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The Anti-Slavery Society of Canada, 1851
   The Rev. Samuel Ringgold Ward. PHOTO CREDIT: WIKIPEDIA
By the Rev. Peter Bush, former Moderator of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and editor of
Presbyterian History
Note: The following in no way seeks to minimize the deep challenges raised by Black Lives Matter. Nor does it claim special status for the white individuals identified. The goal is to demonstrate that the present moment (2020) is part of a conver- sation and struggle that has been going on for a long time.
The Fugitive Slave Act, adopted by the United States Congress in Sep- tember 1850, had a galvanizing im- pact on the anti-slavery activists in Canada. The buying and selling of slaves, “The Slave Trade” had been abolished in Canada and throughout the British empire in 1807, and fur- ther all slaves in the British empire were freed by order of the British
Parliament on Aug. 1, 1834. With that, Canada became a safe place for former slaves to go to as they es- caped their enslavement in the United States. The Free Church of Scotland Synod of Upper Canada, among other groups, invested in providing former slaves from the United States with opportunities to live and farm in safety in Canada.
The Fugitive Slave Act posed a threat to former slaves in Canada. The act gave Americans the power to pursue, capture and return for- mer slaves to their owners from anywhere the former slaves might be living, including Canada. (The American government claimed the authority to empower its citizens in this way. British authorities—the Ca- nadian government at the time—did not recognize that right.) A number of bounty hunters did cross the border into Canada seeking to capture for- mer slaves.
This threat to the Black community in Canada and the disregard for Can- ada’s independence from the United States, drew the ire of George Brown, the fiery editor of the Globe and an evangelical Presbyterian. For months through the fall of 1850, Brown used his editorials to bring readers’ atten- tion to the wrongs of slavery and the American infringement into Canadian life.
On Feb. 26, 1851, in Toronto City Hall, the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada was born. The Board of 34 was made up of nine clergy, promi- nent leaders from the Black com- munity (including Wilson Abbott),
reform-minded politicians and busi- nesspeople. There were three Pres- byterian clergy, including the Rev. Dr. M. Willis of Knox College (who, at the founding meeting, was elected the Society’s President) and the Rev. Dr. Robert Burns of Knox Church, To- ronto. Almost every Presbyterian on the Board, including the lay people, was part of the Knox College–Knox Church connection, including George and Peter Brown.
At its founding meeting the Soci- ety laid out its mandate: a) “to aid in the extinction of slavery all over the world, by means...lawful and peace- able, moral and religious,” which included the distribution of literature, sponsoring speaking tours, and lob- bying political and society leaders; and, b) “by manifesting sympathy with the houseless and homeless victims of slavery flying to our soil.”
The meeting passed the following resolution:
“Entertaining the feelings of [sib- lings] and friends to the inhabitants of the neighbouring States, and dis- claiming all desire to intermeddle of- ficiously with their internal affairs, we feel we but take the privilege of our common humanity, in asserting that the Slavery enforced under their laws is...the forced servitude in perpetu- ity of the...unaccused, untried, and
These laws—grievously aggra-
vated by the Fugitive Slave Bill—are at open variance with the best inter- ests of humanity, as endowed by our Great Creator with the privilege ‘of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happi- ness.’”
The Society believed it had an ob- ligation as fellow human beings and sharers of the North American conti- nent to hold the American people to account. The quotation from the Dec- laration of Independence was a fasci- nating twist in the argument against slavery. The Canadians were shrewd and intentional in their goal of making slavery extinct.
In the fall of 1851, the Society be- came aware that the Black abolition- ist, the Rev. Samuel Ringgold Ward, had arrived in Toronto. The Society quickly added him to the Board and hired him for a speaking tour which included opening Society branches in: Grey County, Hamilton, Kingston and Windsor.
The Rev. Dr. Willis as the president of the Society was invited to attend the American and Foreign Anti-Slav- ery Society’s Annual meeting May 6, 1851, held in New York City. Willis, welcomed with open arms by the American-led Society, brought greet- ings to the morning business meet-
ing where his words were received “with cheers” from the audience. In the three-hour afternoon session, Willis again brought greetings to the large crowd gathered. Willis spoke between speeches that were given by Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Finney. That Willis shared the same stage with these iconic American preachers indicates the respect with which the Americans regarded the Canadian Anti-Slavery movement and Willis.
This is but one snapshot in the story of the role and place of Cana- dian Presbyterians in the relationship between Blacks and non-Blacks in Canada and North America.
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