Education and Career
As a child in New Jersey, Philip Lindsley (1786-1855) studied under Robert Finley, a prominent graduate of Princeton, trustee of the college, and founder of the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America (ACS). In 1802, Lindsley followed in his teacher’s footsteps and enrolled at Princeton. He graduated a year later and became an assistant teacher at Finley’s academy. But Lindsley soon returned to Princeton, where he served as a college tutor (a quasi-junior faculty member) while simultaneously studying theology under the mentorship of the college’s esteemed president, Samuel Stanhope Smith.
The Presbytery of New Brunswick licensed Lindsley to preach in 1810, but he decided to pursue a career in academia rather than the ministry. In 1812, Lindsley accepted a position as a senior tutor at Princeton. The next year, Princeton’s administration promoted him to serve as the professor of languages, secretary of the Board of Trustees, college librarian, and Inspector of the College. John Maclean Jr.—who had known Lindsley both as a student and as a colleague on the faculty—later recalled that Lindsley “was one of the best teachers of whom I had any knowledge.”
Not surprisingly, other colleges began to take notice. In 1817, Transylvania University in Lexington, KY, recruited Lindsley to be their president. Instead, he accepted the vice presidency at Princeton and became the college’s acting president in 1822 after President Ashbel Green resigned. Other colleges soon tried to recruit Lindsley away from Princeton: Cumberland College in Nashville, TN, Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, and Ohio University in Athens, OH, all offered him their presidencies. So, too, did Princeton. Lindsley, believing his services would be more valuable at a less-established college than his alma mater, accepted Cumberland College’s offer in 1824.
In August 1824, as his farewell sermon to Princeton, Lindsley delivered perhaps the most forceful condemnation of slavery in the college’s history. He chastised his audience for fretting over the Turkish occupation of Greece—a popular concern at the time—while forgetting that “we retain in this land of liberty, a people as numerous as the Greeks, in a state of bondage, a hundred-fold more degrading and miserable than any Mohammedan tyrant ever dreamt of inflicting on his conquered vassals.” Lindsley asked them:
When will Christian charity awake to the tears and groans and cries and sufferings of the two millions of wretched Africans, who were dragged from their distant homes by Christian avarice … and who are here doomed, under Christian masters, to drink the bitterest cup ever presented to the lips of humanity?
“How absurd is it,” he added, “for us to volunteer as knights-errant in the cause of liberty, humanity and religion, while the fairest portions of our land are cursed and blasted with ignorance and depravity and slavery and cruelty, to which the old world has never furnished a parallel!”
In his sermon, Lindsley also questioned both the feasibility and the morality of colonizing free blacks outside the United States—a process that many at the time believed would hasten the end of domestic slavery itself. This was a bold position for Lindsley to take. After all, it was his former teacher and employer Robert Finley who, along with a cadre of other Princeton affiliates, had founded the colonization movement in Princeton in 1816. Since then, colonization societies had exploded in popularity throughout both the North and South. But Lindsley was adamant that such societies “will never touch the tremendous evil which exists—which is every day rapidly augmenting—and which is already so threatening and appalling in its aspect that few dare to look it in the face.” Instead, he insisted that “our slaves must be emancipated upon the soil which they cultivate.” Lindsley saw no alternative. If they were not emancipated by “the fears, the interest, or the Christian kindness of their oppressors,” enslaved people would seize freedom themselves:
They will, by violence, wrest the rod from the tyrant’s grasp, and drench in the white man’s blood that soil which has so long been watered by their tears. Two millions of human beings cannot be removed. They cannot be kept in perpetual bondage.
Lindsley then proceeded to challenge another one of his audience’s sacred cows: their faith in the purity of American liberty. As he well knew, his listeners prided themselves on their unshakable support for the principles of the American Revolution. With that in mind, Lindsley reminded his congregants that their forebearers had “resisted even to blood, the very first encroachment of their political rights, and to secure them, involved their country in all the horrors of a civil war.” He asked: “And who has ever blamed them for thus withstanding—and for ultimately establishing the perfect independence of their country?”
Lindsley warned his audience that what was once acceptable for their own “Christian ancestors” might also be acceptable for their slaves:
Let us beware of the kind of logic which we apply to men of like passions with ourselves. Assuredly, the day of retribution is at hand. It will be a terrible day; unless, by the seasonable intervention of our charities, we avert it.
“The slaves,” Lindsley concluded, “must be free, and will be free upon the soil which they now inhabit.”
Lindsley in Tennessee
Lindsley was on course to become a leading opponent of slavery. But such antislavery pronouncements were easier to make in New Jersey, where the institution of slavery was fading away (albeit slowly) than the South, where he may have risked inciting a slave revolt. Lindsley admitted as much. “My remarks on this fearful subject,” he conceded, “have been this day pronounced in a corner—where, if they do no good, they can do no harm. I should not have spoken thus in a slaveholding state. Prudence, benevolence, would have forbid it.” Furthermore, Lindsley hesitated from committing to speak out against slavery once he settled in the slaveholding state of Tennessee. “When I shall have pitched my tent among the wretched sufferers beyond the mountains,” he exclaimed, “I shall humbly look to Heaven for direction as to the line of conduct which duty may require me to pursue.”
A photo of Philip Lindsley's gravestone in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lived the last decades of his life.
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Apparently, Heaven never directed Lindsley to continue agitating against slavery during his long residency in Tennessee. To the contrary, he walked back his previous assertions on the topic. When Princeton’s class of 1824 decided to print his farewell sermon, Lindsley made sure to include an appendix for the text that clarified his antislavery statements. Ruefully, he wrote that when he originally delivered his criticism of slavery “with considerable freedom” he had not been thinking of publication. Now, he continued:
Since it is possible a copy or two may find their way to some sections of our country where the author would regret that his sentiments or feelings should be misapprehended, or misrepresented, he further adds, that he had no intention to censure any particular portion of his fellow citizens more than another.
Lindsley then absolved the South for the sin of slavery, despite “all its evils and horrors.” He claimed that slavery, having “originated under the British government,” was “an evil which we have inherited.”
In the new appendix, Lindsley reiterated his misgivings about the colonization movement:
That the negroes can ever be transported across the ocean is an idea too chimerical to be seriously entertained by any man. The probability is, that, an increase rather than a diminution of their numbers will be the consequence of the benevolent but tardy efforts of our Colonization Societies.
Yet at the same time, he came out strongly against the immediate abolition of slavery, advising that “no rash or sudden emancipation would be just, or wise, or politic, or humane.” Instead, Lindsley expressed his “great” desire for Americans to someday devise and carry into effect “a safe and gradual emancipation, as would be consistent with the acquired rights of [slaveholders], and prove a common blessing to all parties.” In the meantime, Lindsley himself joined the ranks of Southern slaveholders. The 1830 Federal Census—taken just a few years after his sermon at Princeton—recorded that Lindsley, living in Tennessee, owned three slaves (one man and two women).
Lindsley enjoyed a long and illustrious career as the president of (the now defunct) Cumberland College. He was a visionary leader in the field of higher education, pioneering new forms of pedagogy and advocating for colleges to expand their curricula. As an educator, Lindsley had an enormous impact throughout Tennessee and the Mississippi Valley. One former student wrote that there was “no point in all this vast region where the influence of Philip Lindsley had not been felt and where some of his pupils were not found in the foremost rank of honorable men, bravely battling for the true and the good.”
Few of those Southerners considered abolitionism to be among the forces of “the true and the good.” But that was no surprise, especially considering that their revered teacher—a Northerner who had once advocated for emancipation—had clearly learned to countenance and support slavery.
In 1850, Lindsley resigned from the presidency of Cumberland College (which had been renamed the University of Nashville) and took a faculty position at the New Albany Theological Seminary in Indiana. Despite his removal from Tennessee, the effect of his twenty-six-year residency in the South was painfully evident in his writings on slavery. In a series of notes to himself on the subject, Lindsley recorded trope after trope about the alleged positive effects of slavery on America’s black population. He even excused the cruelties of the African slave trade, jotting that the “sufferings and deaths [of the victims], even by the horrid middle passage, [were] far less than would have been endured at home.” “It may be justly said,” Lindsley reasoned, “that their violent deportation to American has proved to them and their race a great and permanent blessing.”
This respected educator went on to defend slavery itself as a “schooling of some two hundred years.” He conceded that it was “very harsh, cruel, and unchristian, no doubt,” that this particular “schooling” involved the forcible separation of families. “Still,” Lindsley added, it was “not worse than in Africa.” “So far as mere separation is concerned,” he wrote, “the slave is not worse off than the soldier and sailor.” All things considered, Lindsley concluded: “Hitherto, and at present, the negroes have been, and are, better off in a state of slavery than in a state of freedom.” And as a theologian, Lindsley held that “slavery will not cease—even at the millennium. It will become more patriarchal—and be purified from its present abominations, etc.” The minister and educator who spoke so strongly against slavery at Princeton, once declaring that no men and women could be kept in “perpetual bondage,” now believed slavery would continue past the second coming of Christ.
Philip Lindsley died in 1855. At the time, both of his sons were prominent slaveholders in Tennessee. Prior to the Civil War, one of Lindsley’s former students, a Presbyterian minister named Leroy Hasley, wrote a biographical sketch about his former professor. In this sketch, Hasley wondered what would have happened had Lindsley accepted the presidency of Princeton and not ventured into “the wild woods of Tennessee.” “Who can tell,” he asked, “the career of honor and usefulness which might have awaited him there had he accepted that important position?”
In the end, Hasley believed that Lindsley had “acted wisely” in moving to the South. But from an antislavery perspective, it seems clear that Lindsley—all “honor and usefulness” aside—would have been much better served staying in the North.
Leroy J. Halsey, A Sketch of the Life and Educational Labors of Philip Lindsley, D.D., Late President of the University of Nashville (Republished in Barnard’s American Journal of Education: 1859), 10.
Philip Lindsley, A Sermon, Delivered in the Chapel of the College of New Jersey, August 15, 1824 (Princeton, NJ: D.A. Borrenstein, 1824), 17-18.
1830 Federal Census, accessed 28 March 2017, www.ancestry.com.
Halsey, A Sketch of the Life and Educational Labors of Philip Lindsley, D.D., Late President of the University of Nashville, 40.
Philip Lindsley, LeRoy J. Hasley (ed.), The Works of Philip Lindsley, Vol. III (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1866), 577-583.
Halsey, A Sketch of the Life and Educational Labors of Philip Lindsley, D.D., Late President of the University of Nashville, 11.