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  • “A Strange Kind of Christian”David Barrow and Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery, Examined; on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy, and Scripture
  • Keith Harper (bio)

The Reverend David Barrow had many reasons to rejoice in 1784. America had secured independence from Great Britain, a cause Barrow had enthusiastically supported. In his home state of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison spoke openly of toleration and freedom for religious dissenters. Moreover, Virginia was on the brink of a religious revival. Soon souls would profess faith by the dozens, including many African Americans. Notwithstanding the “good life” that seemed to lay ahead, Barrow was a troubled man. The American Revolution had promised freedom for all men, but Barrow was having difficulty squaring Revolutionary rhetoric with post-Revolutionary reality with respect to slavery. Was it right to own slaves while professing Christianity? Barrow became increasingly vexed by the question until he could no longer stand it. By year’s end, he had freed his slaves and he encouraged others to do likewise.

David Barrow was born in Brunswick County, Virginia in 1753. While the details are unknown, he likely converted sometime in the 1760s during the southern phase of the Great Awakening. Scores of Virginians embraced the emotionalism of eighteenth-century revivalism and many converts, like Barrow, went one step further and became Baptists. In submitting to baptism by immersion, they formally and publically separated themselves from their former churches. Hence, they styled themselves “Separate Baptists.” Barrow began preaching in 1771 and served various churches in Virginia and North Carolina until the1790s, when he relocated to Kentucky. His contemporaries recognized him as a zealous preacher who willingly suffered for what he believed. In 1778 he was attacked by a mob and nearly drowned. Undaunted, Barrow continued to preach, thus increasing his stature among his peers.1

Over time, Barrow had grown restless in Virginia and looked to Kentucky as a place where he might make a fresh start. He made a brief excursion into the Commonwealth in 1795 and moved his family there in 1798. Before leaving Virginia, he penned a circular letter that detailed his theological convictions, his political stance, and his reasons for moving. He professed no ill will toward anyone. [End Page 68] Rather, Barrow claimed that he wanted to pay his debts, provide for his family, and practice Christian hospitality. He believed Kentucky afforded more opportunity than Virginia but as an ardent republican, Barrow also stated his strong desire to see all slaves emancipated.2

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Title page from Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery, Examined; on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy, and Scripture by David Barrow.


[End Page 69]

Barrow had not been in Kentucky long before revival swept through the Commonwealth. Significant numbers of slave conversions may have rekindled Barrow’s commitment to revolutionary idealism and before long, he renewed his call to fellow-Baptists to free their slaves. Baptists who maintain common theological beliefs and worship according to similar forms tend to form associations for fellowship and mutual edification. Barrow’s church, Mount Sterling, affiliated with the North District Association and in 1806 the Association expelled him from their fellowship for preaching against slavery. The Association even tried to get him removed from his pastorate. Granted, Barrow and other emancipationists were a minority in the state, but they were becoming increasingly troublesome to the majority of Kentucky’s Baptists who had deemed slavery a “political issue” and thought it best not to “meddle with emancipation.”3

In 1807 David Barrow along with ten other emancipationist ministers from Kentucky and Ohio established the Baptized Licking-Locust Association, Friends of Humanity. This Association facilitated fellowship among Kentucky’s emancipationist Baptists. In that same year, his ground breaking work, Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery, Examined; on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy, and Scripture, challenged slavery on every ground that proponents used to justify its existence. The title is self-explanatory. No matter how one might try, David Barrow maintained that it was impossible to legitimize slavery. Most of his fellow Baptists found Barrow’s arguments unconvincing. Nonetheless, one scholar maintains that his...


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