“In 1815, George Bourne was sent a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, in Philadelphia. On the floor of that meeting, he accused Presbyterian ministers in Virginia of grossly mistreating their slaves, but refused to identify the guilty individuals when pressed to do so. When Lexington Presbytery learned of his statements, charges were brought against Bourne at their next meeting. The charges accused Bourne of making unwarranted statements against unidentified clergymen in Virginia and unwarranted and unchristian statements about members of the church. At the same meeting, his congregation at Port Republic requested their pastoral relationship with Bourne be dissolved.
“The Presbytery conducted a trial and testimony that revealed Bourne had described a minister whipping a slave woman on a Sunday morning, going to church and preaching, and then returning and continuing the whipping. Bourne was found guilty, but appealed the verdict to the General Assembly and left Virginia. Two years later the Assembly upheld his appeal, but ordered a new trial be conducted.
“Before the beginning of the second lengthy trial, which Bourne refused to attend, he sent a letter apologizing for “an irritable temper,” indecorous expressions” and “statements incompatible with the charitable sensibilities of which the Gospel enjoins.” His request for dismissal from the Presbytery was denied. Additional charges were added in the second trial, and Bourne was found guilty and this time deposed from the ministry. The Assembly upheld the results of the second trial.
“Bourne’s writings helped fuel the growing abolitionist movement. He is also credited with being the first abolitionist to advocate complete and immediate emancipation for all slaves….Bourne returned to New York City and affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church. He died there in 1845.”
Historical Society Newsletter
Vol 32, No.1, Winter 2010.
There is, of course, so much more to the story. After all, they call Bourne one of the “Sons of Thunder.” I’m drawn to his story, as well as to the place. I’ve walked the streets and graveyards of Harrisonburg, Virginia, drawn not only by friendships I have there, but to visit the historic church buildings and graveyards of a bygone era of the old German Reformed Church. The Shenandoah Valley was never the hotbed of pro-
slavery sentiment that one found east of the Blue Ridge, and following the Civil War the Valley became the first—and for almost a century—the lone Republican area of Old Virginia. Part of that was the preponderance of German settlers in the Valley, including anti-slavery Mennonites and Brethren. While the Reformed Churches were not officially anti-slavery, legend has it that all the German churches were lukewarm, at best, about the war effort. Of course, many of these churches, e.g. the Dunkers and Brethren, were also pacifist so their dissent doesn’t speak directly to the slavery issue, per se.
“Secession means war; and war means tears and ashes and blood,” Elder John Kline, the leader of the Brethren in Rockingham County, wrote in his diary on January 1, 1861. “It means bonds and imprisonment and perhaps even death to many in our beloved Brotherhood, who I have the confidence to believe, will die rather than disobey God by taking up arms.”1
Presbyterians, of course, are not pacifists, and at the time of Bourne’s defrocking, war was still years in the future. For Bourne and the Presbyterians, it was a different kind of war, one waged with theological arguments as well as ecclesiastical intrigue.
In 1815, what Bourne actually did at the General Assembly was to ask whether a slave owner could be a Christian. He cited I Timothy 1:10, which puts “menstealers” in the same category as whoremongers, homosexuals and liars. The slave owners were not particularly amused. He noted that the verse was expressly cited in the Westminster Larger Catechism, and therefore the slave trade and everything it touched was a sin, pure and simple.
Not to be outflanked, the General Assembly voted in 1816 to remove the citation from the complaint on the grounds that in 1806, the General Assembly had passed a revision to the Church Constitution that defined manstealing but that the constitutional revision had not been ratified by the requisite 2/3rds of the presbyteries. In other words, the church’s failure to act stifled liberty on the subject instead of permitting it, one of the clearest violations of the Reformed view of church government one might imagine. Deprived of his two main arguments, Bourne’s case was left in shambles.
When they refused to allow him to leave, voting instead to depose him, he recognized the futility of staying in a church whose highest court had been thoroughly compromised. Had Bourne stuck to talking about slavery, he would be heralded today as one of the most revered of Abolitionist, but in New York he founded the Protestant Reformation Society and also began a defense of historic Protestantism against what he fashioned the dangerous and heretical views of Roman Catholicism.
By the time the War broke out, more than words were being exchanged, and preachers were often quite literally caught in the crossfire.
The Brethren elder John Kline mentioned above is a good example of what Bonhoeffer would one day call the “cost of discipleship.” It is different for all of us, and we need not subscribe to Kline’s pacifism, to view his actions in a charitable light. After all, he travelled more than 100,000 miles, mostly on horseback, in missionary endeavors to Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee. He was arrested for his anti-slavery comments and worked assiduously to hold the denomination together when so many others were splitting along sectional lines.
He was elected Moderator of the Brethren during the war years of 1861 through 1864. Returning home from the national meeting held in the Nettle Creek Church, Indiana in 1864, he was almost home when he was shot in ambush by a group of renegade Confederate soldiers in what was truly the “night they drove old Dixie down.”
Raised in the Shenandoah Valley, and having ridden through those hills on horseback, I suspect it did not look a lot different than the valley Rev. Bourne or Elder Kline rode through. I suppose that is what makes it a cautionary tale, that temptation in reading and discussing history to succumb to a stylized romanticism, to couch every battle as a defense of noble principles. We must resist that temptation and recognize that history lies before God as an open book, and it is through His eyes we must seek to read and understand. So if, as Solomon puts it, we would hear the end of the matter, I think it simply this. You cannot truly defend a principle unless you are willing to slay the demons that dwell in its shadow. And that goes for us all.