George Bourne Dismissed for His Opposition to Slavery
Search Timelines:

Time Period
1815
Description
George Bourne was an English-born Presbyterian minister who opposed the plantation slavery he saw in Virginia. He even refused to administer communion to slave-owning members of his congregation. Bourne's stridency carried over into his first anti-slavery book, The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable (1816). He wrote, "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."

In 1815, Bourne failed to convince the General Assembly to condemn slavery as incompatible with Christianity, given how its southern presbyteries were deeply invested in slave ownership.

When he returned home to Harrisonburg, VA, Bourne's own presbytery revoked his ordination and his local church requested he be removed as pastor.

Bourne's anti-slavery agitation was unsuccessful but notable for its push for immediate emancipation at a time when gradual emancipation was the consensus anti-slavery position.
Interactive Timeline(s)
Race/Ethnicity and Religion
Presbyterian Religious Events and People in American History
Browse Related Timeline Entries
Race/Ethnicity and Religion in American History
Presbyterian Religious Events and People in American History
Narrative
George Bourne was born in England but immigrated to Baltimore in 1804 and operated a printing house for several years until the venture failed. By 1812 he had moved to western Virginia and been ordained as a Presbyterian minister. As he encountered plantation slavery in Virginia, he developed an ardent opposition to it and even refused to administer communion to slaveowning members of his congregation. Bourne's stridency carried over into his first anti-slavery book, The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable (1816). He wrote, "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." Bourne's background in the rough and tumble world of early 19th century publishing is apparent.

In 1815, Bourne represented his presbytery at the General Assembly in Philadelphia. He proposed a resolution condemning slavery as incompatible with Christianity by citing a footnote to the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession. The footnote referenced I Timothy 1:10's condemnation of man-stealing as an example of sins condemned in the eighth commandment. The Assembly promptly removed the offending note from the Catechism to undermine Bourne's resolution.

Bourne had pricked a sensitive issue for the Presbyterian Church. While many of its northern churches were opposed, or at least apathetic, toward slavery, its southern presbyteries were deeply invested in slave ownership. Indeed, Bourne's own presbytery revoked his ordination and his local church requested he be removed as pastor. The Presbyterian General Assembly tried to walk a middle path by issuing a statement on slavery in 1818, which condemned both the institution of slavery ("a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature") and immediate emancipation ("inconsistent alike with the safety and happiness of the master and the slave").

Bourne's anti-slavery agitation was unsuccessful in the near term but still notable because he advocated for immediate emancipation at a time when gradual emancipation was the consensus anti-slavery position. It also was significant because Bourne's first book significantly predated the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833), of which Bourne was a founding member. Bourne wrote regular articles for famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's paper, The Liberator, and even served as a temporary editor while Garrison was overseas. Bourne published a number of other books condemning slavery, including The Picture of Slavery (1838) and Slavery Illustrated in its Effects Upon Women and Domestic Society (1837).

After being defrocked, Bourne moved North. In 1824, the New York Presbytery re-ordained him, anticipating the 1861 division of the Presbyterian Church. Furthermore, Bourne's travails symbolize the growing gap between American and British evangelicalism on slavery. As early 19th century British evangelicals like William Wilberforce fought against the slave trade, their southern American counterparts were hardening in their support for the institution. Bourne, an Englishmen transplanted to Virginia, straddled that divide. He tried to force American Presbyterians to confront an ugly reality that they did not wish to face.
Religious Groups
Presbyterian-Reformed Family: Other ARDA Links

Photographs

George Bourne portrait- English Wikipedia

Picture of Slavery in the United States of America, title page- Hathi Trust
Book/Journal Source(s)
Murray, Andrew, 1988. "The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable," by George Bourne. American Presbyterians, vol. 66, no. 4.
Web Page Contributor
Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

Bookmark and Share