Money, church, freedom, state and slavery

It is not often that 120 or more people turn for a book launch these days. But what took place at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in Scotland's capital yesterday evening (15 February 2013) was no routine publishing party.

It featured powerful dramatic re-enactments (Dr Geoffrey Palmer and others); song (Isabel Whyte); an absorbing scene-setting speech from Owen Dudley Edwards, Reader in Commonwealth and American History at the University of Edinburgh; and a topic with deep roots in several continents, as well as painful contemporary applications.

The theme was slavery: above all the abominable enslaving of human beings for profit (then and, sadly, now too); but also enslavement to the ties of money and power, and the temptation towards an enslaving conformity in the face of monumental injustices that solidify a status quo to which we may remain more bound than we can possibly imagine at the time.

Iain Whyte's compelling new book, 'Send Back the Money!' The Free Church of Scotland and American Slavery (James Clarke & Co, 2013), offers an investigation of part of Scotland's embroilment in both the sanctioning and abolition of slavery, focusing on a little-remembered historical episode: one in which the Free Church of Scotland faced division over the the acceptance of financial aid from Presbyterian beneficiaries of the slave states of America - having itself decided to seek freedom from the shackles of state encroachment on the Church.

In short, when the Free Church broke from the Church of Scotland in 1843 it found itself needing to seek finance and backing from inside and outside Scotland. A delegation to America in 1844 duly brought back money gifted by sympathisers in the Southern slave states. But this was blood money. A huge row broke out amongst abolitionists in Scotland and America and a campaign to 'Send Back the Money' was launched.

It is a complex, dramatic and paradoxical tale. As the publishers say: "Iain Whyte's examination of the Free Church of Scotland's early involvement with American Presbyterianism reveals the ethical furore caused by a Church wishing to emancipate itself from the domination of a state-sanctioned established religion. The Free Church therefore found a ready affinity with those oppressed elsewhere, but subsequently found itself financially supported by the Southern slave states of America.

"Whyte sensitively handles this inherent contradiction in the political, ecclesiastical, and theological institutions, while informing the reader of the roles of charismatic characters such as Thomas Chalmers and Frederick Douglass, key individuals who did much to shape contemporary culture with action, great oratory, and rhetoric. He adroitly draws parallels from the twentieth century onwards, leading the reader to a fuller and more nuanced understanding of historic and topical issues within global Christianity, and the contentious topic of slavery."

'Send back the Money!' throws light upon nineteenth-century culture, the British and American abolitionist movements, and the fraught ecclesiastical politics of the day.

For reference, the Free Church of Scotland was formed in 1843 by a large withdrawal from the established Church of Scotland in a schism known as the "Disruption of 1843". In 1900 the vast majority of the FCS joined with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to form the United Free Church of Scotland (which itself re-united with the Church of Scotland in 1929). Two continuing denominations bearing the name Free Church of Scotland, from 1900 and 2000, are extant today.

The author of 'Send back the Money!', the Rev Dr Iain Whyte, is the President of the Scottish Church History Society and holds an Honorary Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies, University of Edinburgh, for his work in the history of slavery and abolition. He is the author of Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery 1756-1838 (Edinburgh University Press, 2006) and Zachary Macaulay 1768-1838: The Steadfast Scot in the British Anti-Slavery Movement (Liverpool University Press, 2011).

Dr Whyte has also served as a missionary in West Ghana, as a parish minister and as a university chaplain. He has enjoyed a distinguished career in the ecumenical movement and as a former head of Christian Aid Scotland. He is a member of the Iona Community.

A more detailed review will appear on Ekklesia in due course. In the meantime, further information about the book, including sample downloads, can be found here.

See also: Anti-Slavery - today's continuing fight for tomorrow's freedom.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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