Stephen Symonds Foster, The Brotherhood of Thieves (1843)
DOCUMENT #1 – Stephen Symonds Foster, The Brotherhood 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.
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.
- 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,
- 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.
- 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.