Alexander McLeod and His Speech Against Slavery

Alexander McLeod and His Speech Against Slavery

In the fall of 1800, Alexander McLeod (1774-1833) received a call to become pastor of the Congregation in Coldenham, New York. It was the culmination of a training he had received since he was a child, back in the wild and scenic Isle of Mull, Scotland. It had also been the high aspiration of both his father, Rev. Niel McLeod, and his mother, Margaret McLean.

            Alexander might have wished they were there. But Rev. Niel had died when Alexander was five, and Margaret ten years later. Both losses had been difficult for the boy, but the pain he had felt at his mother’s death had been so devastating that people thought he might lose his reason. And yet, he continued his studies in Scotland until age 18, then traveled to America to complete his education, graduating with honors from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1798. He was licensed to preach the following year.

Against Slavery

            Now that the pastoral charge was finally before him, he hesitated to accept it. The congregation he was about to serve included several slaveholders, and he could not in good conscience allow that behavior to continue. In Scotland, the practice of owning slaves was abolished in 1778, when McLeod was still a child.

            The issue of slavery had been on the Presbytery’s agenda for some time, and McLeod’s stand brought it to a head, encouraging the unanimous decision that “no slaveholder should be allowed the communion of the church.” McLeod was installed in 1802.

            The same year, McLeod published a treatise entitled Negro Slavery Unjustifiable, clarifying why slavery can rightly be considered an excommunicable sin, even if the civil laws allowed it: “The toleration of slavery is a national evil. It is the worst of robberies sanctioned by law. It is treason against Heaven—a conspiracy against the liberties of His subjects. If the Judge of all the earth shall do right, He cannot but punish the guilty.”[1]

            It’s hard for us today to conceive how the arguments in favor of slavery could have gained ground in the church, but they did. Some justified it on the basis of presumed lesser intellectual capacities of the Africans, and went as far as saying that slavery was an improvement of their condition. But every man, Alexander said, “has a right, from the constitution given him by the Author of Nature, to dispose of himself, and be his own master in all respects, except in violating the will of Heaven.”[2]

            Most of his dissertation includes an exegetical examination and rebuttal of the Scriptural objections raised by slave-holders, who seemed more interested in using Scriptures (such as Genesis 9, on Noah’s curse of Canaan) for their advantage rather than studying them in their true context.

            He ended his treatise with a somber reflection and a gospel call. “In concluding this discourse, let me warn my hearers to consider the evil hand they may have in the system of slavery, and especially that they are by nature in the worst of slavery themselves. Come for deliverance from the bondage of sin unto the Son of God: for ‘whom the Son makes free shall be free indeed.’ Standing fast in this liberty, use it in the service of God and of man. ‘You are no more your own; ye are bought with a price. Glorify God in your bodies and spirits which are his.’ Amen.”[3]

Serving God and Others

            McLeod lived up to the same exhortation to serve God and others in gratitude for the ultimate freedom he had received in Christ. His treatise was republished both in the States and in Europe. An early copy was sent to Thomas Jefferson (typically reticent on granting intellectual equality to Africans), who corresponded with McLeod about the issue of slavery.

            McLeod didn’t stay at Coldenham long. In 1801, he answered a call to pastor a new congregation in Chambers Street, New York, where he remained until his death in 1833, in spite of many calls from other churches and colleges.

            While pastoring, he became involved in several organization, such as the American Colonization Society (for the freedom of slaves and returning them to Liberia, Africa), the New York Society for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, and the American Society for Ameliorating the Condition of the Jews. In 1830 he was elected Professor of Theology and editor of the American Christian Expositor, the first official magazine of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of America.

A Solid Hope During Raging Storms

            McLeod married Maria Anne Agnew in 1805. Together, the couple had eleven children. As it was frequent at that time, only four outlived their father.

            His biography, written by Samuel Brown Wylie, another minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, reveals many aspects of McLeod’s life and struggles that are often overlooked in the common attention on his important social work.

            His letters after the death of his young daughters, Susan and Mary Jane, in 1815, are a moving example of his emotional honesty with God and friends. “My poor debilitating wife wants your company,” he wrote to Wylie. “My people want your services, I, most of all, want a friend. … God strikes me often and sorely. My iniquities oppress my soul. Brother, pray for me.”[4]

            A few weeks later, he explained his anguish in greater detail. “On Tuesday morning, my fine daughter breathed her last. She now lies beside her younger sister, where not the fever nor the storm shall disturb them. Blow upon blow falls upon my offending head and my deceitful heart. You know how long I have desired a release from this body of death and world of trials; but my God - for yet I shall call Him mine - refuses my wishes and my prayers, and beats me on the sorest part, by slaying my beloved babes, one by one, before my eyes.”

            Was God unjust? Not when McLeod considered the gravity of human sin. “I have seen in the tortures of my infants the hatred of the Divinity against sin; and my works and my prayers, my knowledge and my experience, start up before my alarmed conscience, as a thing in which I cannot hope. Decked in their impurity and imperfection, it is I who have sinned more than these afflicted children who are torn from my bleeding heart; and both the experience and the labour of my life are a burden instead of a pillar on which my soul can rest.”

            And yet, McLeod knew that sin didn’t have the last word. “Oh, my brother, how inestimable is that word of truth upon which the faith of God’s elect may and doth rest! To that word I refer my all. It is my only comfort, and, resting upon the offer of the gift of God, I say: ‘Though He slay me, as He did my children, I will trust in Him.’ Excuse these effusions of a wounded spirit. You know the feelings of a father.”[5]

            McLeod continued to be remembered, among other things, for the clarity of his sermons and writings, for his passion for several social causes, and for his faithfulness to the gospel of Christ, as expressed in all of his sermons and writings, particularly in his 1810 essay, The Doctrine of the Atonement. The denomination in which he served is a predecessor of today’s Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).[6]

 



[1] Alexander McLeod, Negro Slavery Unjustifiable, A Discourse, New York, 1860, p. 21

[2] Ibid., p. 25

[3] Ibid., p. 46, quoting John 8:36 and 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.

[4] Samuel Brown Wylie, Memoir of Alexander McLeod, NY: Scribner, 1855, p. 268

[5] William Buell Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, vol. IX, NY: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1869, p. 20