By Peter H. Wood.
If Thomas Day offers one window into the complex world of antebellum race relations, his Presbyterian minister in Milton, the Rev. Nehemiah Henry Harding, provides another. Slavery was the most controversial issue of the day and everyone had strong opinions. Advocates could be found for armed revolt, peaceful petitioning, immediate freedom, gradual emancipation, African colonization, or continued enslavement. As controversy swirled, individuals shifted their stance on the matter. This is particularly clear in the zigzags of Milton’s Harding, a strong-willed cleric who arrived in town in 1835, the same year Thomas Day attended the black convention in Philadelphia.
Born in Brunswick, Maine, in 1794, Harding went to sea at an early age and became captain of a vessel plying the waters off the coast of North Carolina. Early in the 1820s, a time of widespread religious awakening, he experienced a shipboard conversion during a storm and changed careers. He worked briefly in Raleigh and attended the University of North Carolina for two years, intent on entering the ministry. Admitted to Princeton Theological Seminary in 1826, he was ordained and became pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Oxford, North Carolina, in 1830. Harding served there five years before moving to Milton where he became the pastor of the Milton Presbyterian Church and also founded the Yanceyville Presbyterian Church. He lived in Milton until his death in 1849.
Harding never lost touch with his friends and family in Maine. During trips back to Brunswick, the minister addressed topics including slavery. Long before Harriet Beecher Stowe moved to Brunswick in 1850 and penned her highly influential best-seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the town was engaged in discussing slavery. Local Bowdoin College spawned vigorous debate on abolition. When Harding returned in 1833 after living in a slave state for more than a decade, “he delivered a [pro] colonization lecture to the students.” As a local anti-slavery advocate recounted five years later, the minister seemed “dark in mind . . . and hard in heart.” But in Maine he “came in contact with abolitionists, and . . . returned to the South with arrows of truth rankling in his bosom.”
The commentator, who published his musings in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in 1838, reported that Harding had undergone a swift change of heart in North Carolina. Although “surrounded with adverse influences” and at odds with the “the prevailing current of popular feeling,” he nevertheless announced his ..opposition to slavery.” The commentator knew this because in July of 1834, Harding had sent a letter to the Rev. George Adams at Brunswick’s First Parish Congrega- tional Church, “stating the change that had taken place in his mind on the subject of slavery.”The commentator shared an excerpt from this letter with readers of The Liberator:
You remember that while I was with you last summer, I was much opposed to the anti-slavery society, and contended that the colonization scheme was … the only remedy for the evils of slavery, and that I made a … talk before the students; it was [a] poor talk, for it was a miserable theme … I feel it a duty I owe to myself and the friends I have with you, to say that my views and feelings which were then wavering, have, after mature deliberation and much prayer, been entirely changed: and that I am now a strong anti- slavery man. Yes, after mature reflection, I am the sworn enemy of slavery in all its forms and with all its evils. Henceforth it is a part of my religion to oppose slavery. I am greatly surprised that I should in any form have been the apologist of a system so full of deadly poison to all holiness and benevolence, as slavery—the concocted essence of fraud, selfishness and cold hearted tyranny, and the fruitful parent of unnumbered evils to the oppressor and the oppressed, the one thousandth part of which has never been brought to the light. 
But the story didn’t end there. The last sentence of this quote beginning with “I am greatly surprised …” was extracted from The Liberator and republished later by Theodore Dwight Weld in the American Anti- Slavery Society publication, American Slavery As it Is: The Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. The book’s influence on anti-slavery sentiment in the country was only surpassed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
On a return visit to Brunswick in 1838, Harding shifted his stance on the issue yet again. The local observer was astonished to hear him make “gratuitous and invidious remarks” about the increasing militancy of abolitionists. (“Mr. Harding was asked while here this time, what he thought of the abolition efforts now, and he replied it was a ‘nefarious business. That we had better take care of our own poor.’”) From the pulpit, the visitor from Milton bemoaned the fact that “now the church itself has become the great agitator.”
Asked to read an announcement for a meeting addressing “the duty of Christians . . . towards the colored people,” he refused and preached a sermon warning Brunswick’s citizens to beware of excessive zeal regarding their “duty to the colored people.” Harding’s “palpable inconsistency” stung the irate commentator who informed his readers: “We see the withering, mildew influence of slavery on the southern ministry and church. It has been doubtless thro’ the influence of the clergy and the church that Mr. H. has been tempted to close his ear and steel his heart against the cry of the bleeding captive, and again to become the ‘apologist of a system full of deadly poison to all holiness and benevolence.’”
What are we to make of this scathing commentary? Does it reflect the view of a sheltered New Englander with little appreciation of the complexities Harding faced in keeping his North Carolina congregation together? And, what are we to make of the ship captain-turned-preacher? A slaveholder himself, Harding appears to be actively wrestling with this thorny issue, shifting his position as his circumstances and perceptions change. But his return to an apologist stance also suggests that he was trying to distance himself from his earlier passionate anti- slavery statements that were, apparently without his consent, appropriated and widely published by radical abolitionists.
We may never know how Harding truly felt, but perhaps his views changed again during the last decade of his life through interaction with his most prominent free black parishioner. After all, he and Thomas Day were each learning from experience that racial enslavement in the United States might outlast them both, and that they needed to be guarded in their stated public opinions if they were to endure and prosper in North Carolina.