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Delmarva Heritage Series

 * Thomas Bacon On Negro Education

Salisbury Times - May 8, 1958

Several months ago, while doing research at the Maryland Historical Society and the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, the author came across an article written by a former librarian of the Enoch Pratt Library and one of the foremost students of her history that Maryland has produced, the late Bernard C. Steiner.

A quotation from Steiner's article in The Independent, August 24, 1899, reads, "A century and a half ago, in one of the parishes of the Anglican Church situated on the broad Choptank River in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a true and sincere friend of the Negro lived and labored. His work died with him, but his plans and his endeavors were so much in advance of the times as to be worthy of remembrance. He was so far ahead of others that when men of later days followed in the same path, they found no trace of his footsteps, and his mane is almost forgotten." This man so highly praised was the Rev. Thomas Bacon, who arrived at the important colonial commercial port of Oxford in October, 1745. Bacon, although not a young man, decided after his ordination to offer his services to the church in the colonies. He was a man of many talents and interests but today's column is concerned only with his interest and activities among the Negroes.

THE PARISH of St. Peter's, of which Oxford was the principal town, was served by an old and feeble minister, and Bacon was engaged as his curate. When the aged minister died a few months later in March, 1746, Bacon became his successor. For the next 12 years St. Peter's Parish was under the charge of this remarkable man.

Bacon had been serving the parish but a few years when he wrote to his parishioners that since his appointment he had seriously and carefully examined the state of religion in the parish, and found a great many poor Negro slaves, belonging to Christian masters, living in as profound ignorance of what Christianity really was as if they had remained in the midst of their heathen countries.

His first attempts to deal with the problem consisted of conversations with people he met on the road, at his home or that of a neighbor. But he realized that the occasions, and the little Sunday evening meetings at his own house, were not affecting an answer to the Negro's religious needs. Therefore, he took the opportunity to preach to the Negroes of the parish special sermons, which also were well received by the white congregation. The text was Ephesians 6:8 - "Knowing whatsoever good thing any man doeth the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free." These sermons were even published, for Bacon wished to encourage other clergymen to take similar action in their parishes. But according to Steiner he had few imitators.

BACON WAS NOT to be classed as an abolitionist, for he was himself an owner of slaves, and he did not see that it was sinful: but he would make such an institution truly patriarchal. An intelligent and devout Christian, he referred to the Negroes as his "dear black brothers and sisters," who had a share in Christ's atonement. To God they owed such things as love, prayer, fear, and reverence, for God had given his own son that they too might be saved. Thus, if they were to receive God's freedom hereafter they had to strive to be good and serve Him in this life on earth.

Another duly mentioned in these sermons concerned the Negro's relationship to the masters placed over them by God, and to whom they owed implicit obedience except when evil deeds were required. The slaves were to serve their masters cheerfully, reverently, and with humility. But to themselves, the slaves owed duties of learning about God, using their leisure time profitably, and striving to gain God's blessing. If they would but follow such advice, according to bacon, they would gain a great and final reward. "God Himself, who hath made you what you are...hath promised you as large a share in the kingdom of Heaven as the greatest man alive, if you will but behave yourself aright."

THE REV. BACON did not view the Negro's position as a one sided affair; he did not limit his sermons to instructing slaves in their duties to the masters. As the Negro slave was in a sense a part of the family and absolutely under the master's power and direction, the slave-owner had a Christian duty also. Bacon preached a series of four sermons to the congregation, using text of Colossians 4:1 - "Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in Heaven."

The four sermons, which were considered sincere, tactful, affectionate, and practical by Steiner, concerned (1) the nature of obligation, (2) advantages arising from a due compliance of this obligation, (3) common excuses and objections to the obligation, and (4) the best manner of performing this obligation so as to discharge consciences and bring about the greatest probability of success.

IN THESE SERMONS, the Rev. Bacon laid stress on the unity and interdependence of mankind, especially from the point of view of domestic relations. According to this great minister, the servants stood in nearest relationship to the masters after his own family, for they were a part of the household and the ones whose services enabled the masters to enjoy the "gifts of Providence in ease and plenty," and who, therefore, should be given a just and equal return. "This nature and plain, unassisted reason might teach us. But when we further consider it as a positive command of Almighty God, who is our, as well as their, Master in heaven, it must needs receive a vast additional force and convince us that our want of love and gratitude to these poor serviceable creatures must be attended with the highest danger: the danger of bringing the wrath and indignation of our heavenly Master upon our heads; that great Master, to who we are as much accountable as they are, and, indeed, far more than they can be, because more is committed to our charge."

These sermons were reprinted at Winchester, Va., in 1817. But in 1817 the anti-slavery feeling of the South was changing and certain passages were omitted, especially the one about the duty of the owners to have their slaves baptized and appearing for them in person at the font or providing sufficient godfathers and godmothers for them in baptism.

SOMETIME within the next few years the Rev. Bacon began to expand his views concerning obligations to Negroes so as to include education. Talbot County, at that time, had only one school and poor families could not afford to sent their children, Bacon presented the idea (which he put into practice) of a free manual training school that would not bar children because of sex, race, or condition of servitude.

Bacon must have had the support of the vestry of St. Peter's Parish for that body in 1750 approved the spending of money for the creation of a Charity Working School. Bacon, himself, also must have been hard at work for by Fall he had collected over $400 and a subscription list was being circulated to raise more funds.

IN THE MIDDLE of October, 1750, Bacon, in a sermon on behalf of the school, explained the project to the people gathered at the White Marsh Church. The primary purpose of the school was to educate the poor children, keep them from ignorance, idleness, vice, immorality, and "enable them to be more useful to themselves and the community they belong to." Bacon went on to say that there was a need in every parish, for the maintenance and education of orphans, other poor children, and Negores.

Under Bacon's plan a teacher was to be employed from England to instruct as many Negroes and whites as directed by the school trustees, the number of such students depending upon the money available. The course of study would consist of reading, writing, arithmetic, and instructions in "the knowledge and practice of Christian religion." In addition to all these, manual training was not to be neglected, for "to their learning shall be added such labor as they are capable of, that they may be insured to industry, as well as trained up in the principles of piety and virtue, at a time when their tender minds may be supposed the most susceptible of good impressions and least tinctured with the prevailing indolence and vices of the country in general."

Although at the end of this formal schooling the white students would become apprentices of sort, the Negro children for the most part would remain slaves of their respective masters.

THE REV. THOMAS Bacon did not by any means stand alone in pushing for the reality of his project: giving him encouragement and financial assistance was Lord Baltimore, who not only gave a large contribution but also gave Bacon "the sinecure of his private chaplain ship." Bishop Wilson, under whom Bacon had studied, collected approximately F100 from individuals in England and sent along the rather interesting suggestion that the money be used to buy a Negro boy and girl, who after being educated at the school be employed as servants of the institution. Even concerts were given at the College Hall in Williamsburg, Va., and in several Maryland towns for the benefit of this new school.

In conclusion, to quote again Bernard C. Steiner, the real author of this column, "No monument marks his (Bacon's) grave, and his work was forgotten: but if other clergymen had been stirred up by his example to like action, the slavery question would have had a far different history."

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