George Bourne and the Moment we keep missing.

The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable 

Racial and ethnic divide has plagued our country throughout history, and it continues today. I believe strongly that one of the best ways forward is to look backward in history and understand the forces at work in key moments so that we can see what things we missed. It is through this understanding that we can be equipped to not miss those moments again. One of those moments in Presbyterian church history centers around a man named George Bourne. Most people have never heard of George Bourne, which is unfortunate. Bourne was a 19th century Presbyterian Pastor and an early advocate of the immediate emancipation of all slaves in America. And these views got him in trouble in the Presbyterian Church. In 1816 Bourne wrote his most important work, The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable. Bourne wrote: “Therefore, every man who holds Slaves and who pretends to be a Christian or a Republican, is either an incurable Idiot who cannot distinguish good from evil, or an obdurate sinner who resolutely defies every social, moral, and divine requisition. Evangelical charity induces the hope that he is an ignoramus.”- George Bourne1

The basic argument of Bourne's book was that slavery was in fact man-stealing, and therefore it was a real, personal, and heinous sin. Bourne argued that it was condemned by the creed of America, even though that creed (the Declaration of Independence) wasn't written with African Americans in mind, but intentionally avoided the topic of slavery. Not only did the American creed condemn it by asserting the value of all humans, but so also did the Presbyterian creed. The Westminster Larger Catechism expressly condemned man-stealing.2

“Therefore, every man who holds Slaves and who pretends to be a Christian or a Republican, is either an incurable Idiot who cannot distinguish good from evil, or an obdurate sinner who resolutely defies every social, moral, and divine requisition. Evangelical charity induces the hope that he is an ignoramus.”
— George Bourne

Ultimately, the Bible was the surest guide for Bourne, who concluded that slavery was a violation of the 9th commandment, in lying that slaves were less than full humans; a violation of the 10th commandment in coveting their very persons as possessions; and a violation of the 8th commandment in stealing them and treating them as your very own property. Because of this, the church could not tolerate a position of moderation that advocated for gradual emancipation. The church must demand that Christians, and in particular elders and pastors, repent immediately and free those that they have wrongfully enslaved or face censure. Bourne consistently applied these views as he withheld communion from slaveholders. 

However, as his views got out to the other ministers in his Presbytery (several of whom were slaveholders) Bourne was brought up on charges. After a drawn out process, the General Assembly of 1818 upheld the decision of his presbytery to depose George Bourne, that is to remove him from the ministry for wrongdoing. It is this General Assembly of 1818 that is so fascinating to me, and illuminating even today. 

The General Assembly of 1818

You see, the General Assembly of 1818 includes one of the strongest condemnations of slavery prior to the Civil War by any Presbyterian body. Yes, you read that right. The General Assembly of 1818 condemned slavery and George Bourne (who condemned slavery). Why? What is the contradiction? Upon further investigation, the condemnation of slavery in 1818 actually meant very little, especially when viewed along with the condemnation of Bourne. The statement from the General Assembly includes declarations of slavery as a “gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God.” And yet as something which “creates a paradox in the moral system” and a “practice into which Christian people have most inconsistently fallen” which sounds similar to Aaron’s defense before Moses of the golden calf leaping out of the fire. It includes an exhortation to those who “forbear harsh censures, and uncharitable reflections on their brethren, who unhappily live among slaves whom they cannot immediately set free.” (Which essentially means Bourne hurt some feelings, as if it was acceptable to compromise truth and black lives for the sake of the feelings of their white masters).

The statement fought against Bourne’s immediate abolition and promoted the current thoughts of gradual emancipation and colonization based on the “number of the slaves, their ignorance, and their vicious habits generally.” When viewed against the backdrop of the prevailing views throughout the United States at this time, it seems that the assembly generally, and the writers of this declaration specifically (which included Bourne’s most ardent opponent and staunch slaveholder George A. Baxter) adopted the popular beliefs that blacks were inherently lesser and freeing them would ensure revolution and destroy the peace of the nation. Although it stated the antislavery position stronger than any assembly had before, the statement and its universal acceptance by even slaveholders had almost no positive affect in changing the situation. There were “no teeth in this resolution” or ability to take the statements about the inconsistency of slavery and christianity and make the church accountable. There were no threats of defrocking slaveholders but expressed for them “tender sympathy,” and in fact an abolitionist was defrocked in the same meeting!

It is hard to improve upon the conclusion of Christie and Dummond in what is one of the only histories written on Bourne, "In all respects the emphasis was not on rights and equality of all men but upon welfare and harmony within the Church. The resolution was a pious declaration, both a generalization and a rationalization, an ever ready defense for inaction. It was a fitting climax to the endorsement of expulsion from the Gospel ministry of a great intellect, and man of courage, by what, on careful examination, bears all the markings of a Kangaroo Court." 3

Why is this important?

Well, I believe this General Assembly set a trajectory for the way that American Presbyterians specifically and white Christians more generally responded to (and continue to respond to) issues of racial injustice. This trajectory is one of white supremacy and inaction. This stance of slavery as evil, but not something that the church will do anything about intensified the abolitionists and hardened the pro-slavery Presbyters. The open letter addressing the church from the 1861 General Assembly of the Confederate States used this logic of inaction to argue for its separation from the abolitionist Northerners: "In the first place, we would have it distinctly understood that, in our ecclesiastical capacity, we are neither the friends nor the foes of slavery; that is to say, we have no commission either to propagate or abolish it. The policy of its existence or non-existence is a question with exclusively belongs to the State. We have no right, as a Church to enjoin it as a duty, or to condemn it as a sin." 4

This is one of the key points in which the Assembly of 1818 erred. By condemning slavery as evil, but stopping short of Bourne’s condemnation of it as man-stealing, a personal sin, the Assembly effectively handcuffed itself from further action. This meant that the church could argue that it is the abolitionist and not they themselves that are in err. In a pro-slavery Civil War preparatory sermon, Presbyterian Benjamin Palmer claimed that, “the Abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic.”5

The second negative consequence of the 1818 assembly is that its arguments for gradual emancipation and colonization continued on the false footing of white supremacy. As was noted above in the declaration, the prospect of immediate emancipation was dismissed because of the condition of the slaves. Now, this must be understood within the growing views of the nation towards the African slaves which was one of racial superiority. As freed blacks in the North like Richard Allen so effectively argued as early as 1794, “will you, because you have reduced us to the unhappy condition our color is in, plead our incapacity for freedom... as a sufficient cause for keeping us under the grievous yoke?”6 If it is the conditions which slavery has created, which make immediate freedom supposedly not possible, how can those enslaved be blamed for this situation?

What Bourne had so accurately described in The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable was the equality of African Americans and White Americans. This is what made slavery such an evil man-stealing. The 1818 assembly did not take this position as it consciously avoided this language. And as the abolitionist movement gathered momentum under William Lloyd Garrison, the arguments put forward for gradualism and colonization were aptly shown in light of racial bias. Garrison, under the influence of Bourne, fought for “the equal citizenship of black and white” and pointed out the racial superiority argument inherent in gradualism. Blacks could not be freed immediately because they were lesser was an absurd lie according to Garrison and Bourne.7 Such support of gradualism in the 1818 assembly betrays the sense of racial superiority that was pervasive throughout the Presbyterian Church. 

Such arguments were hardened in the Civil-War era. Returning again to the 1861 General Assembly letter from the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States, “As long as that race [African], in its comparative degradation, co-exists, side by side, with the white, bondage is its normal condition.” Although it is difficult to read, it is important to quote again from Palmer, noting that this sermon called for arms to protect the institution of slaveryspecifically on this foundation: "The worst foes of the black race are those who have intermeddler on their behalf. We know better than others that every attribute of their character fits them for dependence and servitude. By nature, the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun, they are also the most helpless; and no calamity can befall them greater than the loss of that protection they enjoy under this patriarchal system... Their residence here, in the presence of the vigorous Saxon race, would be but the signal for their rapid extermination before they had time to waste away through listlessness, filth, and vice. Freedom would be their vice." 8

Though the 1818 Assembly’s declaration does not rise to this level, it certainly exhibited the general feeling towards blacks that in their current condition, freedom was dangerous. And it did not assert their full humanity, when it had access to Bourne’s book, which did so compellingly. The combination of in-action and a racial bias against blacks mark the missed moment for American Presbyterians specifically on the question of slavery and more broadly on the question of race in the American experiment. The Assembly had the opportunity to set the trajectory before the Civil War towards an affirmation of the humanity of those who had been sinfully reduced to property. What if the assembly had sided with Bourne? Would deposing slaveholding presbyters, affirming the dignity and full humanity of blacks, and fighting for immediate emancipation have had substantial impact on ending slavery or preventing the Civil War? We cannot with certainty answer that question. However, looking at the impact George Bourne went on to have primarily through William Lloyd Garrison, and the subsequent history of the Presbyterian Church throughout America I wonder and shudder at the missed opportunity to stand with the Lord over and against the evil of the world which had so deeply penetrated the thinking and practice of the church. What would the relationship be between white and black christians if this history was different?

Bourne went on to have an important role in influencing William Lloyd Garrison, the noted abolitionist and editor of The Liberator. "Bourne played a tremendously important role in the emancipation of the slaves, but he could not, and sensed that he could not, do what has not been accomplished in 150 years since, namely, gain acceptance of the doctrine of equality for all men. If he could have brought the church around to his point of view, the battle would have been won at this point." 9

Just a cursory look at the writing of Presbyterian segregationists during the civil rights movement show calls for inaction continued under the doctrine of the spirituality of the church and a racial bias against blacks, which they saw as a lesser race. It led leaders in the church to argue for “gradual racial progress” rather than immediate integration, which sounds eerily similar to gradual emancipation.10 In 1954, J.E. Flow argued for a separate Southern Presbyterian Church which was committed to five things which included among them, “the purity and integrity of the White man of North America upon whose shoulders are laid the burdens of the world.”11 Statements like these a mere six decades ago, have been the occasion for repentance among Presbyterian bodies today.12 What had they failed to grasp? They failed to grasp what George Bourne had so profoundly argued 150 years earlier, that black men, women and children were made in the image of God and had full humanity, dignity, value and worth. And to treat them as property or lesser or to be fearful of their freedom was to sin. In 2002, the Presbyterian Church in America issued a statement of repentance connected with our covenantal sins as a church and built on the work of a NAPARC statement from 1977.13 In the statement, man-stealing was specifically repented of and so were the sins of omission surrounding the ideology of white supremacy that have continued in our country since its inception. Had the work and effort of George Bourne been heeded by Presbyterians in his day, maybe the story would have turned out differently.

Are we still missing it today?

These two trajectories stemming from the 1818 General Assembly of inaction and white supremacy in the face of racial injustice continue to plague us today. It is easy (or at least it should be) in our day to condemn the obvious white supremacy that shows up in ways similar to past. However, there is still a hesitancy at best to confront the more subtle and systemic ways in which the culture and even the church continue to uphold white supremacy. On further reflection, the Assembly of 1818 did what the white American Church has continued to do in light of racial injustice: declare pious statements that condemn such injustices as evil, without taking any real action to ensure that she keep fruit with repentance. 

Today, if American Presbyterians specifically and white Christians more broadly are to honor the legacy of George Bourne, and more importantly bring glory to King Jesus, the savior of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9) we must seek to dismantle any vestiges in our lives, our churches and our society of racial superiority and white supremacy. Will this dismantling be complete? No, not this side of glory. But while we await the return of King Jesus, we are to be his ambassadors in the world, bringing the fruit of his Kingdom into every sphere. We can and should hold our leaders accountable to the sins of racism. We can and should tell the truth about our history as a nation. We can and should advocate for diverse leadership structures so that minority Christians are given voice and positions of power to influence our church structure. We can and should stand against injustice in our land whether that is racial bias in housing, wealth inequality, hiring practices, mass incarceration, or police brutality. We can and should call out racist attitudes in our friends, family members, and church members. We can and should create partnerships across racial and ethnic lines seeking genuine cooperation and reconciliation. As we do we must make our churches a place that truly welcomes the diversity of our communities and seeks to share power and empower minority leadership. And not photo op diversity, but dinner table diversity. Unfortunately it is all too true that American Presbyterians (and more broadly American Churches) today do not look much different demographically than we did 50 years ago. Let us use the example of a Presbyter of great courage, George Bourne, to commit ourselves to praying and working towards a truly multiethnic American Church for the glory of King Jesus. 

This blog is an adaption of a paper I wrote for my American Presbyterianism church History course at Reformed Theological Seminary. You can read the whole paper here: George Bourne and the Missed Moment for American Presbyterians. 


  1. John W Christie and Dwight L. Dumond, George Bourne and the Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, Presbyterian Historical Society. (Baltimore, MD: Historical Society of Delaware, 1969), 105. ↩︎

  2. The condemnation of “man-stealing” is in the answer to WLC #142. At that time there was a note attached to the answer as well which was removed in 1818, by the same assembly that condemned Bourne. The note connected slavery specifically with man-stealing as a violation of the eighth commandment. “I Tim.i, 10 (The law is made) for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for men-stealers. (This crime among the Jews exposed the perpetrators of it to capital punishment; Exod. 21, 16 and the apostle here classes them with sinners of the first rank. The word he uses in its original import, comprehends all who are concerned in brining any of the human race into slavery, or in detaining them in it....stealers of men are all those who bring off slaves or freeman, and keep, sell, or buy them. To steal a freeman, says Grotius, is the highest kind of theft. In other instance we only steal human property, but when we steal or retain men in slavery, we seize those who in common with ourselves, are constituted by the original grant, lords of the earth. Gen: 1, 28.” See Christie, 17-18. ↩︎

  3. Christie, 64, emphasis mine. ↩︎

  4. Maurice W. Armstrong, ed. The Presbyterian Enterprise: Sources of American Presbyterian History. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2001), 214-15. ↩︎

  5. Armstrong, 208. ↩︎

  6. Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution. 1st ed. (Madison, Wis: Madison House, 1990), 76. ↩︎

  7. Henry Mayer, All On Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 66. ↩︎

  8. Armstrong, 215 ↩︎

  9. Christie, 69. ↩︎

  10. Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: the Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. (Philipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015), 121. ↩︎

  11. Lucas, 101. ↩︎

  12. See Overture 43 from Potomac Presbytery "Pursuing Racial Reconciliation and the Advance of the Gospel” which was accepted by the 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. See http:// ↩︎

  13. A copy of the statement can be found here: ↩︎