William Henry Brisbane: Early Regular Baptist

Early Baptists articulated Regular Baptist ideas

Wallace Alcorn May 4, 2012




A number of people I know presume that Regular Baptists invented ecclesiastical separation. To hear them talk, Baptist churches separating from a convention over unbiblical, un-Baptistic theological liberalism was unheard of prior to 1932. But historical documents prove otherwise. An entire century before the formation of the GARBC, regular Baptist churches separated from the national body of Baptist churches over an unbiblical, un-Baptistic practice in world missions. In the 1930s the issue was theological liberalism, especially as tolerated in the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society; in the 1840s it was slavery as tolerated by the Triennial Convention.

Baptist Trouble

The leading abolitionist newspaper in the country was The Liberator, published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison, the country’s most outspoken abolitionist. The front page of the Sept. 29, 1843, issue announced, “The Baptists too in Trouble.” It reprinted an earlier piece from The Baltimore Weekly Visiter [sic], which commended the Vermont Observer, a Baptist paper, for its position on “the subject of northern and Southern co-operation in the missionary enterprise.” This, the papers agreed, reported the “startling facts and anxious fears with regard to the accumulating slavery difficulties in the American churches.”

The Vermont paper cautioned, “We are released from co-operation with others only on one of the three grounds.” The first is the impossibility of cooperation, and the second is when a greater amount of good can be accomplished “by a division of labor.” The third was put, “The fact well ascertained, that by our co-operation, we are countenancing some serious, grievous error in doctrine or practice, of which those may be guilty with whom we co-operate.” Any of these “may justify, nay demand withdrawal from those with whom we have hitherto labored.”

In the United States at that time, no national conventions or associations of Baptist churches existed, but churches cooperated in missions through the Triennial Convention (General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions, convening every three years). The papers urged the freedom-loving Baptists of the North to make one final effort at the next Convention to persuade the Baptist churches in the South to abandon slavery altogether. “The time has not [yet] come for a withholding of our co-operation.” But, “if the Baptists of the South will not repent of their sin, and regard the wounded feelings and conscientious appeals of their brethren at the North, then withdraw.”

Sounds like ecclesiastical separation for theological reasons to me. This was not the GARBC, but it was about missions.

The Liberator editor commented on these reports, “The above is but one of the many indications of the troubled state of the Baptist church, on account of slavery, which we have lately noticed. We have seen somewhere, a long article from the Rev. William Henry Brisbane, late a citizen of South Carolina, and the owner of thirty slaves, (since emancipated,) in which a new Baptist organization is openly and urgently proposed.”

In fact, another group of Baptists, with Brisbane as a leader, was already separating. It had met in Boston on May 4 and created “a provisional committee” to explore the feasibility of a missionary society separate from the Triennial Convention, a society that would not have anything to do with slavery or those who had anything to do with slavery. (Was this “secondary separation”?)

Then a larger gathering was held on May 31 in the chapel of Tremont Baptist Church (later Tremont Baptist Temple). “Brother Brisbane” from Cincinnati presented the report of the provisional committee and introduced the preamble for the constitution of the American and Foreign Baptist Missionary Society (The Liberator, June 16, 1843).

The constitution began innocently enough: “The object of this Society shall be to carry out the commission of our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.’”

Now the rub of the matter: “This Society shall be composed of members of regular Baptist churches, of good standing, who are not slaveholders, but who believe that involuntary slavery, under all circumstances, is sin, and treat it accordingly; and who pay one dollar annually to the Society.”

(Note the significance of the constitution’s language for the name adopted by the GARBC: “members of regular Baptist churches.” As was common in Baptist documents of the time, this refers to Baptist churches in the regular [orthodox] sense.)

Among the initial officers elected was its corresponding secretary, Dr. William Henry Brisbane. So, what about this Dr. Brisbane? Who was he? The Liberator’s editor described him, inadequately, as “late a citizen of South Carolina, and the owner of thirty slaves, (since emancipated,).” It was he, then, who “openly and urgently proposed” a separate, separatist Baptist association. (The southern churches also broke away in 1845 to form the Southern Baptist Convention.) Brisbane’s Society continued until after the war, when its purpose had been accomplished.

The Man

Born in Black Swamp, Beaufort District, S.C., into a slaveholding planter family in 1806, Brisbane was sent to New England to receive the classical education expected of the landed aristocracy. He first attended preparatory school in New Haven and then the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy in Vermont (now Norwich University). His father, Adam, had given him to Adam’s own brother to rear on Milton Lodge on the Ashley River north of Charleston, and this adoptive uncle fashioned him as Anglican. Upon return to South Carolina, however, the young man asked to be baptized by Pipe Creek Baptist Church. He studied at Furman Theological Institute in Edgefield, which became Furman University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The Pipe Creek church ordained him and called him pastor. Then he took up residence in one of the family’s townhouses on Charleston’s Meeting Street and attended the city’s First Baptist Church, where his family had been members for over a hundred years. He established and edited the Southern Baptist and General Intelligencer, a denominational paper that strongly supported and promoted slavery as a Biblically authorized institution. Accordingly, he took on the most threatening Baptist voice against slavery, Francis Wayland, president of Brown University in Providence. Each time he put his own pro-slavery arguments in writing, he recognized their weaknesses. This slaveholding advocate gave up. (I have used his frustrations to demonstrate to my writing students that “you don’t know what you think until you read what you wrote.”) He admitted he could not support slavery with the Bible, but insisted it is, nonetheless, allowed by the Bible because the word slave is used in relation to Christians. Even this political accommodation cost him subscribers, and he gave up the paper as well.

He became pastor of several small Baptist churches in the low country. The minutes of the Beech Branch Church state, “Elizabeth and Jacob [colored], property of Bro. Brisbane [my emphasis] were baptized and become members.” Brisbane attended lectures and received a Doctor of Medicine degree from the Medical College of South Carolina in 1837. The more he studied the Bible, the more he recognized slavery as a sin. And he preached it as sin. As offensive as his sermons were to slaveholders, the last straw with them came when Brisbane divested himself of field hands by selling them to his overseer. The violent reaction caused him to flee the South for the border city of Cincinnati.

Not able to manage without his domestics, Brisbane took them with him and became pastor of Cincinnati’s First Baptist Church. He fell in with such Cincinnati abolitionists as Salmon Portland Chase, Gamaliel Bailey, James Birney, and Jonathan Blanchard. He agreed to describe slavery before the Female Anti-Slavery Sewing Circle in February 1840 and spilled the beans about the cruelty and evils of slavery. This was too much for his deacons, who dismissed him because he had agreed to leave this volatile subject of slavery alone.

Brisbane started another Baptist church, expressly antislavery. He freed his domestic slaves, who remained with him for the rest of their lives as servants. The manumission papers were executed by Chase, then a local attorney, who later became Lincoln’s treasury secretary and then chief justice of the United States. This errant Southerner finally admitted to being an abolitionist, a term he had until then considered a dirty word.

Few pastors and elders of Baptist churches in the North attempted to dispute Brisbane’s exegesis or polemics against slavery, but they found his obsession inconvenient and irritating. They perceived Brisbane and other Baptist abolitionists much like, a century later, many in the Northern Baptist Convention perceived preachers in the Baptist Bible Union (1923, e.g., O. W. Van Osdel, R. E. Neighbour, W. B. Riley, T. T. Shields), that is, probably correct but decidedly inconvenient. A great number of Northern Baptist pastors, arguably, loved God and the Bible as His Word. Although properly bold in their own pulpits, they became suspiciously meek on the convention floor. Just as Brisbane and his colleagues would not tolerate slavery in world missions, the later men would tolerate no theological liberalism in theirs.

The Letter

W. H. Brisbane returned to South Carolina and repurchased his field slaves. He transported them via Baltimore to Cincinnati, where he finally freed them. It was at this time he wrote his epochal letter to the South Carolina Baptists, showing from the Bible that slavery is indeed a sin. He could never have gotten the letter through the mail and, so, entrusted copies to sympathetic friends who stuffed them in mailboxes within the various post offices.

His letter was, as The Liberator editor called it, “a long article.” He used 16,058 words, and later expanded it to book-length as Slaveholding Examined in the Light of the Holy Bible (Philadelphia, 1847).

“Dear Brethren: I feel constrained to address you this letter, both in justice to myself and deep solicitude for your spiritual welfare.—Having for years been associated with you in the service of our blessed Lord and Master Jesus Christ, and having been honored with a considerable share of your confidence, I feel that I am entitled to claim of you a hearing, now that a change in my opinions on a highly important and exciting topic may subject me to your censure and the loss of your christian regard.”

This expatriate pastor reviewed his productive and honored ministry as a Baptist pastor in the South, and then continued.

“But at length my views on the subject of Slavery began to undergo a change, and the state of feeling at the South not permitting me to make a dispassionate investigation, I felt it my duty to seek a residence where I could without restraint give the requisite attention, for determining fully my duty to God and to my fellow-men. The result was an entire recantation of all That [sic] I had formerly written in favor of holding property in man, and by this have I torn myself away from the association of those I was always accustomed to love and to honor.”

This estranged brother acknowledged the hatred and hostility he was even then suffering for his stand. “But Oh! Ye who bear the name of Christ, hear me fully before you condemn.—Let us first examine together the Word of God, and then you will know what has moved me to sacrifice property and friendship, and home and reputation. With christian patience and christian love, give me your attention to the close of this letter, whilst I endeavor to show you that the Holy God disapproves American Slavery.”

A good expositor, Brisbane started in Genesis and systematically proceeded through the Bible to the Epistles, laying out what the Bible teaches about slavery and separation from slavery—its concept, practice, and even associations.

In 1853, Brisbane moved to Madison, Wis., and became pastor of its First Baptist Church. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he preached on March 3, 1861, an incendiary message, “Duty of the Northern States in Relation to the Future of Slavery.” He might have gotten by with it if he had only preached the sermon, but many in the state legislature were in attendance (the church being on Capitol Square) and petitioned him to publish his sermon for wider circulation. As a result, he lost yet another church.

Col. C. C. Washburn appointed Brisbane chaplain of the 2nd Regiment Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry. (Washburn rose to major general and became a U.S. senator and Wisconsin governor.) While the regiment was on patrol duty in Missouri, Brisbane resigned due to ill health (he was 56). His old friend S. P. Chase appointed him chairman of the U.S. Direct Tax Commission for South Carolina. In this role, Brisbane confiscated the plantations of his relatives and former neighbors, for which he was “the most hated man in the Beaufort District,” and even his memory is still hated there. The day Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective (Jan. 1, 1863), it was Brisbane who read it at Port Royal to the first group of freed slaves. Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the white commander of black troops on duty, termed this “an infinitely appropriate thing.”

After the war, Brisbane returned to Wisconsin, where he practiced medicine and became pastor of the Baptist church in Arena. The slaveholder-cum-abolitionist who had actually freed slaves was a popular speaker at political rallies and church conventions until his death in 1878.

Not only a regular Baptist, Brisbane was a separatist Baptist at that. Although he lived and ministered a century prior to inception of the GARBC, there is yet a connection. The Reverend Doctor William Henry Brisbane was my great-great-grandfather.

Wallace Alcorn (PhD, New York University) is a retired GARBC chaplain and GARBC pastor who lives in Austin, Minn. His first article for the Baptist Bulletin was published in 1957. He formerly taught at Moody Bible Institute and Northwest Baptist Seminary, Tacoma, Wash. Read more about William Henry Brisbane at the author’s website, wallacealcorn.org.