The debate about slavery in the United States proved contentious within both Unitarianism and Universalism. While some of the country's leading abolitionists were women and men who identified as Unitarian or Universalist, each of the young denominations struggled to articulate a unified stand. Churches in the Southern states felt the stresses acutely, because their congregational membership was drawn from both the North and the South and their ministers were most often Northerners. In the North, too, Unitarians and Universalists took a variety of positions on slavery, and some prominent Unitarians and Universalists debated on the national stage. For example, John Quincy Adams, a Unitarian, stood up against the agreement that kept Congress from debating slavery. In 1850, another Unitarian, President Millard Fillmore, signed the Fugitive Slave Law, reviled by most Unitarians in the North. Unitarian John C. Calhoun, Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, defended slavery, predicting chaos and hardship for both black and white people in the South, were slavery to end. The debate stretched over decades and generations as people changed their stances.
Elhanan Winchester, an American Universalist, spoke out against slavery in Virginia and published an anti-slavery address in 1787 in England, However, the first denominational action on antislavery came in 1790 when the Universalist Convention in Philadelphia adopted an antislavery resolution by the well-regarded Universalist Benjamin Rush, a signator of the Declaration of Independence.
As the 19th century opened different approaches to the abolition, accommodation, and critique of slavery emerged in both denominations. Conrad Wright has suggested that most Unitarians fell into one of three groups: those influenced by the prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who acted for the immediate cessation of slavery; those who sought a gradual end to the institution of slavery, so as to minimize disruption of the social, economic, and political order; and those who opposed slavery on moral grounds, but resisted making a political commitment to end it. An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, written by Unitarian Lydia Maria Child, firmly established the "Garrison" perspective within Unitarianism. Her work also greatly influenced William Ellery Channing.
The Transcendental movement, with its emphasis on self-culture and moral growth that required human freedom, added energy to the antislavery movement. In 1841, Theodore Parker preached powerfully, calling slavery "the great national sin" and ably linking his theology with his politics. In the 1840s, collective antislavery action intensified in both denominations. In 1841, the Universalists held their first Anti-Slavery Convention in Lynn, Massachusetts, followed by annual conferences that declared slavery inconsistent with Universalism. In 1845, when 173 Unitarian ministers signed A Protest Against American Slavery they mentioned the foundational documents of the country, saying to "constantly to profess one thing and constantly to practice another must destroy the sinews of national virtue."
By the end of the 1840s, the positions either promoting or discouraging antislavery action were well framed. Although most were opposed to slavery itself, not all Unitarians or Universalists supported the abolitionist position. Some preffered a more gradual approach to abolition, one that would assure financial compensation for those who had invested in the purchase of slaves and avoid major economic and social disorder. Many involved in churches and other traditional institutions believed continued prosperity and stability relied on social order and the tactics of many abolitionists were simply too radical and disruptive. Many Unitarians and Universalists, reluctant to condemn all slaveholders as sinners, acknowledged mitigating circumstances such as treating slaves in a manner co-religionists could deem "kind." In addition, some Unitarians had a large stake in the economic engines of the North—mills, banks, and shipping—and were reluctant to take actions that would threaten their own financial interests. Many who were willing to engage slavery as a moral and religious issue resisisted engaging it as a political issue: Their consciences fully appreciated the immorality of slavery, but they realizedrespect for law and order and feared the risk to the nation's unity.
The issues surrounding slavery brought the potential for conflict wherever they were aired. Ministers and congregations sometimes opposed one another, as did factions within congregations.
A significant turning point came in September, 1850 when Congress passed, and President Millard Fillmore signed into law, the Fugitive Slave Act. The law required the return of fugitive slaves to their masters in the South and required private citizens in the North to assist in their capture. Fillmore's aim in signing the bill into law was the protection of personal property and the Union. He wrote to Daniel Webster, "God knows I detest slavery, but . . . we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world." However, the Fugitive Slave Act went too far for even some of the antislavery gradualists, and energized those already impatient for slavery to end. The growing presence of abolitionist forces in Unitarianism, made the survival of fledgling Unitarian congregations in the South nearly impossible.
The story of Unitarianism, Universalism, and slavery continued beyond the Fugitive Slave Law, the Civil War, and Reconstruction of the South. In our own time, Unitarian Universalist minister David Pettee discovered that one of his white ancestors had been a slave trader and that enslaved Africans had lived in another ancestor's home. The discovery set Pettee on a search to uncover his familial roots to slavery, a search that led from Rhode Island to Ghana to Jamaica, New York, where he made contact with descendents of people who had been enslaved by his ancestors. Pettee's story is just one reminder that the legacy of slavery is with us still.