top of page

William Henry Brisbane


Reverend Dr. William Henry Brisbane (October 12, 1806 Beaufort County, South Carolina - April 5, 1878 Arena, Wisconsin) 




Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:




Historical Significance:



  • Tax Commissioner

  • Beaufort Native

William Henry Brisbane, 1853.  Wisconsin Historical Society

William Henry Brisbane:

  • ...was born in Black Swamp, Beaufort District, S.C., in 1806,

  • His father, was Adam Brisbane,

  • he asked to be baptized by Pipe Creek Baptist Church

  • . He studied at Furman Theological Institute in Edgefield

  • The Pipe Creek church ordained him and called him pastor.

  • He established and edited the Southern Baptist and General Intelligencer, a denominational paper that strongly supported and promoted slavery as a Biblically authorized institution.

  • He became pastor of several small Baptist churches in the low country. The minutes of the Beech Branch Church state, “Elizabeth and Jacob [colored], property of Bro. Brisbane [my emphasis] were baptized and become members.” Brisbane attended lectures and received a Doctor of Medicine degree from the Medical College of South Carolina in 1837. 

  • He agreed to describe slavery before the Female Anti-Slavery Sewing Circle in February 1840 and spilled the beans about the cruelty and evils of slavery.

  • Brisbane started another Baptist church, expressly antislavery. 

  • Few pastors and elders of Baptist churches in the North attempted to dispute Brisbane’s exegesis or polemics against slavery, but they found his obsession inconvenient and irritating. They perceived Brisbane and other Baptist abolitionists much like, a century later, many in the Northern Baptist Convention perceived preachers in the Baptist Bible Union (1923, e.g., O. W. Van Osdel, R. E. Neighbour, W. B. Riley, T. T. Shields), that is, probably correct but decidedly inconvenient. A great number of Northern Baptist pastors, arguably, loved God and the Bible as His Word. Although properly bold in their own pulpits, they became suspiciously meek on the convention floor. Just as Brisbane and his colleagues would not tolerate slavery in world missions, the later men would tolerate no theological liberalism in theirs.


  • The Letter


  • W. H. Brisbane returned to South Carolina and repurchased his field slaves. He transported them via Baltimore to Cincinnati, where he finally freed them. It was at this time he wrote his epochal letter to the South Carolina Baptists, showing from the Bible that slavery is indeed a sin. He could never have gotten the letter through the mail and, so, entrusted copies to sympathetic friends who stuffed them in mailboxes within the various post offices.


  • His letter was, as The Liberator editor called it, “a long article.” He used 16,058 words, and later expanded it to book-length as Slaveholding Examined in the Light of the Holy Bible (Philadelphia, 1847).


  • “Dear Brethren: I feel constrained to address you this letter, both in justice to myself and deep solicitude for your spiritual welfare.—Having for years been associated with you in the service of our blessed Lord and Master Jesus Christ, and having been honored with a considerable share of your confidence, I feel that I am entitled to claim of you a hearing, now that a change in my opinions on a highly important and exciting topic may subject me to your censure and the loss of your christian regard.”


  • This expatriate pastor reviewed his productive and honored ministry as a Baptist pastor in the South, and then continued.


  • “But at length my views on the subject of Slavery began to undergo a change, and the state of feeling at the South not permitting me to make a dispassionate investigation, I felt it my duty to seek a residence where I could without restraint give the requisite attention, for determining fully my duty to God and to my fellow-men. The result was an entire recantation of all That [sic] I had formerly written in favor of holding property in man, and by this have I torn myself away from the association of those I was always accustomed to love and to honor.”


  • This estranged brother acknowledged the hatred and hostility he was even then suffering for his stand. “But Oh! Ye who bear the name of Christ, hear me fully before you condemn.—Let us first examine together the Word of God, and then you will know what has moved me to sacrifice property and friendship, and home and reputation. With christian patience and christian love, give me your attention to the close of this letter, whilst I endeavor to show you that the Holy God disapproves American Slavery.”


  • A good expositor, Brisbane started in Genesis and systematically proceeded through the Bible to the Epistles, laying out what the Bible teaches about slavery and separation from slavery—its concept, practice, and even associations.


  • In 1853, Brisbane moved to Madison, Wis., and became pastor of its First Baptist Church. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he preac

  • hed on March 3, 1861, an incendiary message, “Duty of the Northern States in Relation to the Future of Slavery.” He might have gotten by with it if he had only preached the sermon, but many in the state legislature were in attendance (the church being on Capitol Square) and petitioned him to publish his sermon for wider circulation. As a result, he lost yet another church.


  • Col. C. C. Washburn appointed Brisbane chaplain of the 2nd Regiment Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry. (Washburn rose to major general and became a U.S. senator and Wisconsin governor.) While the regiment was on patrol duty in Missouri, Brisbane resigned due to ill health (he was 56). His old friend S. P. Chase appointed him chairman of the U.S. Direct Tax Commission for South Carolina. In this role, Brisbane confiscated the plantations of his relatives and former neighbors, for which he was “the most hated man in the Beaufort District,” and even his memory is still hated there. The day Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective (Jan. 1, 1863), it was Brisbane who read it at Port Royal to the first group of freed slaves. Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the white commander of black troops on duty, termed this “an infinitely appropriate thing.”


  • After the war, Brisbane returned to Wisconsin, where he practiced medicine and became pastor of the Baptist church in Arena. The slaveholder-cum-abolitionist who had actually freed slaves was a popular speaker at political rallies and church conventions until his death in 1878.


  • Not only a regular Baptist, Brisbane was a separatist Baptist at that. Although he lived and ministered a century prior to inception of the GARBC, there is yet a connection. The Reverend Doctor William Henry Brisbane was my great-great-grandfather.


  • Wallace Alcorn (PhD, New York University) is a retired GARBC chaplain and GARBC pastor who lives in Austin, Minn. His first article for the Baptist Bulletin was published in 1957. He formerly taught at Moody Bible Institute and Northwest Baptist Seminary, Tacoma, Wash. Read more about William Henry Brisbane at the author’s website,


  • The man described by Dr. Rowland as "the most hated man in the Beaufort District" (History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, vol. 1, p. 417) is the subject of an article in the South Carolina Historical Magazine. (SCHM is running about a year behind the publication date on the cover.)


  • William Henry Brisbane was born in Upper St. Peter's Parish into a slaveholding family; trained as a minister and a physician; became a slaveholder himself; published an apologist newspaper; and struggled with his conscience from 1833 until 1840 when he became an abolitionist. During the Civil War, he was appointed a Direct Tax Commissioner by his friend Salmon P. Chase. It was Brisbane's responsibility to assess parcels of land for payment of taxes. Should the taxes go unpaid by the absent landowners, the properties would be placed for public auction at which anyone present could bid. A vast amount of property was confiscated and sold for back taxes. Not exactly an activity that would endear one to one's former neighbors, relatives and childhood associates.

bottom of page