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40 years ago — George Bourne

40 years ago — July 13, 1981

As a nation we’re having a reckoning on race relations. An article from the past reveals Presbyterians have been engaged for a long time in this process. It was the early 1800s in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Presbyterian minister George Bourne was asked by a member of the church to preach against stealing. Some chickens were missing and the church member suspected slaves were the culprits. Bourne did preach against stealing, but not the way the slave owner had in mind. In his sermon he raised the issue of slavery as stealing. “What do you think of the sin of kidnapping men and women made in the image of God from the coast of Africa, whose whole crime is their color, and stealing and selling them into slavery? What do you think of those who continue the robbery, and sell their children for slaves? If theft of money, produce, poultry and other values is so great a crime, what terrible turpitude and depravity does it not evince to sell the image of God and keep men in bondage?”

“In 1815 Bourne brought to the General Assembly a paper signed by several Presbyterians requesting advice regarding the proper manner of dealing with slave holding church members. He observed that some teaching and ruling elders held slaves and that this was in violation of their ordination vows to uphold the Constitution of the Church which condemned ‘manstealing.’ He reported on instances of cruelty to slaves … and claimed one minister … tied up his slaves on Sunday and whipped them, then left them bound while he went to preach, and repeated the scourging after returning home.”

From “George Bourne: Prophet Without Honor” by William E. Phipps