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  • “What Disturbed the Unitarian Church in This Very City?”:Alton, the Slavery Conflict, and Western Unitarianism
  • Lewis Perry (bio) and Matthew C. Sherman (bio)

In preparation for the 1858 Illinois senatorial campaign, Abraham Lincoln set down notes for a speech differentiating the Republican view of slavery from that of his Democratic rival, Stephen A. Douglas. Put simply, to Republicans slavery was "not only morally wrong, but a 'deadly poison' in a government like ours, professedly based on the equality of men." Angry controversy over slavery could not be forced to subside, as Democrats promised, by leaving the issue of its future expansion to voters in the territories or to justices on the Supreme Court. While Douglas professed not to care one way or the other about slavery's future, "nearly everybody" else had strong feelings on the issue. Rancorous conflict over slavery, which Democrats hoped could be "quieted and forgotten," was instead increasing. Furthermore, the poisonous dispute was not confined to politics: "Presbyterian assemblies, Methodist conferences, Unitarian gatherings, and single churches to an indefinite extent, are wrangling, and cracking, and going to pieces on the same question."1 [End Page 5]

The themes found in these notes became staples in the ensuing campaign, in which Lincoln repeatedly emphasized the failure of Democratic policies to put an end to escalating public conflict over slavery. Because one passage rehearses the theme that "a house divided against itself cannot stand" and warns that "the government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free," it is possible that the notes constitute an early draft of the June 16, 1858, "House Divided" speech given at the Republican state convention that named Lincoln their candidate for the U.S. Senate.2 But at the political convention he did not refer specifically to the fracturing of religious denominations, let alone to bitter divisions in local churches.

Lincoln does not appear to have spoken about religious conflict until a dramatic moment in the seventh and final of the debates with Douglas. On October 15, 1858, before a crowd of 5,000 or more in the city of Alton, Douglas charged, as he did frequently, that irresponsible agitation by Republican politicians, not slavery, was endangering the peace between North and South. This time, Lincoln replied that it was not just the government whose endurance was threatened; rather, the divisive effect of the slavery controversy was felt in all American institutions and, in particular, in the churches.

Does it not enter into the churches and rend them asunder? What divided the great Methodist Church into two parts, North and South? What has raised this constant disturbance in every Presbyterian general assembly that meets? What disturbed the Unitarian Church in this very city two years ago? What has jarred and shaken the great American Tract Society recently—not yet splitting it, but sure to divide it in the end? Is it not this same mighty, deep seated power that somehow operates on the minds of [End Page 6] men, exciting and stirring them up in every avenue of society—in politics, in religion, in literature, in morals, in all the manifold relations of life?3

Despite the drama inherent in this moment when Lincoln connected important events in the nation's politics to religious strife, some of it right in Alton, there has been almost no commentary on this passage.4 Our purpose here is to show what in fact had happened in Alton two years before (or as another reporter heard Lincoln say, "a few years ago") and to consider what those events tell us about the slavery controversy as a moral crisis reaching well beyond politics.5

Alton enjoyed an advantageous location on the Mississippi River a little north of St. Louis, close to the mouth of the Missouri River, and at the western end of a road crossing the Illinois territory from Vincennes, Indiana. Founded as Indian warfare subsided at the end of the War of 1812, its fortunes rose with the advent of steamboat commerce on the Mississippi. By the 1830s civic leaders, with eastern financial backing, had high aspirations to make Alton the state capital, to develop railroad and canal connections with other towns to south...


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