A Review of a Letter From the Presbytery of Chillicothe, to the Presbytery of Mississippi on the Subject of Slavery
Scope and Contents
This small volume provides a controversial look at the issue of slavery and abolition. On November 28, 1835 the Presbytery of Chillicothe, Ohio, adopted a set of resolutions that condemned slavery as "a heinous sin and scandal" and demanded that all churches find slaveholders "guilty of a great sin . . . to be dealt with, as for other scandalous crimes." These resolutions were sent by Jno. P. VanDyke to James Smylie with the request that the Presbytery of Mississippi endorse them and adopt them as basic tenets of the church in Mississippi. However, Smylie, a slaveholder himself, disagreed with the resolutions and responded to the letter with a condemnation of the clergy and members of the Chillicothe Presbytery. He wrote a lengthy response, dated February 15, 1836, where he cited various passages from the Bible as proof that slavery was not sinful, according to scripture. Although this small volume was not, as some have claimed, the first defense of slavery written by a southerner, it was among the first to respond formally to the idea of abolitionism. It also was, at the time, the most extended defense of slavery written by a southerner. Smylie's defense rested largely on scriptural and religious arguments, and because of this its publication and wide distribution throughout America made it a critical document in the development of proslavery sentiments in the South. And as a supplement to Smylie’s writings, a letter from the clerk of the Amite Presbytery, written by Benjamin Chase on March 18, 1836, is also included in this volume. Chase agrees with Smylie that slavery itself is not sinful, and he advises that the church should only concern itself with preaching the Gospel, and not interfere with political matters.
- 1835-11-28 - 1836-03-18
- Publication: 1836
Conditions Governing Access
This non-circulating collection is located in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections, Miami University Libraries. For library use only.
Biographical / Historical
The printer of this pamphlet is William A. Norris and Company, which was located in Woodville, Mississippi, a small town located just north of the Louisiana border. William A. Norris and Co. also owned the “Woodville Republican,” Mississippi’s oldest newspaper. This pamphlet is one of Woodville’s earliest imprints.
James Smylie was born in 1780 in the Guilford County of North Carolina of Scots-Irish parentage. Not much is known about his early life, except for the fact that he did attend the David Caldwell School, which was also known as Log College. In 1804 Smylie was licensed for the ministry by the Orange Presbytery, and was ordained by them two years later. Then he requested to be sent as a missionary to the Mississippi territory.
Smylie was sent to the town of Washington, Adams County, where he organized the first Presbyterian church in what would later become the state of Mississippi. He also opened a classical school, which was modeled on the one that he attended. Smylie’s school was said to be the first institution of learning in Mississippi. Later, in 1811, Smylie moved to Amite County, MS, and established another church called Pine Ridge. At the same time, Smylie also became a land-holding planter and developed a plantation that made him moderately wealthy. And although he continued to preach at neighboring churches until his death, he seemingly did not participate often in the active pastoral ministry after moving to Amite. In his later years he spent more of his time instructing his and his neighbors' slaves both in Scriptures and in the Westminster catechism. Smylie also married three times and had one child in each marriage.
James Smylie is known chiefly for two things. The first was that he established Presbyterianism formally in Mississippi. He formed the first church in the territory, and he helped to organize the first presbytery for Mississippi. In 1814 he personally persuaded the members of the West Tennessee Presbytery to petition the Synod of Kentucky to create a presbytery in Mississippi. The following year the Synod of Kentucky agreed, which enabled Smylie to call the first meeting of the Mississippi Presbytery on March 15, 1816. Smylie was elected state clerk of the presbytery, which was a position that he held for most of the remainder of his life.
The other thing that Smylie is known for is being the recipient of a celebrated letter in the early history of attempts to abolish slavery. On November 28, 1835 the Presbytery of Chillicothe, Ohio sent a letter written by Jno. P. VanDyke to the Presbytery of Mississippi. The letter included a list of nine resolutions that condemned slavery as a sin and stipulated that members of the church who engaged in such practices should be dealt with as they would be if they had committed other scandalous crimes. The Presbytery of Chillicothe asked the Presbytery of Mississippi to adopt the resolutions for their church as they saw fit. However, the response sent by James Smylie was in total disagreement with the resolutions. He wrote a lengthy response, dated February 15, 1836, where he cited various passages from the Bible as proof that slavery was not sinful, according to scripture. Although this small volume was not, as some have claimed, the first defense of slavery written by a southerner, it was among the first to respond formally to the idea of abolitionism. It also was, at the time, the most extended defense of slavery written by a southerner. Smylie's defense rested largely on scriptural and religious arguments, and because of this its publication and wide distribution throughout America made it a critical document in the development of proslavery sentiments in the South.
Language of Materials
This 1836 pamphlet includes correspondence back and forth between the Presbytery of Chillicothe, Ohio, and the Presbytery of Mississippi. The Presbytery of Chillicothe presents nine resolutions it has adopted regarding considering slavery a sin and committing to punish members of the church who perpetuate it. They ask the Presbytery of Mississippi to consider adopting the same resolutions, but in a lengthy response James Smylie disagrees with the resolutions. Citing various passages from the Bible, he argues that slavery is not itself a sin, according to scripture. Instead, he and a fellow clerk at the Amite Presbytery argue that the church should only concern itself with teaching the Gospel, and should stay out of political affairs.
Introduction; p. 3-5
The Chillicothe Letter to the Presbytery of Mississippi; p.7-9
Section I; p. 11-16
Section II; p. 16-24 Section III; p. 24-30
Section IV; p. 30-34
Section V; p. 34-42 Section VI; p. 42-48
Section VII; p. 48-53
Section VIII; p. 53-58 Section IX; p. 58-62
Section X; p. 62-69
Section XI; p. 69-76
Appendix; p. 77-79
Errata; p. 80
Supplement; p. 81-87
Errata; p. 88
Existence and Location of Copies
A record exists for this work in the Miami University catalog. It can be accessed at the following link: https://holmes.lib.miamioh.edu/record=b3474500~S9. This page also includes a link to Sabin Americana online, where a full digital version of this work can be accessed.
See also the External Documents section.
- James Smylie Collection
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- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
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