Ohio History Journal

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Slavery and the Ohio Circuit Rider

Slavery and the Ohio Circuit Rider



There can be no doubt about John Wesley's hatred of slavery.

Both the trade and practice were condemned as the "execrable

sum of all villainies," and if ranked in order of precedence, few

if any sins surpassed "the buying and selling the bodies and souls

of men, women, and children, with the intention to enslave them."

Wesley's early followers were good disciples, equally energetic in

their efforts to stamp out the evil. The oft-assumed premise that

Methodist circuit riders were merely Bible-pounding, muscular

evangels, wholly concerned with other-worldly matters and unaware

of the social gospel, requires qualification in the light of their

vigorous involvement with the slavery issue.

In 1785 the first American conference of the Methodist Episcopal

Church tolerated no equivocation on the question, "What methods

can we take to extirpate slavery?" Each slave held by a Methodist

was to receive his freedom after a specified period, and "every

infant born in slavery . . . immediately on its birth." To make en-

forcement certain, each itinerant preacher was required to keep a

record, to be handed to his successor, of each slave on the circuit.

Those who would not comply with the rule were warned to leave

the society quietly or be expelled; future applicants for church

membership were to be slaveless.1 From this uncompromising stand

Methodism gradually retreated until a high in vacillation occurred

in 1808, when the general conference authorized the publication

of a thousand copies of the Discipline for use in the South Carolina

Conference with the rule on slavery omitted. This general con-

* Paul H. Boase is an associate professor of speech at Oberlin College. He is the

author of several articles on the Methodist circuit rider in Ohio.

1 David Sherman, History of the Revisions of the Discipline of the Methodist Epis-

copal Church (New York, 1874), 114-118.