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Questions Of Morals And Reform

Questions Of Morals And Reform


The strict keeping of Sunday was a characteristic of New England throughout the colonial era. Between the long services of the sanctuary, two of which were held by daylight, and the pious duties of the home, the day was so largely preoccupied that there would have been little room for diversion even had it been tolerated. Outside of New England, Sunday observance was less rigidly enforced. Virginia, it is true, started out with a strict injunction on the subject. But the scattered state of the population in that province, as in much of the South, placed the conduct of the people beyond the reach of careful oversight. Moreover, there was no such grim pertinacity in this quarter, on the part of ministers and magistrates, as was needful to sustain a strict Sabbath regime. In New England it was early a question whether the sacred day should begin at sunset, or at midnight, of Saturday. "The former computation was favored in Connecticut. The latter was approved by Massachusetts law." 1 Palfrey, History of New England, ii. 44.


Theatrical plays were regarded in the earlier times of New England as little better than sacrifices to the devil. In Boston a license for such diversions was first granted after the close of the colonial period. In their opposition to the theatre the Quakers agreed with the Puritans. The early laws of Pennsylvania forbade theatrical exhibitions "as tending to looseness and immorality." It was nearly seventy years before an attempt was made to introduce them into the province, and then they encountered a strong opposition. 2 Bowden, History of the Society of Friends in America, ii. 287, 288. In New York, as well as in Philadelphia, a large party was in favor of excluding the theatre, as late as 1785. Baltimore, on the other hand, and some other places were at that date quite enthusiastic patrons of the histrionic art. 3 J. B. McMaster, History of the People of the United States, i. 83-95.


In the direction of prison reform the colonial history shows very little trace of any humanitarian impulse. Some of the prisons, in their structure, appointments, and discipline, were a disgrace to civilization, pesthouses both physically and morally. 4 Ibid., i. 98-102.


The drinking habits of the people were little to their credit. Probably excess was not very common till the closing part of the seventeenth century; but from that time the waste and wreckage of the rum traffic covered an ever-enlarging area. The social code of the times made the proffering of liquors a matter of ordinary hospitality. They were expected to grace festival occasions, and were a regular appendix to funeral solemnities.


A vital sense of the enormous evils of intemperance seems first to have been aroused near the end of the eighteenth century. We read indeed that in the early days of the colonies some effort was made to restrict the sale of the deadly fire-water to the Indians; that Governor Winthrop opposed the custom of drinking healths as being accessory to intemperance; that the laws of Connecticut placed restrictions on the drinking of spirituous liquors, forbidding that a certain quantity should be exceeded at one time, and that tippling should occur after a certain hour in the evening. 1 Elliott, New England History, i. 483. We read also that rum was a prohibited article in Georgia from the founding of the colony. But the prohibitory policy was soon abandoned in Georgia, and such restrictions as were put on record elsewhere were of little practical avail. Temperance agitation, as a thing of persistence and increasing momentum, did not begin till the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The Methodist body at this time, in harmony with the precepts of Wesley, took decided action against the traffic in ardent spirits. The Conference of 1780 voted to disown any members engaged in the traffic. Three years later the Conference enjoined the preachers to instruct the people to keep clear of the wrong of making and selling liquors and also of using them "as drams." In the "General Rules," as approved by the Conference of 1784, refraining from buying, selling, and drinking spirituous liquors was included among the necessary outward tokens of a serious Christian purpose. Near the same time the Quakers, at their Pearly Meeting in New England, obligated themselves to the maintenance of temperance principles in their Society. In 1785 Dr. Benjamin Rush, of Philadelphia, appeared as an able champion of the temperance cause in an essay entitled "The Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body;" and in subsequent years his zeal for the reform was repeatedly manifested. The first temperance association in this country was formed in 1789 by two hundred or more farmers of Litchfield County, Connecticut, who pledged themselves to carry on their business without the use of distilled spirits as an article of refreshment for themselves or for those in their employ. 1 See Daniel Dorchester, Liquor Problem in All Ages; also, History of Christianity in the United States, pp. 351-355.


In a previous connection notice was taken of the spread of anti-slavery sentiments among civilians. It remains for us here to observe the advances made by such sentiments in the different religious communions.


The Quakers were among the foremost to protest against slavery, and to free themselves from all connection with the institution. As early as 1688 the German Quakers residing in Germantown, Pennsylvania, urged the inconsistency of buying, selling, and enslaving men. In 1696 the Yearly Meeting for that province advised the members of the Society to guard in the future against importing African slaves. In 1710 the Pennsylvania legislature, consisting mostly of Quakers, prohibited any further importation of Negroes. Shortly after the middle of the century, influenced by such apostles of emancipation as John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, the Quakers adopted a more decided policy. The Yearly Meeting of Pennsylvania in 1755 concluded that any member of the Society who should be concerned in importing or buying slaves ought to be reported for discipline. Three years later it was ordered that any persons buying, selling, or holding slaves should not be allowed to take part in the affairs of the Church. In 1776 it was voted to disown members who were in possession of slaves, and who would not execute proper instruments for giving them their freedom. 1 Bowden, History of the Society of Friends in America; Clarkson, Abolition of the African Slave-Trade.


The Congregationalists had come generally, before the close of the Revolutionary era, to be opposed to slavery. Samuel Hopkins of Newport bore an honorable part in stirring up conscience on the subject.


The Presbyterians at the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, in 1787, commended the interest manifested in the different States for promoting the abolition of slavery, and advised that care should be taken to educate those in bondage, so that they might be able to make a worthy use of freedom.


The Methodist Conference of 1780 pronounced slavery "contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society." It voted also to advise all Methodists to give freedom to their slaves. The General Conference of 1784 went still farther, and assumed to command instead of merely advising. In States where the laws allowed of manumission, it required every member, as a condition of continued fellowship, to emancipate, within a prescribed term of years, all slaves in his possession, and ordered that in the future no slaveholder should be counted eligible to membership. 1 Leroy M. Lee, Life and Times of Jesse Lee, pp. 165, 166; H.N. McTyeire, History of Methodism, pp. 377, 378. It was found, however, very difficult to carry through so heroic a measure. A large majority of Methodists were at that time residents of States in which slaveholding was a common practice. So strong an opposition was raised to the requisition of emancipation that the ministers felt that its execution was impracticable, and before the close of 1785 notice was given that a future Conference would consider the requisition in question, its immediate enforcement being waived, a retreat having once been made, it was no easy task to regain the former ground. In its "General Rules," however, the Methodist Church never ceased to keep on record a protest against slavery.


Strong ground was taken against slavery by the Baptist associations in Virginia (1787, 1789). They declared hereditary bondage a "violent deprivation of the rights of nature." 2 History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia, pp. 79, 303, 304. In the practical application of such views, however, the Baptists were subject to much the same embarrassments as the Methodists.


At the first Convention of Universalists, held in Philadelphia in 1790, the following resolution was adopted: "We believe it to be inconsistent with the union of the human race in a common Saviour, and the obligations to mutual and universal love which how from that union, to hold any part of our fellow-creatures in bondage. We therefore recommend a total refraining from the African trade, and the adoption of prudent measures for the gradual abolition of the slavery of the Negroes in our country." 1 Eddy, Universalism in America, i. 301.


The record shows unmistakably that opposition to slavery, on moral and religious grounds, was very widespread in the American churches in the years immediately following the declaration and the achievement of the country's independence.

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