By Nathan A. Finn
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be reading a paper at the annual meeting of the Baptist History and Heritage Society titled “Debating Domestic Slavery: The Wayland-Fuller Correspondence in Context.” My paper will focus on the story behind the book Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution (1845). I’ve long been interested in this important book; my colleague Keith Harper and I co-edited a new edition of Domestic Slavery for Mercer University Press in 2008. It was my first book.
Domestic Slavery is a collection of letters between southerner Richard Fuller and northerner Francis Wayland. Both of these men were devout Christians, Baptist leaders, and moderates within their respective camps in the slavery debate. According to Mark Noll, “This exchange was one of the United States’ last serious one-on-one debates where advocates for and against slavery engaged each other directly, with reasonable restraint, and with evident intent to hear out the opponent to the extent possible.”
In the book, Fuller argues that slavery was not inherently sinful, but concedes that there were many sinful practices associated with chattel slavery in the South. For his part, Wayland argues that slavery was inherently sinful, but concedes that in many instances owning slaves was a moral blind spot among otherwise godly men in the South. Wayland also criticizes the abolition movement for being too radical in its call for immediate emancipation.
Fuller and Wayland make their respective cases in different ways. Fuller, who was an eloquent and widely respected preacher, wrote letters that are saturated with Scripture references defending slavery. That said, most modern readers would agree that many of these citations are taken out of context or otherwise misinterpreted. Fuller’s exegesis is a textbook example of the so-called southern theological defense of slavery.
Wayland's letters are rhetorically brilliant, but largely absent of Scripture besides references to the golden rule and Paul’s epistle to Philemon. His arguments are based more on common sense and natural law arguments. He had made these sorts of arguments in his earlier books The Elements of Moral Science (1835) and The Limitations of Human Responsibility (1838). The former was the most popular ethics textbook in America in the nineteenth century, though it was banned at most southern schools because of Wayland’s anti-slavery views.
Their respective arguments notwithstanding, Domestic Slavery is a model of Christian civility. Wayland and Fuller continually refer to each other as “my dear friend,” and in this case, they really meant it. Neither engages in ad hominem attacks of the other. Both men are quick to affirm anything they see as right and truthful in the other’s argument. Though Wayland really does believe Fuller is misreading Scripture, and though Fuller really is convinced Wayland is ignoring Scripture, the two men are always cordial and dignified; they never paint the other as sub-Christian or impugn each other’s motives. These two esteemed antebellum Baptists remind us that it is possible to debate even the most controversial issues in a Christ-like manner.
Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a senior fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.