Free Church ‘sorrow’ over slavery ‘historical sins’

The statement was endorsed by the church’s General Assembly in Edinburgh last weekThe statement was endorsed by the church’s General Assembly in Edinburgh last week
The statement was endorsed by the church’s General Assembly in Edinburgh last week
​The Free Church of Scotland has expressed “sorrow” about the denomination’s historic links with slavery and has strongly asserted its opposition to “all forms of racism and slavery”.

​It is “unlikely”, says the statement, that the Free Church of today continues to benefit from funds raised 180 years ago from American slave-owners.

Endorsed by the church’s General Assembly in Edinburgh last week, the statement seeks to draw a line under an episode in the church’s early history. In recent years, interest has been revived by campaigns for such wrongs to be acknowledged and apologised for.

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The Disruption which led to the formation of the Free Church in 1843 created a great deal of interest in America and led to a Free Church delegation visiting the country – still a fairly loose federation of 28 states, each with its own laws – the following year.

Churches and manses having remained with the Church of Scotland, the urgent need was to raise money. The delegation secured £3000 from Presbyterian churches in the southern states, leading to an indignant outcry from abolitionists.

Overtures to the 1844 General Assembly were resisted by the leadership. In 1846, anti-slavery organisations in America sent their own delegation to Scotland to demand that the Free Church should return the money.

A Free Church Anti-Slavery Society was founded but the church’s leadership, while condemning slavery, refused to return the money which was worth about £320,000 in today’s value. The row rumbled on for years before being overtaken by other events.

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Last week’s statement declared: “The Free Church of Scotland is firmly opposed to all forms of racism and slavery. The Bible teaches that everyone is made in the image of God and worthy of inherent dignity and respect. We are all equal in the eyes of God and the Bible urges us to love one another without partiality.

“Many of our congregations and individual members are financially, prayerfully, and actively engaged with organisations working to release and protect people from modern-day slavery and trafficking”.

It continued: “The Free Church recognises and freely admits the historical sins of members of the denomination in relation to slavery. In particular we express regret over the interaction between members of a Free Church delegation that visited the USA in 1844 and some of their US associates. We grieve that the Free Church decided to receive funds as a result of the delegation.

“Even though we, as the Free Church today, are unlikely to be the beneficiaries of these funds due to the various transfers of property to other denominations, yet as their successors we acknowledge with sorrow the actions of our forebears who held the name of Free Church office holders.

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“We express gratitude for the many Free Church members and office holders who actively opposed the slave trade and expressed opposition to it.

“The Free Church affirms the necessity for constant watchfulness against oppression in various forms, and we continue to commit ourselves to the opposition of modern-day slavery and racism.”