North Lake College Stephen Symonds Foster TheBrotherhood of Thieves (1843)

DOCUMENT #1 – Stephen Symonds Foster, TheBrotherhood of Thieves (1843)

New Hampshire reformer Stephen Symonds Foster studied for the ministry but left Union Theological Seminary when the faculty demanded he stop giving antislavery lectures. Throughout his career, he sought to hold the church accountable for what he viewed as its complicity in slavery. Foster’s incendiary rhetoric thrilled his supporters and often led his opponents to respond with violence. In the following document, he describes a speech he gave in Nantucket in 1842 that provoked an anti-abolitionist riot.

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I said at your meeting, among other things, that the American church and clergy, as a body, were thieves, adulterers, man-stealers, pirates, and murderers ; that the Methodist Episcopal church was more corrupt and profligate than any house of ill-fame in the city of New York; that the Southern ministers of that body were desirous of perpetuating slavery for the purpose of supplying themselves with concubines from among its hapless victims ; and that many of our clergymen were guilty of enormities that would disgrace an Algerian pirate!

These sentiments called forth a burst of holy indignation from the pious and dutiful advocates of the church and clergy, which overwhelmed the meeting with repeated showers of stones and rotten eggs, and eventually compelled me to leave your island, to prevent the shedding of human blood. But whence this violence and personal abuse, not only of the author of these obnoxious sentiments, but also of your own unoffending wives and daughters, whose faces and dresses, you will recollect, were covered with the most loathsome filth ? It is reported of the ancient Pharisees and their adherents, that they stoned Stephen to death for preaching doctrines at war with the popular religion of their times, and charging them with murder of the Son of God; but their successors of the modern church, it would seem, have discovered some new principle in theology, by which it is made their duty not only to stone the heretic himself, but all those also who may at any time be found listening to his discourse without a permit from their priest. Truly, the church is becoming “terrible as an army with banners.”

This violence and outrage on the part of the church were, no doubt, committed to the glory of God and the honor of religion, although the connection between rotten eggs and holiness of heart is not very obvious. It is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of religion which laymen cannot understand without the aid of the clergy; and I therefore suggest that the pulpit make it a subject of Sunday discourse. But are not the charges here alleged against the clergy strictly and literally true? I maintain that they are true to the very letter; that the clergy and their adherents are literally, and beyond all controversy, a “brotherhood of thieves;” and, in support of this opinion, I submit the following considerations:—

You will agree with me, I think, that slaveholding involves the commission of all the crimes specified in my first charge, viz., theft, adultery, man-stealing, piracy, and murder. But should you have any doubts on this subject, they will be easily removed by analyzing this atrocious outrage on the laws of God, and the rights and happiness of man, and examining separately the elements of which it is composed. Wesley, the celebrated founder of the Methodists, once denounced it as the “sum of all villa-nies.” I will not here express an opinion; but that it is the sum of at least five, and those by no means the least atrocious in the catalogue of human aberrations, will require but a small tax on your patience to prove.

1. Theft. To steal, is to take that which belongs to another, without his consent. Theft and robbery are, morally, the same act, different only in form. Both are included under the command, “Thou shalt not steal; ” that is, thou shalt not take thy neighbor’s property. Whoever, therefore, either secretly or by force, possesses himself of the property of another, is a thief. Now, no proposition is plainer than that every man owns his own industry. He who tills the soil has a right to its products, and cannot be deprived of them but by an act of felony. This principle furnishes the only solid basis for the right of private or individual property; and he who denies it, either in theory or practice, denies that right, also. But every slaveholder takes the entire industry of his slaves, from infancy to gray hairs; they dig the soil, but he receives its products. No matter how kind or humane the master may be,—he lives by plunder. He is emphatically a freebooter; and, as such, he is as much more despicable a character than the common horse-thief, as his depredations are more extensive,

2. Adultery. This crime is disregard for the requisitions of marriage. The conjugal relation has its foundation deep‘ laid in man’s nature, and its strict observance is essential to his happiness. Hence Jesus Christ has thrown around it the sacred sanction of his written law, and expressly declared that the man who violates it, even by a lustful eye, is an adulterer. But does the slaveholder respect this sacred relation? Is he cautious never to tread upon forbidden ground? No ! His very position makes him the minister of unbridled lust. By converting woman into a commodity to be bought and sold, and used by her claimant as his avarice or lust may dictate, he totally annihilates the marriage institution, and transforms the wife into what he very significantly terms a ” Breeder,” and her children into “Stock.”

This change in woman’s condition, from a free moral agent to a chattel, places her domestic relations entirely beyond her own control, and makes her a mere instrument for the gratification of another’s desires. The master claims her body as his property, and, of course, employs it for such purposes as best suit his inclinations,—demanding free access to her bed; nor can she resist his demands but at the peril of her life. Thus is her chastity left entirely unprotected, and she is made the lawful prey of every pale-faced libertine who may choose to prostitute her! To place woman in this situation, or to retain her in it when placed there by another, is the highest insult that anyone could possibly offer to the dignity and purity of her nature ; and the wretch who is guilty of it deserves an epithet compared with which adultery is spotless innocence. Rape is his crime! Death his desert,—if death be ever due to criminals! Am I too severe? Let the offence be done to a sister or daughter of yours; nay, let the Rev. Dr. Witherspoon, or some other ordained miscreant from the South, lay his vile hands on your own bosom companion, and do to her what he has done to the companion of another,—and what Prof. Stuart and Dr. Fisk say he may do, “without violating the Christian faith,”—and I fear not your reply. None but a moral monster ever consented to the enslavement of his own daughter, and none but fiends incarnate ever enslave the daughter of another. Indeed, I think the demons in hell would be ashamed to do to their fellow-demons what many of our clergy do to their own church members.

3 Man-stealing. What is it to steal a man? Is it not to claim him as your property?—to call him yours? God has given to every man an inalienable right to himself,—a right of which no conceivable circumstance of birth, or forms of law, can divest him; and he who interferes with the free and unrestricted exercise of that right, who, not content with the proprietorship of his own body, claims the body of his neighbor, is a man-stealer. This truth is self-evident. Every man, idiots and the insane only accepted, knows that he has no possible right to another’s body; and he who persists, for a moment, in claiming it, incurs the guilt of man-stealing. The plea of the slave-claimant, that he has bought, or inherited, his slaves, is of no avail. What right had he, I ask, to purchase, or to inherit, his neighbors? The purchase, or inheritance of them as a legacy, was itself a crime of no less enormity than the original act of kidnapping. But every slave-holder, whatever his profession or standing in society may be, lays his felonious hands on the body and soul of his equal brother, robs him of himself, converts him into an article of merchandise, and leaves him a mere chattel personal in the hands of his claimants. Hence he is a kidnapper, or man-thief.

4. Murder. Murder is an act of the mind, and not of the hand. “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.” A man may kill,—that is his hand may inflict a mortal blow,—without committing murder. On the other hand, he may commit murder without actually taking life. The intention constitutes the crime. He who, with a pistol at my breast, demands my pocket-book or my life, is a murderer, whichever I may choose to part with. And is not he a murderer, who, with the same deadly weapon, demands the surrender of what to me is of infinitely more value than my pocket-book, nay, than life itself—my liberty—myself— my wife and children—all that I possess on earth, or can hope for in heaven ? But this is the crime of which every slaveholder is guilty. He maintains his ascendency over his victims, extorting their unrequited labor, and sundering the dearest ties of kindred, only by the threat of extermination. With the slave, as every intelligent person knows, there is no alternative. It is submission or death, or, more frequently, protracted torture more horrible than death. Indeed, the South never sleeps, but on dirks, and pistols, and bowie knives, with a troop of bloodhounds standing sentry at every door! What, I ask, means this splendid enginery of death, which gilds the palace of the tyrant master? It tells the story of his guilt. The burnished steel which waits beneath his slumbering pillow, to drink the life-blood of outraged innocence, brands him as a murderer. It proves, beyond dispute, that the submission of his victims is the only reason why he has not already shed their blood.

By this brief analysis of slavery, we stamp upon the forehead of the slaveholder, with a brand deeper than that which marks the victim of his wrongs, the infamy of theft, adultery, man-stealing, piracy, and murder. We demonstrate, beyond the possibility of doubt, that he who enslaves another—that is, robs him of his right to himself, to his own hands, and head, and feet, and transforms him from a free moral agent into a mere bride, to obey, not the commands of God, but his claimant—is guilty of every one of these atrocious crimes. And in doing this, we have only demonstrated what, to every reflecting mind, is self-evident. Every man, if he would but make the case of the slave his own, would feel in his inmost soul the truth and justice of this charge. But these are the crimes which I have alleged against the American church and clergy. Hence, to sustain my charge against them, it only remains for me to show that they are slaveholders. That they are slaveholders—party to a conspiracy against the liberty of more than two millions of our countrymen, and as such, are guilty of the crimes of which they stand accused—I affirm, and will now proceed to prove.

DOCUMENT #2 – DeBow’s Review – “Slavery and the Bible” September, 1850

This is a description of the moral and religious argument for slavery. It is a rebuttal to abolitionists that claim that slavery is religiously and socially immoral.

A very large party in the United States believe that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as our guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them, and have held and used them from childhood.

As we come to such opposite conclusions from the same foundation, it may be well to consider, whether the Bible teaches us anything whatever, in regard to slavery; if so, what it is and how is it taught.

The anti-slavery party maintain, that the bible teaches nothing directly upon the subject, but, that it establishes rules and principles of action, from which they infer, that in holding slaves, we are guilty of a moral wrong. This mode of reasoning would be perfectly fair, if the Bible really taught nothing directly upon the subject of slavery; but when that book applies the principles it lays down to the particular subject in controversy, we must take the application to be correct. We think we can show, that the Bible teaches clearly and conclusively that the holding of slaves is right; and if so, no deduction from general principles can make it wrong, if that book is true.

From the earliest period of our time down to the present moment, slavery has existed in some form or under some name, in almost every country of the globe. It existed in every country known, even by name, to any one of the sacred writers, at the time of his writing; yet none of them condemns it in the slightest degree. Would this have been the case had it been wrong in itself? would not someone o the host of sacred writers have spoken of this alleged crime, in such terms as to show, in a manner not to be misunderstood, that God wished all men to be equal?

Abraham, the chosen servant of God, had his bond servants, whose condition was similar to, or worse than, that of our slaves. He considered them as his property, to be bought and sold as any other property which he owned. In Genesis xvii, 13, 23, 27, we are told that God commanded Abraham to circumcise all his bond-servants, “bought with his money,” and that Abraham obeyed God’s commandment on this same day. In Genesis xx, 14, we are told that Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and men servants and women servants, and gave them to Abraham. In chapter xii, verse 14, we are told that Abraham possessed sheep and oxen, and he asses, and men servants and maid servants, and she asses, and camels. Also, in Genesis xxvi, 14, Isaac is said to have had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great store of servants. In other places in Genesis, they are spoken of, but always as property.

Jacob’s sons sold Joseph, their brother, to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. They agreed with each other that they would sell him, when the Ishmaelites were afar off, and before they could have known that the Ishmaelites would buy him; only they knew, that such sales were common in the country at the time. The narrative of Joseph’s life in Egypt, shows that the sale of slaves was common there.

No one can doubt, that Abraham regarded his servants as his property, and that they were so regarded in the country in which he lived. Not only was the bond-servant of Abraham considered his property, but the condition of the bond-servant was hereditary, or his child was a servant. In Genesis xvii, 13, God not only commanded Abraham to circumcise his servants, bought with his money, but also, those born in his house, and those which, at any future time, should be born in his house, or in that of any of his descendants; and in the twenty-third and twenty-seventh verses of the same chapter, we are told that Abraham did circumcise all his male servants, born in his house, on the same day. In chapter xiv of Genesis we are told, that Abraham took three hundred and eighteen trained servants, which had been born in his house, and pursued the kings who had carried off Lot. These three hundred and eighteen servants were born servants.

Let us now see what control Abraham exercised over these servants born in his house and bought with his money. God commanded Abraham to circumcise all his male servants—those born in his house were so numerous, that he had of them three hundred and eighteen men fit for battle. The command was, not that Abraham should use his influence over them and persuade them to be circumcised, but he and all his descendants are commanded to circumcise them—the crime and punishment for disobedience to this command, were to fall on him or his descendants. Now, in order that God could have required this from Abraham, with any degree of justice, it was necessary that Abraham should have had both the power over his servants, which was necessary to enable him to do this, and also, that he should have had the legal and moral right to exercise that power.

Circumcision was a requirement, until then, totally unknown. Abraham’s servants must have regarded it as a foolish whim of his own. Nothing else could have been considered more degrading to them, or more absurd to him. Yet, no one of all the immense number of his servants, refused to permit the circumcision to be performed. We may well suppose, that Abraham might have required anything else which his fancy dictated, and equally have enforced obedience, if it were not more absurd, painful or degrading.

When Sarai, Abraham’s wife, complained to him of the conduct of Hagar, her maid servant, he answered, “thy maid is in thy hand, do to her as it pleaseth thee,” showing that she wanted only her husband’s consent to punish Hagar as she pleased. We are then told, that, when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face into the wilderness—there the angel of the Lord found her; but, instead of relieving her distress, and sending her to some free country, he told her to return and submit herself to her mistress.

When Abraham pursued Chederlaomer, the king of Elam, he took his three hundred and eighteen servants, and his three friends, Aner, Eschol and Mamre, and recaptured a large amount of property which had been carried away from Sodom. But when the king of Sodom offered him all the property which he had taken, he refused everything, except what his servants had eaten and the portion of his three friends—answering immediately for himself and his servants, and refusing everything, but reserving the right to his friends to answer for themselves.

From the passages which I have recited and referred to, we can obtain some idea of the conditions of Abraham’s servants. They were property bought and sold for money; their services belonged to him, and was disposed of without their consent. Their condition was hereditary—the master could punish or chastise the slave, and even maim him, at his pleasure. He exercised rights which no southern planter would dare to exercise, and which a southern negro would not submit to.

Abraham was a worshiper of God; he had direct and immediate communication with him. He showed his willingness to obey God’s commands, even in offering his only son a sacrifice to God. He is spoken of by all the sacred writers, as one who was selected, from the whole human race, as the father of the faithful. God would not have so highly honored him, had he been living in constant and habitual violation of his laws: nor would he have required from him the performance of immaterial ceremonies, or of painful things not required by the moral law, and left him ignorantly to continue to violate his duties to his fellow men. Had our abolition friends been in God’s stead, they would have certainly acted in a very different manner. Is there one of them who will dare to say, he would have done better than God did?

But God, instead of teaching Abraham, his chosen servant, that it was immoral to use and buy his slaves, demanded from him the performance of certain things, which required that the relation of master and slave should be kept up, not only during Abraham’s time, but in all future ages. And when the angel of the Lord interfered between Sarai and Hagar, it was to cause the slave to submit to punishment inflicted by her mistress. Under like circumstances, our slaves are persuaded to go to Canada.

From what I have written, if it stood alone, I would infer that the holding of slaves was right, in some cases. But this is, by no means, all that is found in the Bible upon the subject. After the Israelites had been a long time in Egypt, they became servants to the Egyptians. At this time, God sent Moses, as a messenger, to bring them out of Egypt. Through Moses, God gave them laws by which they were to be governed. No law which came directly from him (the fountain of morality), can be considered morally wrong; it might be imperfect, in not providing for circumstances not then existing—but, so far as it does provide, the provisions are correct. Nothing which God ordained can be a crime, and nothing for which he gave express permission can be considered wrong.

In Leviticus xxv, we are told, that the Lord spake to Moses, saying: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them”—after various provisions of the law, the 39th verse reads as follows, in regard to servitude: “If thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee, then shalt not compel him to serve as a bond-servant, but as an hired servant,” &c.—clearly showing that there was a distinction between bond-servant and hired-servant. After providing for the case of a Hebrew servant, verses 44, 45, and 46, of the same law, read as follows: “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land; and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen forever.”

In Exodus xxi, 20, 21, we find this law: “And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand, he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.”

The 26th and 27th verses of the same chapter provide, that if the servant have lost an eye or a tooth, by a blow from the master, the servant should go free.

The 29th, 30th, 31st, and 32d verses provide, that if an ox was known to be vicious and killed a freeman, the ox and his owner were both put to death; but if he gored a bond-servant, the ox should be killed and the master should pay thirty shekels of silver: showing the distinction between bond and freemen.

The law given to the Israelites, in regard to circumcision, required the master to circumcise his male servant, bought with his money or born in his house; and, of course, it presupposes the right and power to enforce the circumcision.

Thus, we see that at a time when the Israelites had no slaves, but were themselves, in a manner, fugitive slaves, and when they had no use for slaves, being wanderers in a wilderness, and fed by God’s own hand, he provided laws for bringing in, buying, inheriting and governing, slaves, in the land unto which they were to be brought at the end of forty years. He made laws recognizing the right of property, in man and in his descendants, forever—the right to trade in that property, without any limit, except that the Israelites could not buy each other; and the right to punish the slave, with no limitation, except that if the slave should die under his master’s hand, the master should be punished—and if maimed, in certain ways, he had a right to freedom. These laws are worse, for the slave, than the laws of any southern State. They were provided, by God himself, for his chosen people. To any man, who admits that the Bible is given by inspiration from God, they prove that, in buying, selling, holding and using slaves, there is no moral guilt. Like all the institutions of the Deity, the holding of slaves may become criminal, by abuse of the slave; but the relation, in itself, is good and moral.

In the New Testament I find frequent mention of master and servant, and of their duties. Paul and Timothy, in writing to the Colossians, in the third chapter and twenty-second to twenty-fifth verses, exhort servants to obey their masters in all things, and not with eye-service; and in the fourth chapter and first verse, they exhort masters to give their servants what is just and equal.

Paul, in writing to Timothy, tells him to teach the same doctrine; and says, if any man teach otherwise, he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words: see 1 Timothy vi, 1–6. Peter, also (1 Peter ii, 18–24), exhorts servants to be obedient to their masters, not only to the good and gentle, but to the forward.

Now, we all know, that the condition of the servant of the Roman Empire, was much less free than that of the southern negro. His master had a more unlimited control over him; yet, the apostles say to servants, to submit to their masters—not only to the good and gentle, but to the forward; and to masters to give to their servants what is just and equal. Now, had they considered the relation of master and slave, one criminal or immoral, in itself, they must either have omitted to speak of it at all, or have condemned the relation altogether.

Paul wrote an epistle to Philemon, a Christian, a disciple of his, and a slaveholder. He sent it to him by Onesimus, also a convert, a slave of Philemon, who was a fugitive. In it, he prays Philemon to charge the fault of Onesimus to him, saying he would repay it, unless Philemon forgave it for his sake.

Now, had the holding of slaves been a crime, Paul’s duty to Philemon would have required him to instruct Philemon, that he had no rights over Onesimus, but that the attempt to hold him in servitude was criminal; and his duty to Onesimus would have been, in such case, to send him to some foreign free country, whereby he might have escaped from oppression. But Paul sent him back. Our northern friends think that they manage these matters better than Paul did.

We find, then, that both the Old and New Testaments speak of slavery—that they do not condemn the relation, but, on the contrary, expressly allow it or create it; and they give commands and exhortations, which are based upon its legality and propriety. It cannot, then, be wrong.

What we have written is founded solely upon the Bible, and can have no force, unless it is taken for truth. If that book is of divine origin, the holding of slaves is right: as that which God has permitted, recognized and commanded, cannot be inconsistent with his will.


1. What was the main argument the author made throughout this work? Is it a convincing argument? Why or why not?

2. Is it proper to compare a document written so many years before (2,000 years before 1850) to try to justify problems in a modern era? In other words, can something so old still provide relevance to the social problems of the time? Do you believe this was the case in 1850 when this review was written? Why or why not?