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The Abolition Movement in Stirling: North Parish Church and Rev. M. Johnson

Murray Place postcard
Murray Place, Courtesy of Stirling Archives

This Black History Month we have decided to explore Stirling’s lost heritage and its links with the Abolition Movement and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. All of the buildings we’ll be exploring have been demolished, but that doesn’t mean their role in Stirling’s history should be forgotten. Their legacies often live on in modern place names, as well as in photographs and newspaper articles.

Stirling is not a port city, so you might be surprised to learn that the city’s wealth and built heritage has links to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Men who had made their fortunes through the slave trade settled and built their impressive houses in Stirling throughout the 19th century. However, whilst some of Stirling’s residents owned enslaved people until the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, others, including the Guildry of Stirling, had been demanding the abolition of the slave trade since 1792, stating unanimously that: ‘the practice of kidnapping and buying slaves on the coast of Africa and afterwards exposing them to sale is contrary to the inherent laws of humanity and repugnant to those principles of justice and civilization which are the reputed characteristics of the British Constitution’.

stylized photo postcard, sepia. Looking down a road, at the far end Stirling Free North Church, horse drawn carts and peole in edwardian dress walk along the street.
Murray Place Postcard, Courtesy of Stirling Archive

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Scots were involved in the Abolition Movement, with churches acting as important hubs, locally and nationally, for the movement. North Parish Church in Stirling town centre was one of these hubs. This Norman and Romanesque inspired church opened for worship in 1842 but was demolished in 1969, and the site is now home to the Thistles Shopping Centre. Thankfully, Stirling Archives hold a wonderful collection of postcards, many of which show Murray Place and the church before the Thistles Centre was built. The Archives also hold a variety of records for North Parish Church, including kirk session minutes. If you would ever like to go in and have a look at these, you can book an appointment online.

On Thursday 9 May 1861, The Stirling Observer reported on ‘a most interesting lecture’ delivered by Rev. M. Johnson at North Church. Rev. Johnson had been enslaved on a plantation in Kentucky until he managed to escape, making him a fugitive. If caught, he would have been returned to his ‘owner’. At the time of the Lecture, Johnson had just completed 4 years of medical and theological studies at the University of Edinburgh, as he wanted to become a doctor and eventually travel to Africa as a missionary.

Sepia photo of the church, vintage cars and bus drive along the street in front.
North Parish Church, Murray Place. Courtesy of Stirling Archives.

Just a year or so before Rev. Johnson gave his lecture in Stirling, the last known slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States, arrived at Mobile Bay. After this voyage, the ship was scuttled by its owner in an attempt to destroy evidence, because the importation of slaves to America had actually been illegal since 1807/8. On February 8 1861, mere moths before Rev. Johnson’s lecture, seven slave states had seceded from the United States of America to form the Confederacy, and as a result the American Civil War began on April 12, 1861.

A Stirling Observer journalist reported on Rev Johnson’s incredible story, some of which we’ve transcribed below:

He alluded in feeling terms of the conflicting emotions he felt before he made up his mind to flee from the plantation in the States where he had been a slave; his master had been an exception to many overbearing slave-owners; he feared on the one hand that his owner might die, and he might be transferred to the hands of a tyrannical slave-dealer; again there was the prospect that by his death he might make his escape.

He described the affecting parting from his sister, and the obstacles met with by the negro in making his escape owing to the presence of venomous reptiles; the crossing of swamps, rivers and mountains, all of which had to be overcome by dauntless perseverance, patience and courage.

He referred to the great advantage the North Star was to the fugitive slave in guiding him northwards to the Canadian frontiers, the land of freedom, and gave a graphic account of the obstacles successfully overcome by Mr Torry in the organisation of means for the formation of the underground railroad, describing its origin and complete success, with the facilities it afforded to the negro in making his escape, and hastening and completing his emancipation from bondage.

The lecturer, who occasionally broke out in burts of eloquent declamation, was listened to throughout with close attention and deep interest.

Although many people were Abolitionists, the road to emancipation was long and difficult, as so many British people had financially benefitted from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and were integral to its development. The Royal African Company was founded in 1660 and went on to ship more Africans to the Americas than any other company in the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and was owned by the British Crown. By 1688 Quakers in Belgium and Germany were already opposing slavery, and encouraged British Quakers to take up the cause.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which abolished slave trading throughout the British Empire, was passed in 1807 following years of campaigning by the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, est. 1787. Unfortunately, this did not put an end to slavery. In 1833 The Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which set out a gradual plan to abolish slavery throughout most of the British Empire over 6 years. In 1838 all enslaved peoples in British colonies were freed after a period of forced apprenticeship, and the British and foreign Anti-Slavery Society was founded to outlaw slavery in other countries. It is the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, and still operates as Anti-Slavery International.

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