When Presbyterian Congregations Owned Enslaved People

Timothy Isaiah Cho
5 min readNov 1, 2021

It is already a well-researched fact that Presbyterians in the United States individually owned enslaved people. What people may not know is that Presbyterian congregations as a body would also regularly own enslaved people, lease them out to others, and use these profits in order to fund endowments, pastors’ salaries, and other works of ministry. Dr. Jennifer Oast has done great research on this practice in Virginia.

The fact that Presbyterians would own enslaved people as congregations and not just individually actually heightens the discussion about reparations because there are clear ripple effects that impacted Presbyterianism in America due to profits made by the institution of slavery.

Institutional Slavery and Slave Leasing

These Presbyterian congregations (such as Briery Presbyterian Church and Cumberland Presbyterian Church) would lease their slaves to the highest bidders in order to increase profits for their congregation. These profits enabled these churches to exist without the need of regular tithing and giving by its members. Both the congregation as a body and individual members (both slaveowners and non-slaveowners) benefited from this practice of “institutional slavery,” as Dr. Oast calls it. Because tithing was no longer necessary but “extra,” individual members could utilize their extra profits towards whatever they wanted, including personal investments, savings to pass on generationally, funding schools and institutions, etc. When these members donated toward schools, seminaries, and Christian organizations, it was often because they had extra money to do so because of the endowment of leased slave labor. The ripple effect of societally and systemically wide impact is huge if we begin to think about it. Church-owned slaves massively shaped the life of Presbyterians in the political and social spheres of life.

Briery Presbyterian Church as a Microcosm of the Ripple Effects

Briery Presbyterian Church started raising funds for its first slaves in 1766, which included 3 women around the age of 20, a young boy around 11 years old, and a baby (likely one of the children of the 3 women) that the congregation purchased in 1774. There are no records of any other slaves purchased by the congregation. What this means is that from these 5 individuals, Briery Presbyterian began to reap the profits of leasing dozens of slaves through their children.

Many pastors, including the famous Archibald Alexander of Old Princeton, likely had their entire pastoral salary covered by the endowments created by the leasing of these slaves owned by Briery Presbyterian Church. Princeton Seminary itself was deeply tied with money gained from slave labor, and the institution likely would not have survived without it. Groups that split off from Old Princeton also carried this slave labor-gained money with them.

Furthermore, Presbyterian churches (like Briery Presbyterian Church) that eventually decided that they should no longer own slaves as a congregation did not free them but most often sold them for large sums of money. This money was then used for endowments so that the congregation could fund building renovations, etc. Or in some cases, the profit from selling enslaved persons was loaned out with interest in order to maximize the profits for the congregation. Yes, this was working fully within the system of capitalism. While some Presbyterians showed hesitancy about it, most could not imagine their institution surviving without either leasing slaves or selling them for large sums of money for other investments for the church. In fact, one of the main debates within Presbyterians in the U.S. regarding slavery was the fact that pro-slavery advocates would call out the hypocrisy of anti-slavery Presbyterians who were benefiting financially from the profits of leased slave labor.

“Always Kind to Their Slaves”

Lastly, one of the most common pro-slavery arguments amongst Presbyterians was that Christian slaveowners were always kind to their slaves, which is what influential figures like Robert Lewis Dabney would argue. Not only is the institution of slavery wrong in and of itself, but arguments like Dabney’s have been shown time and time again to be patently false. A recent example is from Daniel Kleven’s recent work shown below.

To bring the whole circle together, Dabney is also the designer of the currently standing Briery Presbyterian Church building.

What is fascinating is the fact that institutional slavery both heightened and weakened the practice of slavery. It heightened the practice because it became a life-source that rippled outward to wherever Presbyterianism had its impact in the U.S. But it also weakened it because of the fact that congregationally owned slaves could not have their ill treatment hidden from the public. Because they were leased to other people and businesses, enslaved people owned by Presbyterian churches were treated even more inhumanely because these those who were leasing their labor cared even less about their well-being. Some Presbyterians would bring up the public inhumane treatment of congregationally owned and leased slaves to show the evils of slavery. Yet even then, as mentioned earlier, congregations did not release their slaves but would sell them to clean their consciences, and yet use the proceeds to fund church endowments.

What Now?

Knowing this history about institutional slavery in Presbyterianism in America should at least make us pause to think about how much of a ripple effect it has had in contemporary Presbyterianism today. Think about all of the works of ministry that were funded by leased slave labor. Think about the extra 10% or more that each member of these churches had to invest in themselves or in Presbyterian institutions because of these endowments. Think about the seminaries who got their start and survival from the profits of both institutional slavery and individual slaveowners. Think about how even anti-slavery Presbyterians benefited financially from leased slave labor. The snowball effect piles up from generation to generation, and we haven’t even factored in the many historic disenfranchisements against Black Americans including sharecropping, Jim Crow, redlining, etc., of which Presbyterians were also actively involved in or passively enabling.

In fact, if you take all of this into consideration, the question of ecclesiastical reparations for Presbyterians is more than clear. There has indeed been a theft of massive and ongoing proportions that needs to be made right within Presbyterianism in the U.S. At the very least, Presbyterians need to see this as an urgent Now matter that needs to be addressed within our lifetime and not passed on to the next generation.