In honor of the upcoming elections, which may well prove the most consequential since 1860, my friend Dr. David Hall is publishing a series of articles on historic American election sermons. This is the twenty-third. — RDM

by Dr. David W. Hall
September 25, 2016

James Dana (1735–1812) graduated from Harvard and was a Congregationalist pastor in Connecticut. He was an early and avid supporter of American independence. Dana became pastor of the First Church of New Haven from 1789-1805, when he was summarily dismissed by the leaders and replaced by the ascendant new preacher, Moses Stuart. He received a D. D. from the University of Edinburgh, and one of his sons, Samuel Whittlesey Dana became a Senator. [Source: consource.org]

This sermon was delivered before the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom on September 9, 1790. It is an early abolitionist address, showing again that the earlier clergy rightly appealed to Scripture but did not avoid current topics as if that was none of the church’s business.

Dana began with an explanation of the setting of Galatians 4:31 in the context of the Bible. He reviewed the Jewish history and stressed that believers in Christ were not descendants of a line of slavery but of freedom. And as the opening verse of the next chapter asserts, believers were to stand fast in their liberty. Freedom was worth defending. He remarked, “Christian freedom, being alike the privilege of converts from Judaism and heathenism, primarily intends, on the part of the former, the abolition of the encumbered ritual of Moses; and, on the part of the latter, liberation from idolatrous superstition, to which they were in servile subjection: On the part of both it intends deliverance from the slavery of vicious passions.”

Christ’s followers, he taught, brought in a glorious age of expansive liberty: ‘His disciples, made free from sin, walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit. There is no condemnation to them. Thus emancipated, they “wait for the hope of righteousness by faith—the redemption of the body.” He added further that Christianity leads its followers to call no man, “master”—the application of which, he preached, would oppose the slave trade (or early Human Trafficking). He also distinguished: “The real friends of liberty always distinguish between freedom and licentiousness. They know that the mind cannot be free, while blinded by sceptical pride, or immersed in sensuality. Liberty consists not in subverting the foundations of society, in being without law. Nor doth it consist in reasoning against God, and providence, and revelation.”

Dana proclaimed that the biblical faith overflowed with “the best aspect on general liberty and the rights of mankind.” “This spirit,” he continued, “doth no ill to others, but all possible good. Rulers, under its influence, are not oppressors, but benefactors.”

Dana did not wish to inflame passions with this address but to appeal to informed consciences. He next provided a detailed history of the colonization of the West, along with a discussion of its religious leadership. He also pointed the finger on the Portuguese (for settling parts of Africa) and various Popes for approving perpetual slavery for certain races. He thought that the exporting of African slaves by the Portuguese began just at the 16th century opened. A sample of his detail is below:

Spanish America hath successively received her slaves from the Genoese, Portuguese, French and English. A convention was made at London between England and Spain, A. D. 1689, for supplying the Spanish West-Indies with negro slaves from Jamaica. The French Guinea company contracted, in 1702, to supply them with 38,000 negroes, in ten years; and if peace should be concluded, with 48,000. In 1713 there was a treaty between England and Spain for the importation of 144,000 negroes in thirty years, or 4,800 annually. If we include those whom the Portuguese have held in slavery in Africa, with the importations into South-America, twelve millions may be a moderate estimate from the commencement of the traffic to the present time.

The British and French colonialists, he said, contributed mightily to this, with his census being: “The present number of slaves in the West-Indies is 930,669. There are in the United States 670,633. To this number may be added about 12,000 manumitted Africans. In all 1,613,302.” He blamed predominantly Christian cultures (“by the citizens of the most republican States, with the sanction of St. Peter’s successor”) for this magnitude of slavery.

We suppose, then, that eight millions of slaves have been shipped in Africa for the West-India islands and the United States; ten millions for South-America; and, perhaps, two millions have been taken and held in slavery in Africa. Great-Britain and the United States have shipped about five millions, France two, Holland and other nations one; though we undertake not to state the proportion with exactness. The other twelve millions we set to Portugal. Twenty million slaves, at £.30 sterling each, amount to the commercial value of £.600,000,000. Six hundred times ten hundred thousand pounds sterling traffic in the souls of men!!!

Dana continued to lament that Christians did not work more zealously for abolition, nor to improve the lives of slaves. Further, he addressed the many OT passages where slavery existed or was not overturned, suggesting mitigating factors for those. Citing the recent language from the Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”), he extrapolated that all humans in America were equal and free. He did not believe that Africans were less human or less deserving of all benefits of Christ: “The present occasion will be well improved, if we set ourselves to banish all slavish principles, and assert our liberty as men, citizens and Christians. We have all one Father: He will have all his offspring to be saved. We are disciples of one master: He will finally gather together in one the children of God. Let us unite in carrying into effect the purpose of the Saviour’s appearance.” He called for Christ’s body, the church to be undivided and concluded passionately:

To conclude: In vain do we assert our natural and civil liberty, or contend for the same liberty in behalf of any of our fellow-creatures, provided we ourselves are not made free from the condemnation and dominion of sin. If there is such a thing as slavery, the servant of sin is a slave—and self-made. The captive, prisoner and slave, in an outward respect, may be free in Christ, free indeed; while he who enjoys full external liberty, may, in regard to his inward man, be under the power of wicked spirits: These enter and dwell in an heart garnished to receive them. Jesus Christ, and no other, saveth from sin and wrath. The spirit of life quickeneth those who are dead in trespasses, and looseth those whom Satan hath bound. ‘If we be dead with him, we believe that we shall also live with him.’

The new Jerusalem is free in a more exalted sense than the church on earth. True believers, ‘sealed with the holy Spirit of promise, have the earnest of their inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession.’ In that day of complete redemption, of glorious liberty, may God of his infinite mercy grant that we may meet all the ransomed of the Lord, with songs and everlasting joy, saying: “Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne; and unto the lamb who was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation. Amen.”

Worth noting, Dana was far from the only one who argued this line. In a 1770 sermon (see earlier link in this series), Samuel Cooke pled similarly:

I trust on this occasion I may without offence plead the cause of our African slaves, and humbly propose the pursuit of some effectual measures at least to prevent the future importation of them. Difficulties insuperable, I apprehend, prevent an adequate remedy for what is past. Let the time past more than suffice wherein we, the patrons of liberty, have dishonored the Christian name, and degraded human nature nearly to a level with the beasts that perish. Ethiopia has long stretched out her hands to us. Let not sordid greed, acquired by the merchandise of slaves and the souls of men, harden our hearts against her piteous moans. When God ariseth, and when he visiteth, what shall we answer? May it be the glory of this province, of this respectable General Assembly, and, we could wish, of this session, to lead in the cause of the oppressed. This will avert the impending vengeance of Heaven, procure you the blessing of multitudes of your fellow men ready to perish, be highly approved by our common father, who is no respecter of persons, and, we trust, an example which would excite the highest attention of our sister colonies. (Election Sermons, 2012, pp. 226-227)

This sermon may be found online at: http://consource.org/document/the-african-slave-trade-by-james-dana-1790-9-9/, and in hard copy in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).

— Dr. David W. Hall is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia, and author of over 20 books on theology and church history.