed Presbyterian communities in Chester County, South Carolina. They estimated that “no less than three thousand guineas were sacrificed on the altar of principle,” with only one person refusing to give up his slaves, who was excommunicated as a result. Samuel Wylie later wrote of the decision to ban slave-holding in the Reformed Presbyterian church in America, “There was no dissenting voice in condemning the nefarious traffic in human flesh. From that period forward, none either practicing or abetting slavery in any shape, has been found on the records of our ecclesiastical connection.”

Samuel Wylie would later attract a great deal of attention with his own sermon on the relationship between the Reformed Presbyterian Church and the United States government, The Two Sons of Oil (1806), in which he argued that both the Church (“the minister”) and the civil government (“the magistrate”) had been anointed by God to carry out his will. He sharply criticized the United States government for enabling immorality, and furnished its acceptance of slavery as one of the chief moral failings that should lead Covenanters to reject fealty to the Constitution:

Strange it is, indeed, that in a land of such boasted liberty, such horrid inhumanity should be tolerated! It is contrary to the Declaration of Independence, and most of the state constitutions, which justly declare, “that all men are created free and equal, and that Liberty is one of the invaluable rights with which their Creator has endowed them.” Is it not strangely inconsistent, that the constitution, the paramount law of the land, should declare all men to be free, and the laws, pretended to be constitutional, doom a certain portion of them to hopeless bondage, and subject them to the wanton barbarity of savage and inhuman masters, who, in many instances, treat their brutes with more tenderness? […] Indeed it is too shocking to find advocates among any but those whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron. Suffice it to say, at present, that there is one precept given by the Saviour, declared to be a summary of the law and the prophets, viz.; “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matt. vii. 12. To which the practice of slaveholding is flatly repugnant.[8]

The Reformed Presbyterian Church’s opposition to slavery and the United States Constitution marked them out as radicals in the early nineteenth century, when at the same time the invention of the cotton gin and the Industrial Revolution were leading to a massive expansion in the number of slaves in the American South. Cotton, and the slave labor needed to process it, was creating vast fortunes both for Southern plantation owners as well as Northern industrialists operating textile mills, and by 1830 the United States was producing over half the world’s cotton.[9]

The connection between slavery, technology, and the early Republic’s drive to become an economic superpower was explicitly made by Thomas P. Jones in an 1827 address at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. After speaking at length about the progress America had made in the building of railroads, canals, and factories, Jones gets to his main argument, “I have, for some years, been convinced, that the slaves in those states might be advantageously employed in the manufacturing of some staple articles, and more particularly in that of cotton. …” I extract the following remarks from one of the essays upon this subject, which appeared first in the Ariel, published at Natchez, Mississippi: “Strange as it may appear to those who have never observed for themselves, nor reflected on this matter, it is demonstrably true, that slaves are the most profitable of all operatives in the business of manufacturing coarse fabrics, where ingenuity has furnished them with suitable machinery.”[10]

Jones goes on to say that even though he does not personally approve of slavery, moral compromises must be made in the name of progress, slaves don’t have it so bad (and other likely stories.) But in the climate of exponential economic growth and a society that viewed science and technological growth as unalloyed goods, to oppose slavery as loudly as the Covenanters did was, in the eyes of many Americans, to threaten progress and promote rifts between the North and the South; Jones’s address to the Franklin Institute was published in Philadelphia by Judah Dobson, who is referred to several times in Theophilus Wylie’s journal as a bookseller he frequented to purchase books, maps, and magazines, and this an example of how the anti-slavery viewpoint heard at home from his father compared with the general hostility to that viewpoint in the broader culture.

In his Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution, Joseph Moore sums up the significance of Covenanters in history of American abolitionism in this way:

Covenanters mounted a witness against the sin of slavery unlike any other. First, their antislavery ideals antedated even the Quaker abolitionist movement; Covenanters were some of the first people in Britain or America to take a public stand against the institution. Second, they created a unique biblical interpretation that reconciled biblical literalism, with its clear sanction of slavery and abolitionism, with its emphasis on human liberty in a state of nature. Third, Covenanters in the South tested the limits of pro-slavery hegemony by publically lauding the American Colonization Society as the nation’s best hope to end slavery. […] Finally, Covenanters gave an unambiguous interpretation of the cause of the Civil War. They testified that the war was God’s conflict with America for the sin of slavery.[11]

Theophilus Wylie and Slavery

Theophilus Adam Wylie

Theophilus Wylie only mentions slavery outright on a handful of occasions in his journal – an apparent reticence to talk about the subject that seems notable in itself. On July 29, 1835, Wylie reports having gone to the Masonic Hall, where he saw Joice Heth, an African American enslaved woman touring with P.T. Barnum (she was his first circus attraction), who promotional posters claimed to have been born in 1674, which would have made her 161 years old. After some credulous musing on how his imagination was fired thinking what it must been like to have been alive in the 17th century, Theophilus Wylie’s description of her physical appearance – “She showed some liveliness when the flies plagued her, other times she appeared quite stupid” – does not seem to provide any clear evidence one way or the other regarding his attitudes towards slavery. He reports in his journal entry for May 31, 1835 reading a book that seems to be William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity, one of the most influential books in the history of the abolitionist movement, but all he says of it is that “he handled the subject with his style pretty and illustrations excellent,” and there are no copies of the book extant in his library.

A more revealing occasion, however, occurs Monday, August 24th 1835, as Theophilus Wylie reports attending “a meeting of young men, called to express their disapprobation of the fanaticism of the Abolitionists” at Philadelphia’s Musical Fund Society on Locust Street. Exact details of this meeting can be found in an August 29, 1835 article in Niles Weekly Register, edited by Hezekiah Niles and at that time one of the most widely read newspapers in America. Niles presents his own account of the meeting as an example of a number of meetings across the country, and the editorial slant is decidedly anti-abolitionist:

Immense meetings of the people have been held, or will be holden in east and north, as well as in the west and south, concerning the doings of the anti-slavery folks—two or three of which we publish by way of specimens of the rest. The effect of these things will be the constitution of a mighty moral, as well as physical force, to act against the fanatics, and the slaves, as conservators of the public peace.[12]

The meeting was chaired by one Mortin McMichael, who opened the meeting and (in Theophilus Wylie’s opinion) stated the object of the meeting “with considerable eloquence.” Next to speak was Jesse R. Burden esq., who Theophilus mocks and says, “His speech was about as ridiculous as his face, its principle object seemed to be to prove that slavery was in perfect accordance with the constitution of the U.S. – I would judge from his speech that he was a man of little mind and no principle, ready to say anything to please the people.” (Wylie even includes a drawing of Burden’s “comical Phiz.”) But then after him Joseph Ingersoll gets up and gives a speech, and Theophilus reacts to what Ingersoll says by exclaiming that “any one might see that he was a polished gentleman and scholar, neither of which friend Jesse R. seemed to be.”

Now it may seem very strange for the son of the author of The Two Sons of Oil and close relative to the authors of such tracts as Negro Slavery Unjustified and Slavery Contrary to the Bible to be so much as attending, much less responding in these peculiar ways, at an angry meeting of anti-abolitionists. But these responses actually illustrate the complexity of Theophilus Wylie’s early views regarding slavery.

“His speech was about as ridiculous as his face.” Drawing from Theophilus Wylie’s journal entry on a meeting where the participants debated the abolitionist response to slavery. Credit: IU Archives

The second speaker, Jesse Reading Burden (1796 – 1875), was an attorney and politician who was the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolishment of Slavery – in other words, one of those “radical” “His speech was about as ridiculous as his face.” Drawing from Theophilus Wylie’s journal entry on a meeting where the participants debated the abolitionist response to slavery. Credit: IU Archivesabolitionists. The argument that Theophilus calls “ridiculous” – that the United States Constitution fully sanctions slavery, therefore making the U.S. Constitution immoral – echoes both his father’s claims in the Two Sons of Oil, and the claims of James Renwick Willson, a fiery pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church who William Melancthon Glasgow describes as “the most powerful preacher the Covenanter Church in America has ever produced.”[13] (Though only one issue [TAW 0709] of Willson’s Evangelical Witness periodical appears in Theophilus Wylie’s library.) Willson became alternately notorious and admired for publishing and delivering before the New York State legislature in Albany a sermon called Prince Messiah’s Claims to Dominion Over All Governments. In this uncompromising sermon, Willson goes further than even Samuel B. Wylie, stating that those who refuse to submit to God and govern according to his divine wishes are sinners, that the United States Constitution not only endorses slavery, but the Congress and the Executive Branch had mobilized state power to protect the slave trade, that it was a national trade and the foundation of an evil economic system, and that founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were deists and atheists and slave-owning sinners who would bring the wrath of God down on the nation. After Willson delivered this speech in Albany, crowds of angry anti-abolitionists burned his pamphlets on a bonfire in the city square and burned him in effigy. His sermon also precipitated a split in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1833 between so-called followers of the Old Light, like Willson, who took an uncompromising view towards secular society, and followers of the New Light, among them Samuel B. Wylie, who now wanted to take a more compromising position and achieve an end to slavery by some other means – an event Theophilus Wylie alludes to in his journal entry for January 20, 1833, when he says,

To describe the commotions in the Ecclesistical condition of our church would require “a forty-parson”, factum! I don’t know how to begin and if I could begin, I do not think I could ever get to an end. There are two parties, as regards number nearly equal which fight using as weapons the verbua lingua [words of tongue] most furiously. At some future time, perhaps I may give sketch of this battle, if I were a poet I would make an epic of it & call it the Wilsoniad or more classically the Voluseniad or perhaps still better the Cainocapalaiophotomachia which is being interpreted, the battle of the old & new lights.

In the same entry, Theophilus Wylie reports being sent to Wilmington to fetch Reverend Samuel Gayley, who will report to the Presbytery on political developments in the nation’s capital regarding “Gen. Jackson’s late proclamation & message with regard to the nullifiers.” With the Nullification Crisis of 1833, many of the Reformed Presbyterian (and anti-slavery) communities in the South were imperiled by rising and oftentimes violent hostility to the abolitionist cause.

But the position of Joseph R. Ingersoll, the last speaker at the putatively anti-abolitionist meeting Theophilus attends, signals the direction that the followers of the New Light wanted their anti-slavery activism to go to. Ingersoll, together with many in the circle of Samuel B. Wylie and Alexander McCleod, was a supporter of the American Colonization Society, which advocated for black slaves to be freed by allowing them to leave and create their own colonies in Africa. Supporters of this movements (in a rather paternalistic fashion) argued that the only plausible way that black slaves would be freed is if it was agreed to send them back to Africa to found their own colonies in Liberia, and they regarded this as a moderate position lying between two extremes of the pro-slavery point of view and the anti-slavery point of view, and a position that was the only one anti-slavery whites in the South could safely advocate without extreme reprisals from neighbors.[14]

Of course, not all Covenanters were in agreement with this purported moderation. James Renwick Willson, in an 1839 address regarding the freeing of slaves in Antigua, powerfully deconstructs the hypocrisies and bad assumptions tied up in the “moderate” view. After pointing out that actual freed slaves evinced little desire to emigrate from the land of their birth to Liberia, Willson writes:

But, after all, why this dread of a free colored population among the abettors of slavery? Slaveholders do not complain of the African race living among them in a state of slavery; and the advocates of slavery among us in the free states do not appear to think the Southern planters afflicted by two millions of colored people living among them. This whole outcry originates in a deep contempt and hatred of two millions of men; and a fear that, if set free, they will participate in that religious, intellectual, and moral culture that elevates humanity.[15]

It is not clear whether Theophilus Wylie was a total convert to the New Light point of view. In his journals he reports on two occasions attending meetings of activists with the African Colonization Movement, but on another occasion he also goes to an abolitionist meeting and – finding it poorly attended – immediately leaves. There is one more episode recounted in Theophilus’s journal from the 1830s that points to his overall sense of confusion and ambivalence regarding the issue of slavery. On August 9, 1835, Theophilus goes to Judah Dobson’s to get some pamphlets and book, then goes to the house of a Mr. Scott, “and was there consulted, as a literary man! by Mr. Greaves [unknown], on the Curse of Canaan, whether that applied to the Negroes or not, was not very well prepared, and perhaps at last he thought he had got the wrong &c and then home.” It is hard to parse this interaction, but this Mr. Greaves seems to be touting the idea of the Curse of Canaan (also known as the Curse of Ham), a disputed reading of the Bible which holds that African people are descended from Noah’s cursed son Ham, an idea which was used to denigrate African Americans and justify slavery. It is difficult to ascertain is whether Theophilus was caught flat-footed either because he initially felt inclined to argue an opposite position but was unprepared, or whether he had simply never encountered the argument before in the first place.

Problematically, the trail of evidence for Theophilus’s views on slavery runs cold for the ensuing two decades as Theophilus gains his position as a professor of natural philosophy at Indiana College. His journal entries become more terse and lacking in narrative detail, but when we next encounter an incident suggestive of his views, he seems to have moved to an ardent pro-abolitionist position – as did many Americans in the northern states in the years leading up to the Civil War. In an entry in his journal dated January 30, 1857, he writes that he “read Senator Wilson’s admirable speech on the Presidents Message. The senator lifts up his voice like a man. – Heard yesterday that the Scoundrel Brooks of S.C. had been called to his final acct.” The events alluded to are the so-called Brooks-Sumner Affair, in which a pro-slavery Democratic Senator from South Carolina, Preston Brooks, beat the anti-slavery Republican Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in retaliation for a speech Sumner had given criticizing slave-holders. The event outraged northerners while many southerners applauded Brooks’s actions, and Brooks also challenged Senator Henry Wilson, the Republican leader of the pro-abolitionist faction in the Senate to a duel, but Wilson declined. It is likely that a number of events including the Brooks-Sumner Affair, passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Border War in Kansas, and the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would have hardened Theophilus’s views (as they did for many in the North) against slavery and made them supporters of Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860.

Another influence on Theophilus Wylie’s thinking may have been his involvement with the religious community in Bloomington. In his 1940 study of Bloomington’s religious communities, Anton T. Boisen (T.A. Wylie’s grandson, a chaplain and a notable figure in psychiatry and the study of American religion) writes that when his grandfather arrived in Bloomington in 1837, he found the city’s Presbyterians split into no fewer than four separate sects: a sect of the Reformed and Associated Presbyterians that had merged together in 1782; a Seceder church consisting of those who refused to go along with this merger; the Reformed Presbyterian church Theophilus Wylie became pastor of, which was of the New Light persuasion espoused by Theophilus Wylie’s father; and a church that held to the Old Light ideals, which was led by Rev. James Faris, a native originally of Chester County, South Carolina who had decamped to Bloomington in 1816 with his Covenanter followers when their anti-slavery views made remaining in the South untenable. Boisen writes that the Reformed Presbyterian communities of Bloomington were considered a friendly place for escaped slaves to be directed as part of the Underground Railroad, and Faris was among those known to be either supportive or active in this effort.[16] The suitability of Reformed Presbyterian communities as way stations for the Underground Railroad would have been enhanced by the fact that, unlike the non-violent Quakers, the Reformed Presbyterians had no qualms about using firearms to protect themselves.[17] It is possible that living and preaching in an anti-slavery community on the periphery of American settlement contributed to turning Theophilus Wylie against slavery, though his journal offers scant evidence to support this. We do find that in 1868 (three years after the Civil War) Theophilus Wylie seems to have been part of some kind of reconciliation between the New Light and the Old Light churches in Bloomington, though as with all histories of the uniting and dividing and subdividing of Christian sects, the story is complicated.[18]

[1] On the “cellular” structure of radical Presbyterianism communities and the use of the term “Phanatick,” see Moore, Joseph S. Irish Radicals, Southern Conservatives: Slavery, Religious Liberty, and the Presbyterian Fringe in the Atlantic World, 1637-1877, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2011. 3473475.

[2] Roulston, William J., “The Reformed Presbyterian Church and Antislavery in Nineteenth-Century America,” Faith and Slavery in the Presbyterian Diaspora, Taylor, William Harrison and Peter C. Messer eds., Lehigh University Press, 2016, p. 152. Cf. Chapter 19, “Reformed Presbyterians and Rebellion-Related Migration,” by Peter Gilmore in Exiles of ’98: Ulster Presbyterians and the United States, Gilmore, Peter, Parkhill, Trevor and William J. Roulston, eds., Ulster Historical Foundation, 2018.

[3] The most comprehensive first-hand account of these events may be found in Wylie, Samuel Brown, A Memoir of Alexander McLeod, Chs. 3-4.

[4] James R. Campbell, “Foreign Missions,” The Missionary Chronicle, May 1845, p. 68.

[5] Glasgow, William Melancthon, History of the Reformed Presbyterian church in America: with sketches of all her ministry, congregations, missions, institutions, publications, etc., Baltimore: Hill & Harvey, 1888, p. 79.

[6] Ibid, pp. 79-80. McLeod, Rev. Alexander. Negro Slavery Unjustifiable: A Discourse. New York: Alexander McLeod, 1802, p. [5]. Wylie, Samuel Brown, Memoir of Alexander McLeod, New York : C. Scribner, 1855. pp. 53-54.

[7] Roulston, ibid., p. 154 and n. 22.

[8] Wylie, Samuel Brown. The Two Sons of Oil; or, The Faithful Witness for the Magistracy and Ministry Upon A Scriptural Basis, Greensburg [Pa.] : from the Press of Snowden & M’Corkle, 1803, p. 61-62.

[9] Moore, Joseph S., Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ Into the Constitution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016, cf. chapter 4, “Slavery and the Sin of Secular America” and passim.

[10] Jones, Thomas P., An address on the progress of manufactures and internal improvement, in the United States; and particulary, on the advantages to be derived from the employment of slaves in the manufacturing of cotton and other goods. Delivered in the hall of the Franklin Institute, November 6, 1827, Philadelphia: Judah Dobson, pp. 10-11.

[11] Moore, Founding Sins, p. 88.

[12] Niles, Hezekiah. “Meeting at Philadelphia.” Niles Weekly Register. Fourth Series, No. 26, Vol. XII. Baltimore: August 29, 1835, p. 456. Accessed here.

[13] Glasgow, History of the Reformed Presbyterian church in America, p. 725.

[14] On Samuel Wylie and Alexander McLeod’s involvement in the ACS, see Moore, Founding Sins, pp. 99-100. On the topic generally, see Burin, Eric, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.

[15] Willson, James R. An Address on West India Emancipation. Delivered on the First of August, 1838, before the Union Anti-Slavery Society of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Merrihew and Gunn, 1838. Moore (p. 100) quotes John Black in The Bible against Slavery (1839) espousing similar sentiments regarding the hatred underlying the hypocrisy.

[16] Boisen, Anton T., “Divided Protestantism in a Midwest County: A Study in the Natural History of Organized Religion,” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1940), p. 365. Boisen does not give a source for this claim, but in a captivating 1917 article Henry Lester Smith relates a number of individuals, based on oral testimony from descendants, attested to have been active in the Underground Railroad in and around Bloomington. Smith, Henry Lester. “The Underground Railroad in Monroe County.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, 1917, pp. 288–297.

[17] Moore, Founding Sins, p. 98-99: “What set Covenanters apart from other stations was the use of force. Unlike the pacifist Quakers, the Covenanters held no reservations about employing firearms in a righteous cause.”

[18] Boisen, “Divided Protestantism,” p. 366, n. 9.

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