131 Primary Source Reading: Letter from Anthony Burns to the Baptist Church

In answer to my request by mail, under date July 13, 1855, for a letter of dismission in fellowship and of recommendation to another church, I have received a copy of the Front Royal Gazette, dated Nov. 8, 1855, in which I find a communication addressed to myself and signed by John Clark, as pastor of your body, covering your official action upon my request, as follows: —

            The Church Of Jesus Christ, At Union, Fauquier Co., Virginia.

            To all whom it may concern,

Whereas, Anthony Burns, a member of this church, has made application to us, by a letter to our pastor, for a letter of dismission, in fellowship, in order that he may unite with another church of the same faith and order; and whereas, it has been satisfactorily established before us, that the said Anthony Burns absconded from the service of his master, and refused to return voluntarily — thereby disobeying both the laws of God and man, although he subsequently obtained his freedom by purchase, yet we have now to consider him only as a fugitive from labor (as he was before his arrest and restoration to his master), have therefore Resolved, Unanimously, that he be excommunicated from this communion and fellowship of this church.

Done by order of the church, in regular church meeting, this twentieth day of October, 1855.

            Wm. W. West, Clerk.

Thus you have excommunicated me, on the charge of “disobeying both the laws of God and men,” “in absconding from the service of my master, and refusing to return voluntarily.”

I admit that I left my master (so called), and refused to return; but I deny that in this I disobeyed either the law of God, or any real law of men.

Look at my case, I was stolen and made a slave as soon as I was born. No man had any right to steal me. That manstealer who stole me trampled on my dearest rights. He committed an outrage on the law of God; therefore his manstealing gave him no right in me, and laid me under no obligation to be his slave. God made me a man — not a slave; and gave me the same right to myself that he have the man who stole me to himself. The great wrongs he has done me, in stealing me and making me a slave, in compelling me to work for him many years without wages, and in holding me as merchandize, — these wrongs could never put me under obligation to stay with him, or to return voluntarily, when once escaped.

You charge me that, in escaping, I disobeyed God’s law. No, indeed! That law which God wrote on the table of my heart, inspiring the love of freedom, and impelling me to seek it at every hazard, I obeyed, and, by the good hand of my God upon me, I walked out of the house of bondage.

I disobeyed no law of God revealed in the Bible. I read in Paul (Cor. 7:21), “But, if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.” I read in Moses (Deut. 23:15), “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell with thee, even among you in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not oppress him.” This implies my right to flee if I feel myself oppressed, and debars any man from delivering me again to my professed master.

I said I was stolen. God’s Word Declares, “He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:16) Why did you not ececute God’s law on the man who stole me from my mother’s arms? How is it that you trample down God’s law against the oppressor, and wrest it to condemn me, the innocent and oppressed? Have you forgotten that the New Testament classes “manstealers” with “murderers of fathers” and “murderers of mothers” with “manslaver and whoremongers?” (1 Tim. 1:9, 10)

The advice you volunteered to send me, along with this sentence of excommunication, exhorts me, when I shall come to preach like Paul, to send every runaway home to his master, as he did Onesimus to Philemon. Yes, indeed I would, if you would let me. I should love to send them back as he did, “NOT NOW AS A SERVANT, but above a servant: — A BROTHER — a brother beloved — both in the flesh and in the Lord;” both a brother man, and a brother-Christian. Such a relation would be delightful — to be put on a level, in position, with Paul himself. “If thou count me, therefore, a partner, receive him as myself.” I would to God that every fugitive had the privilege of returning to such a condition — to the embrace of such a Christianity — “not now as a servant, but above a servant,” — a “partner.” — even as Paul himself was to Philemon!

You charge me with disobeying the laws of men. I utterly deny that those things which outrage all right as laws. To be real laws, they must be founded in equity.

You have thrust me out of your church fellowship. So be it. You can do no more. You cannot exclude me from heaven; you cannot hinder my daily fellowship with God.

You have used your liberty of speech freely in exhorting and rebuking me. You are aware, that I too am now where I may think for myself, and can use great freedom of speech, too, if I please. I shall therefore be only returning the favor of your exhortation if I exhort you to study carefully the golden rule, which reads, “All things whatsoever ye would that men shoud do to you, do ye even so to them; fore this is the law and the prophets.” Would you like to be stolen, and then sold? and then worked without wages? and forbidden to read the Bible? and be torn from your wife and children? and then, if you were able to make yourself free, and should, as Paul said, “use it rather,” would you think it quite right to be cast out of the church for this? If it were done, so wickedly, would you be afraid God would indorse it? Suppose you were to put your soul in my soul’s stead; how would you read the law of love?


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

United States History I Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book