Skip to main content

George Armstrong to Frederick Douglass, September 2, 1846

1

GEORGE ARMSTRONG1Born to a wealthy family in Drogheda, Ireland, George Armstrong (1792–1857) attended Trinity College in Dublin. In 1815 he entered the Church of Ireland clergy and held a pulpit in Bangor, near Belfast. Armstrong publicly advocated both suffrage reform and Catholic Emancipation in numerous magazine articles. In the 1830s, Armstrong’s extensive reading and correspondence with American Unitarians, especially the Reverend William Ellery Channing, led him to adopt that faith. The young British and Foreign Unitarian Association found Armstrong a new congregation in Bristol, England, in 1838. Armstrong was an active public champion of the Unitarian faith and many liberal political causes, including the Anti–Corn Law League. His wife and daughter were frequent contributors of products to the Garrisonian Boston Anti-Slavery Bazaar. Robert Henderson, A Memoir of the Late Reverend George Armstrong (London, 1859); Turley, “British Unitarian Abolitionists,” 59. TO FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Clifton, [Eng.] 2 Sept[ember] 1846.2The dateline of the letter includes “Wednesday night.”

Mr. Frederick Douglass,

Charlotte street,

Bristol.

MY DEAR SIR —

With the frankness which your own manly character will at once appreciate and understand, I lose no time in calling on you to redress a wrong, or seeming wrong, toward the Unitarian body in this country, and the larger portion of that denomination in the United States, which I feel that you did them in the course of some expressions which fell from you at the close of your eloquent and memorable harangue to your deeply interested auditory of this evening.3The Unitarian church formed during the Second Great Awakening and Romantic movement as a reaction to Calvinism. Unitarians believe in the innate goodness of humanity and that perfection can be attained through rationalism and individual spiritual discipline. Their commitment to individualism and moral relativism, as well as their missionary success in southern states, discouraged them from condemning slavery or barring slaveholders from church membership. For that reason abolitionists, including those who numbered among Unitarian congregations, criticized the Unitarian church as cowardly. In the speech to which Armstrong refers, Douglass did not directly attack the Unitarian church on this point. Douglass did, however, imply that the Unitarian church was morally bankrupt because it would allow anyone, regardless of individual sin, to become a church member. David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, Conn, 1985), 4, 84; Douglas C. Stange, Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians, 1831–1860 (Rutherford, N.J ., 1977), 171–72, 174–75, 183–86, 201; McKivigan, War against Proslavery Religion, 26, 59, 172, 179.

2

I regretted for some moments after the meeting was over, that I had not on the instant adverted to those expressions which, however unintentionally on your part, I confess were to me, as I know they were to others, both painful and offensive. Yet, on reflection, I the less regret not having detained the meeting at so late an hour, as I have now the opportunity of offering and inviting explanation, in a some what more marked and permanent form, with respect to your allusion to the Unitarian denomination, as connected with the question of slavery in the United States.

Let me say, then, you were right in your general view of religious communion in Unitarian churches, while you were equally wrong in your particular mode of illustrating it; and for this plain reason, that it concerned a matter of religious arrangement, solemnly and conscientiously entertained, and ought not—consistently with a just regard to the feelings of a Christian body—to have been for one moment connected with ideas of a low or derisive character. Unitarian ministers do not assume the power of excluding from the rite of communion, any individual who may present himself for that purpose. It is sufficient for them that they faithfully declare who may, and who may not, worthily participate in that form; and with what spirit they should sit down as guests at the table of Him who alone, by appointment of the Father—and no human conclave, no earthly authority—is, in this solemn matter, arbiter and lord of the Christian man’s conscience.

Enough for so short a communication as I design this to be, on this point. Enough, I trust, to suggest to you that the practice of open communion in the Unitarian church, ought not to have been presented to a crowded meeting in a form but too likely to wound the sensibility of some, and provoke the levity and gratify the bigotry of others.

But my explanation—shall I say expostulation—must not end here. To be candid, I think, my dear sir, you have been hardly fair to Unitarians. I am far from asserting for them that they have yet done, either here or in America, all that they ought or could, in relation to the deep crime of holding fellow creatures in slavery. I believe, and I feel, that we ALL have comeshort of what we ought to do, and must do, in regard to this hideous thing. And I joyfully anticipate much wholesome and fruitful excitement from your not-soon-to-be-forgotten appeals to the free and Christian throngs who have enthusiastically hailed your presence in this country. Nevertheless, Unitarians have taken a position, such as it is, from which they ought—in justice—not to be lightly thrust aside. That position, with respect to American slavery, is one which does them honour. You have yourself acknowledged this to me. During your Visit in Bristol,4Douglass arrived in Bristol on 24 August and departed on 26 August. He stayed with Edward or George Thomas, a friend of Unitarian minister John B. Estlin, whom Garrison and Douglass visited the next day. Bristol Mercury and Western Counties Advertiser, 29 August 1846; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:387–90. you have stated to me that

3

the ministers of that denomination in the United States, are now taking the lead on that subject. And here, perhaps, I may be permitted to recall the fact, that, in 1843, there was circulated through our churches an address to the brethren in America,5Garrisonian abolitionist and Unitarian minister Samuel May, Jr., traveled through Europe in 1843 seeking support among overseas Unitarians for the antislavery cause. In response, first the Irish and then the English Unitarian ministers drew up public letters to their American counterparts endorsing emancipation on moral grounds. George Armstrong’s had been the lead signature on the Irish address. Stange, Patterns of Antislavery, 191–92. which has had—we humbly believe—a useful influence in directing and exciting the attention of their brethren beyond the Atlantic, to the most important social question of our age.

That address was signed by 195 ministers; and gratefully I reflect on the thoughts which have been expressed of it, in words of the venerable Thomas Clarkson,6For Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846), the struggle against slavery was a lifelong concern. Beginning with an antislavery dissertation at Cambridge University in 1785, Clarkson wrote more than a dozen antislavery tracts. He toured England repeatedly, holding public meetings and collecting evidence on the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1789 Clarkson worked unsuccessfully in Paris for the abolition of the French slave trade and suffered a similar disappointment three decades later when the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle refused to declare the slave trade piracy. In 1823 he became a vice president of the newly formed Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which spearheaded the drive for West Indian emancipation. After 1833 Clarkson turned his attention to slavery in the United States, frequently meeting and corresponding with William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis Tappan, and other American abolitionists. Among the last of Clarkson’s American guests were Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and George Thompson, who dined with him on 9 August 1846. Alexander Crummell and Charles L. Reason, The Man, the Hero, the Christian! A Eulogy on the Life and Character of Thomas Clarkson, Delivered in the City of New-York, Dec. 1846 (New York, 1847); Earl Leslie Griggs, Thomas Clarkson, the Friend of Slaves (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1938), 39–49; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:380–81, 385–87; DNB, 4:454–57. now lying before me. But Mr. Clarkson had not then seen another document, which, in point of power—if not of feeling—far, very far indeed, surpassed it. That other document subsequently came from America. It was the fervid “Protest” of 173 Unitarian ministers of the Northern States, against the slave system of their country;7One hundred seventy-three Unitarian ministers signed and published a public letter, “American Slavery: A Protest against American Slavery,” which was authorized by a meeting of about fifty Unitarian ministers in May 1845 and drafted by political abolitionist James Freeman Clarke. Though not denouncing the moral character of individual slaveholders, the “Protest” pronounced the system of slavery “unchristian and unhuman.” The group called on all men to demonstrate their sympathy with the slave and to trust in the “power of truth” to end the oppressive institution. Stange, Patterns of Antislavery, 201–04. of whose spirit and power some adequate estimate may be formed, when it is remembered that Mr. Garrison declared of it, that “that protest would fall like a clap of thunder upon the ears of Southern slaveholders.”8In a brief comment in the 10 October 1846 issue of the Liberator, Garrison wrote, “Read the solemn and emphatic Protest of the Unitarian clergy against American slavery, on our first page. It will fall like a thunderbolt upon the guilty South.” And no wonder. It speaks in no common tones; and with mingled compassion for the wrong-doer, as well as for the object of his wrong, has lifted up a testimony to the world which would penetrate—if any single effort could—to the very innermost soul of the upholders and abettors of the MONSTER INIQUITY! But I must resist the temptation to transcribe, or to trespass more at length on your time, or that of the public, who I trust will see this communication, which I respectfully and affectionately submit to your reflection.

God forbid it should be in any spirit of boasting that I have been led to trouble you or the public with these few lines in explanation of the position in which myself and my Unitarian brethren stand on the great question your noble eloquence has so touchingly brought home to our bosoms. What, in truth, have any of us to boast of? To do our best, would be but to do our duty. But when each of us shall have done that best—and not before—then may we hope that God will graciously crown our effort, by making it instrumental to the final disenthralment of your and our three millions of brethren now in cruel and bitter bonds.

I remain, your faithful friend and servant,

GEORGE ARMSTRONG.

PLSr: Bristol Mercury and Western Counties Advertiser, 12 September 1846. Reprinted in London Inquirer, 26 September 1846; NASS, 22 October 1846.

4

164 GEORGE ARMSTRONG TO DOUGLASS, 2 SEPTEMBER 1846

magazine articles. In the 1830s, Armstrong's extensive reading and correspondence with American
Unitarians, especially the Reverend William Ellery Channing, led him to adopt that faith. The young
British and Foreign Unitarian Association found Armstrong a new congregation in Bristol, England,
in 1838. Armstrong was an active public champion of the Unitarian faith and many liberal political
causes, including the Anti-Corn Law League. His wife and daughter were frequent contributors of
products to the Garrisonian Boston Anti-Slavery Bazaar. Robert Henderson, A Memoir of the Late Rev
erend George Armstrong (London, 1859); Turley, "British Unitarian Abolitionists," 59.
2. The dateline of the letter includes "Wednesday night."
3. The Unitarian church formed during the Second Great Awakening and Romantic movement
as a reaction to Calvinism. Unitarians believe in the innate goodness of humanity and that perfection
can be attained through rationalism and individual spiritual discipline. Their commitment to individiu
alism and moral relativism, as well as their missionary success in southern states, discouraged them
from condeming slavery or barring slaveholders from church membership. For that reason abolition
ists, including those who numbered among Unitarian congregations, criticized the Unitarian church as
cowardly. In the speech to which Armstrong refers, Douglass did not directly attack the Unitarian
church on this point. Douglass did, however, imply that the Unitarian church was morally bankrupt be
cause it would allow anyone, regardless of individual sin, to become a church member. David Robin
son, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, Conn., 1985), 4, 84; Douglas C. Stange, Patterns
of Antislavery among American Unitarians, 1831-1860 (Rutherford N.J., 1977), 171-172, 174-75,
183-86, 201; McKivigan, War against Proslavery Religion, 26, 59, 172, 179.
4. Douglass arrived in Bristol on 24 August and departed on 26 August. He stayed with Edward
or George Thomas, a friend of Unitarian minister John B. Estlin, whom Garrison and Douglass visited
the next day. Bristol Mercury and Western Counties Advertiser, 29 August 1846; Merrill and
Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:387-90.
5. Garrisonian abolitionist and Unitarian minister Samuel May, Jr., traveled through Europe in
1843 seeking support among overseas Unitarians for the antislavery cause. In response, first the Irish
and then the English Unitarian ministers drew up public letters to their American counterparts endors
ing emancipation on moral grounds. George Armstrong's had been the lead signature on the Irish ad
dress. Stange, Patterns of Antislavery, 191-92.
6. For Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), the struggle against slavery was a lifelong concern. Be
ginning with an antislavery dissertation at Cambridge University in 1785, Clarkson wrote more than a
dozen antislavery tracts. He toured England repeatedly, holding public meetings and collecting evidence
on the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1789 Clarkson worked unsuccessfully in Paris for the abo
lition of the French slave trade and suffered a similar disappointment three decades later when the Con
gress of Aix-la-Chapelle refused to declare the slaver trade piracy. In 1823 he became a vice president
of the newly formed Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which spearheaded
the drive for West Indian emancipation. After 1833 Clarkson turned his attention to slavery in the
United States, frequently meeting and corresponding with William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis Tappan, and
other American abolitionists. Among the last of Clarkson's American guests were Douglass, William
Lloyd Garrison, and George Thompson, who dined with him on 9 Aug 1846. Alexander Crummell
and Charles L. Reason, The Man, the Hero, the Christian! A Eulogy on the Life and Character of
Thomas Clarkson, Delivered in the City of New-York, Dec. 1846 (New York, 1847); Earl Leslie Griggs,
Thomas Clarkson, the Friend of Slaves (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1938), 39-49; Merrill and Ruchmaes, Gar
rison Letters, 3:380-81, 385-87; DNB, 4:454-57.
7. One hundred seventy-three Unitarian ministers signed and published a public letter, "Ameri
can Slavery: A Protest against American Slavery," which was authorized by a meeting of about fifty
Unitarian ministers in May 1845 and drafted by political abolitionist James Freeman Clarke. Though
not denouncing the moral character of individual slaveholders, the "Protest" pronounced the system of
slavery "unchristian and unhuman." The group called on all men to demonstrate their sympathy with
the slave and to trust in the "power of truth" to end the oppressive insitution. Stange, Patterns of Anti
slavery, 201-04.

5

Date

September 8, 1846

Type

Publication Status

Published