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“The Starting Point” of the Abolitionist Movement: Morgan Godwyn’s Plea to Evangelize Slaves

August 6, 2020

by Ellen Tucker

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936, American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/166444.

Frederick Douglass, in one of his last speeches, drew attention to a little-known book published in 1680, The Negroes’ and Indians’ Advocate, Suing for Their Admission Into the Church. Written by Rev. Morgan Godwyn, an Anglican missionary to Virginia and Barbados, the book appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury to authorize and encourage Anglican priests to baptize enslaved persons in the English colonies of America. Douglass calls Godwyn’s book “the first publication in assertion and vindication of any right of the Negro, of which I have any knowledge.”

Douglass spoke of the book before a largely African American audience, gathered on April 16, 1883 to celebrate the twenty-first anniversary of emancipation within the District of Columbia. Douglass pulled his copy of Godwyn’s small book from a coat pocket and held it up to his audience, describing it as “the starting point, the foundation of all the grand concession yet made to the claims, the character, the manhood and the dignity of the Negro.”

As Douglass points out, Godwyn did not argue for abolition – only for admission of slaves to the Christian church. Yet Douglass contends that the arguments Godwyn made for baptizing slaves laid the groundwork for abolition and pointed toward the inevitable extension of civil rights to black Americans.

During the first decades of slavery in America, most slave owners were reluctant to share the Christian faith with those they considered their property, for reasons Douglass calls “logical.” Slave owners contended that baptism

. . . could only be properly administered to free and responsible agents, men, who, in all matters of moral conduct, could exercise the sacred right of choice; and this proposition was very easily defended. For, plainly enough, the Negro did not answer that description. The law of the land did not even know him as a person. He was simply a piece of property, an article of merchandise, marked and branded as such, and no more fitted to be admitted to the fellowship of the saints than horse, sheep or swine. . . .

Admitting slaves to the Christian faith meant admitting them as fellow children of God, made in God’s image. It implied the equality of slave and master. Indeed, by “the common law at that time, baptism was made a sufficient basis for a legal claim for emancipation,” Douglass says.

Read more at Teaching American History’s sister site, Religion in American History.

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