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In the Classroom > African Americans Lessons

Ministers Owned Slaves

Grade Level: High School

Massachusetts High School History and Social Science Learning Standards

United States History I

USI.7 Explain the roles of various founders at the Constitutional Convention. Describe the major debates that occurred at the Convention and the “Great Compromise” that was reached. Major Debates:

  • B. the rights of individuals
  • D. slavery

Summary and Objective

It is difficult for many in this country today to imagine why northern ministers living in the 17th through 19th centuries would approve of the institution of slavery and go so far as to own slaves themselves. In this lesson students will argue the cases for and against slavery from the standpoints of those living in New England in the early 18th century. Students will understand that many Northern ministers thought it their Christian duty to keep slaves. Students will also understand that there were those who were opposed to these views.

Needed for the Lesson

  • Excerpts from The Selling of Joseph. A Memorial
  • From an article by Sewall published in a London newspaper, The Athenian Oracle, in 1704
  • Rev. Cotton Mather A Good Master Well Served…
  • Excerpts from The Negro Christianized.
  • Teaching the Lesson

    The Reverends John Williams and Jonathan Ashley were both slave-owning ministers living in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in the 18th century. John Williams, who lived from 1664 to 1729, owned 5 slaves. He performed the marriage ceremony for 2 of them, Frank and Parthena, in 1703. Jonathan Ashley, who lived from 1712 to 1780, owned 3 slaves. He baptized one of them, Cato, in 1739.

    • Today many of us are shocked to learn that northern ministers owned slaves. Why is this shocking?

    Divide the class in half. One half will compose a letter to either John Williams or Jonathan Ashley criticizing them for owning slaves. The other half of the class will write a rebuttal using the voice of either reverend.

    After sharing the letters, ask the whole class:

    • Why are the views of these people, whether pro or con, different from our views today?
    • What did you learn by doing this exercise?

    For those taking the antislavery stance

    Samuel Sewall was a merchant and member of the Governor's Council in Massachusetts from 1691 to 1725. In 1700, Sewall condemned slavery in a piece titled, The Selling of Joseph. A Memorial. In 1704, he wrote an antislavery article in a London newspaper. You will be reading excerpts from these two pieces. Consider the following when you compose your letter to one of Deerfield's ministers:

    • According to Sewall, what rights do slaves have?
    • What does Sewall think of slaves, regardless of whether they should be free or not?
    • What are the main reasons why Sewall is against slavery?

    For those taking the proslavery stance

    Cotton Mather was a slave owner and Massachusetts minister from a famous family of ministers. His cousin, Eunice Mather, married Deerfield's first minister, John Williams, the same man mentioned earlier who owned 5 slaves. Cotton Mather wrote several pieces in support of slavery. A Good Master Well Served, was written in 1696, and The Negro Christianized, was written in 1706. You will be reading excerpts from these two pieces. Consider the following when you write your rebuttal:

    • In what ways were slaves considered to be on a par with those of European descent?
    • In what ways were they considered inferior to their masters?
    • What is the best way to treat slaves?
    • How is a minister doing good work in the eyes of the Lord by keeping slaves?

    Possible answers to the discussion questions

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