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The Rev George Gilfillan and Anti-Slavery campaigns in Dundee, 1840-1865

Updated: Jul 29, 2023


The Rev George Gilfillan, engraving by John Moffat, 1847, from a painting by Henry Harwood

The Rev George Gilfillan (1813-78) was the minister of School Wynd Secession Church in Dundee, part of the United Presbyterian Church from 1847. As a preacher, controversial orator, author, literary critic and patron, he played a leading part in campaigns for political and religious progress, and in the cultural life of mid-Victorian Scotland. This article focuses on the prominent part he played in the campaign for the abolition of slavery in the USA up to the American Civil War.


From his arrival at School Wynd Church in 1836, Gilfillan gained valuable experience and a local following with his rousing sermons, and his popular lectures at the Watt Institution, where he vigorously promoted the idea that literacy, education and a love of literature would prepare the working classes for social and political advance. As an author, Gilfillan’s reputation was established through the early success of his Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) and numerous other works on religion, literature and the Scottish heritage. As his fame grew, many of his admirers were attracted to School Wynd and supported their minister in establishing it as a centre for progressive thought in Dundee.


Just how far Gilfillan was able to press his support for liberal causes was evident in his management of the visit to Dundee in 1846 of Frederick Douglass (c.1817-1895), the American abolitionist and author of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). Douglass’s Scottish tour was part of the ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign, in which the new Free Church of Scotland was pilloried for accepting financial support from ‘slave-owning’ churches in the USA to build its new churches. In common with other religious bodies in Dundee, the School Wynd elders and managers were reluctant to provide church premises and inflame sectarian hostility. Anti-Free Church feeling in Dundee was running high. A local Free Church minister, the Rev George Lewis of St David’s Free Church, had been part of the deputation sent to the southern states in 1844 to appeal for funds, in the wake of the 1843 Disruption in the Scottish church. In his Impressions of the American Churches (1845), Lewis put a positive spin on slave conditions in America, arguing that slavery existed “in a more mitigated form than in the West Indies, and domestic slaves enjoy … the kindness and confidence of their masters”. It was insinuated in the local press that St David’s Church and St John’s Free Church – the Rev John Roxburgh’s church in Small’s Wynd – had been constructed with slave money. The Northern Warder, the Free Church paper, retaliated by circulating anti-abolitionist pamphlets in Dundee, labelling them as “Apostles of Infidel and Socialist Principles”. As the sense of anticipation about Douglass’s proposed tour mounted, highly charged meetings were held in which audience emotions were whipped up in repeated choruses of the campaign slogan: “Send Back the Money!” In defiant mood and acting entirely on his own responsibility, Gilfillan arranged for Frederick Douglass to deliver two lectures in School Wynd.


George Gilfillan’s involvement with the campaign to abolish American slavery began in 1836 when he heard lectures by the veteran British activist, George Thompson. Gilfillan committed himself to this movement on libertarian and religious grounds, as part of the “cause of freedom all over the world”. To this end he formed a close alliance with his fellow United Presbyterians in Glasgow, the Rev Dr William Anderson and the Rev Dr George Jeffrey. Anderson and Jeffrey were the only ministers prepared to serve on the committee of the radical Glasgow Emancipation Society. Through these personal connections Gilfillan met the leading American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, the mentor and promoter of Douglass, and tapped into national anti-slavery networks.


In early 1846, Frederick Douglass’s rapturous reception in Edinburgh at the start of his Scottish tour was widely reported in the press. Through Garrison’s intervention, Douglass was invited to speak at a series of anti-slavery meetings in Dundee. From January to March 1846, Frederick Douglass, accompanied by fellow Black abolitionists, provided a graphic account of the degrading effects of slavery. Manacles used to punish slaves were displayed and Douglass insisted that there was no such thing as a Christian slaveholder. The love of liberty was a universal human quality, denied to slaves by masters who crushed their spirit and ability to reason. Douglass thanked Gilfillan for granting his chapel and presence on the platform, but on 3 February the crowds demanding admittance to School Wynd were so great that the lecture was moved to Bell Street Hall. On this occasion, denunciation of the Free Church’s acceptance of money from slavery culminated in three rousing cheers of “Send Back the Money!” On 10 March 1846, School Wynd Church held its anti-slavery demonstration and “Grand Public Soirée”. This event provided Gilfillan with the opportunity for a rhetorical tour de force, claiming the moral high ground and demolishing the religious credentials of his opponents:

“Look how the frost of slavery has nipped the buds of Christian union in this country and in this town. Who are to blame for this? Is it our eloquent guests who are to blame? No: they have come the disinterested advocates of freedom and enemies of slavery … Who had a right from the Vatican of Small’s Wynd [St John’s Church] to say to the ministers and managers of dissenting chapels – ye shan’t open your doors to these disinterested philanthropists? (Applause) … In my simplicity I did not know that this decree had gone forth, and therefore … without consulting my managers, without consulting anything but my hatred of slavery, I gave them the use of this place, and I stand here to bear in their stead the thunders of the Vatican of Small’s Wynd. I am not afraid of them in the press, or the pulpit, or the platform, either in Small’s Wynd, or School Wynd. (Cheers).”


This sensational event proved to be a crucial turning point in Gilfillan’s commitment to the cause of ending American slavery and the effective leadership of his flock. When eight of his ten managers resigned in protest at his offer of the church for non-religious purposes, they were replaced by men from a younger generation who were motivated by personal loyalty to their minister and his vision of a more progressive church and society. These changes established School Wynd Church as the “sanctuary of the slave” in Dundee. At a congregational meeting, a resolution condemning slavery was adopted, in response to the “recent doings” of the Free Church.


The plaque commemorating Frederick Douglass in Bell Street

Douglass and Garrison returned to Dundee in September 1846, to lecture again in Bell Street Hall, supported by Gilfillan –events which are commemorated on a plaque at the west end of Bell Street. In the years between 1846 and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, anti-slavery lectures in Dundee became a regular fixture in subsequent tours of American abolitionists, both Black and White. Gilfillan played a prominent part in these activities. George Thompson and William Lloyd Garrison spoke at a joint meeting with Gilfillan at School Wynd in 1847. On another occasion, held to denounce the Fugitive Slave Bill in early 1851, three “persons of colour”, the Rev William Brown and the Rev William Craft accompanied by his wife Ellen, addressed a crowded church on their experiences of slavery. The Dundee Advertiser, in a way which jars with modern sensibilities, expressed surprise at Ellen Craft’s fairish complexion and intelligence. Other Black ex-slaves and “coloured ministers” on the Scottish lecturing circuit were invited to preach at School Wynd, such as the Rev Samuel Ward, raising funds for escaped slaves who reached Canada.


In 1853, local anti-slavery sentiment rose to fever pitch for the visit of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). On 22 April 1853 Beecher Stowe received a rapturous welcome in Dundee, where the streets were “all the way alive, with working men and women, boys and girls, a perfect ovation”, according to her brother Charles Beecher. George Gilfillan delivered the address at the crowded civic reception, on behalf of the Dundee Ladies Anti-Slavery Association and its president, George’s wife Margaret Gilfillan. These local women contributed sixty guineas to the national Uncle Tom Penny Offering and signed the “Affectionate and Christian Address” presented to Beecher Stowe during her British tour. Members of the Anti-Slavery Association continued to raise funds for the New York and Philadelphia Vigilance Committees up to the American Civil War.


In July 1861, William Craft returned to preach at School Wynd on the alarming crisis in the United States and the outbreak of the Civil War in April. Gilfillan offered prayers for “miserable, misled America”, in his belief abandoned by God on account of the sin of slavery, and “Gilfillan’s people” remained resolute in their support for abolition, and the betterment of humanity, reflecting God’s love for the world. In the second half of the 19th century, the United Presbyterian Church evolved into a relatively liberal denomination, for example relaxing its teachings on salvation. School Wynd UP Church in Dundee had been at the forefront of this liberalising trend, forged in the members’ experiences of the anti-slavery campaigns of the 1840s, broadening into a commitment to religious and political reform, under the leadership of their remarkable minister, the Rev George Gilfillan. After his death in 1878, the Gilfillan Memorial Church was founded, known for its advanced liberal views and social action in Dundee. Its dedication to Gilfillan’s ideals was manifested in its adoption of the motto: “Here let no man be a stranger”.


Written by Aileen Black


Primary Sources:

Dundee City Archives

CH3/93/5-7, Kirk Session Minutes, School Wynd Church, Dundee (1836-98)

CH3/93/9-12, Management Committee Minutes, School Wynd Church, Dundee (1816-90)


Dundee Central Library Local History Centre

LC311, cuttings, Dundee Ladies Anti-Slavery Association

LC, Advert for the Grand Festival Harriet Beecher Stowe


Gilfillan, George, The Debasing and Demoralising Influences of Slavery on All and Everything Connected with It: A Lecture(Edinburgh 1847)

Lewis, George, Impressions of the American Churches (Edinburgh 1845)

Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser (various articles, 1836-61)

Report of the Speeches Delivered at a Soiree in Honour of Messrs. Douglass, Wright and Buffum on 10 March 1846 (Dundee 1846)


Secondary Sources:

Black, A, Gilfillan of Dundee, 1813-78: Interpreting Religion and Culture in Mid-Victorian Scotland(Dundee 2006)

Hedrick, J, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (Oxford 1994)

Perry, L and Fellman (eds.), Antislavery Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Abolitionists(Baton Rouge and London 1981)

Quarles, B, Black Abolitionists (Oxford 1969)

Rice, C D, The Scots Abolitionists (London 1981)

Watson, R A and Watson, E (eds.), George Gilfillan: Letters and Journal, with Memoir (London 1892)


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