Christian Abolitionists: The Spirit of the Gospel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The past few days I have written a number of articles dealing with how Southern Christians used faith to justify slavery. I have also written about how many American Christians since the 1840s have used the concept of Manifest Destiny to justify many actions that have no support in the teachings of Jesus or the early church and to promote the concept of American exceptionalism which basically asserts that the United States occupies a place in history like that of Israel in the Old Testament. Much of this has come out of my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride text. 

AS such I have been critical of Christians. However, today I am posting another section of the same chapter dealing with religion, ideology and the Civil War, this time one that is more positive on the Christian influence and participation in the abolitionist movement. The Christian abolitionists were condemned throughout Southern churches and liberals, communists, jacobins and heretics. They were also condemned by many Northern churchmen who saw them as upsetting the divine order. For decades they fought an uphill battle until Abraham Lincoln was able to pull together the disparate parts of the Republican party, including the abolitionists to give them a voice that eventually would help bring Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and push through the 13th Amendment which banned slavery in the United States. 

It is important to remember that such men and women gave voice to those who many of the “Christian” brothers enslaved and exploited. Likewise, it is important to remember Christians and other people of faith who labor for justice, peace and care for the least, the lost and the lonely in our world. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Christians and Abolitionism in the North

In the North a strident abolitionist movement took root and with each failed compromise, with each new infringement on the rights of northern free-states by the Congress, Courts and the Executive branch to appease southern slaveholders the movement gained added support. The movement developed during the 1830s in New England as a fringe movement among the more liberal elites. One wing of the movement “arose from evangelical ranks and framed its critique of bound labor in religious terms.” [1] The polarization emerged as Northern states abolished slavery as increasing numbers of influential “former slave owners such as Benjamin Franklin changed their views on the matter.” [2]

Many in the movement were inspired by the preaching of revivalist preacher Charles Finney who “demanded a religious conversion with a political potential more radical than the preacher first intended.” [3] Finney and other preachers were instrumental in the Second Great Awakening “which rekindled religious fervor in much of the nation, saw new pressure for abolition.” [4] In fact the “most important child of the Awakening, however, was the abolitionist movement, which in the 1830s took on new life, placed the slavery issue squarely on the national agenda, and for the next quarter century aroused and mobilized people in the cause of emancipation.” [5]

The evangelical proponents of abolition understood this in the concept of “free will.” They believed and pointed out repeatedly that slavery “denied one group of human beings the freedom of action necessary to free will – and therefore moral responsibility for their behavior. Meanwhile, it assigned to other human beings a degree of temporal power that virtually guaranteed their moral corruption. Both master and slave were thus trapped in a relationship that inevitably led both down the path of sin and depravity” [6]

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Finney’s preaching was emboldened and expanded by the American Anti-Slavery Society founded by William Lloyd Garrison “which launched a campaign to change minds, North and South, with three initiatives, public speeches, mass mailings and petitions.” [7] Many of the speakers were seminary students and graduates of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, who became known as “the Seventy” who received training and then “fanned out across the North campaigning in New England, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan[8] where many received hostile receptions, and encountered violence. Garrison used his newspaper, The Liberator to “pledge an all-out attack on U.S. slavery.” [9] Many of the articles in the Liberator, as in many other religiously based abolitionist publications “based their call for the immediate abolition of slavery on their belief that it was a sin.” [10] Likewise other churches such as the Presbyterians founded new educational institutions such as “Oberlin College in Ohio” which “was founded as an abolitionist institution” [11]

Theodore Parker, a Unitarian pastor and leading Transcendentalist thinker enunciated a very important theological-political analogy for many in the religious wing of the abolitionist movement which concentrated less on using chapter and verse but appealing to “the spirit of the Gospel,” [12] in as Parker’s analogy: as Jesus is to the Bible, so is the Declaration to the Constitution:

“By Christianity, I mean that form of religion which consists of piety – the love of God, and morality – the keeping of His laws. That Christianity is not the Christianity of the Christian church, nor of any sect. It is the ideal religion which the human race has been groping for….By Democracy, I mean government over all the people, by all the people and for the sake of all….This is not a democracy of the parties, but it is an ideal government, the reign of righteousness, the kingdom of justice, which all noble hearts long for, and labor to produce, the ideal whereunto mankind slowly draws near.” [13]

The early abolitionists who saw the issue framed in terms of their religious faith declared slavery a sin against God and man that demanded immediate action.” [14] For them the issue was a matter of faith and belief in which compromise of any kind, including the gradual elimination of slavery or any other halfway measures were unacceptable. “William Lloyd Garrison and his fellow abolitionists believed the nation faced a clear choice between damnation and salvation,” [15] a cry that can be heard in much of today’s political debate regarding a number of social issues with religious components including abortion, gay rights and immigration. Harrison wrote that “Our program of immediate emancipation and assimilation, I maintained, was the only panacea, the only Christian solution, to an unbearable program.” [16] The abolitionists identified:

“their cause with the cause of freedom, and with the interests of large and relatively unorganized special groups such as laborers and immigrants, the abolitionists considered themselves to be, and convinced many others that they were, the sole remaining protectors of civil rights.” [17]

The arguments were frequently and eloquently rooted in profoundly religious terms common to evangelical Christianity and the Second Great Awakening. One of the leading historians of the era, Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, a Radical Republican and Abolitionist who served as a United States Senator and Vice President in Ulysses Grant’s second administration provides a good example of this. He wrote in his post war history of the events leading to the war explaining basic understanding of the religiously minded abolitionists during the period:

“God’s Holy Word declares that man was doomed to eat his bread in the sweat of his face. History and tradition teach that the indolent, the crafty, and the strong, unmindful of human rights, have ever sought to evade this Divine decree by filching their bread from the constrained and unpaid toil of others…

American slavery reduced man, created in the Divine image, to property….It made him a beast of burden in the field of toil, an outcast in social life, a cipher in courts of law, and a pariah in the house of God. To claim for himself, or to use himself for his own benefit or benefit of wife and child, was deemed a crime. His master could dispose of his person at will, and of everything acquired by his enforced and unrequited toil.

This complete subversion of the natural rights of millions…constituted a system antagonistic to the doctrines of reason and the monitions of conscience, and developed and gratified the most intense spirit of personal pride, a love of class distinctions, and the lust of dominion. Hence a commanding power, ever sensitive, jealous, proscriptive, dominating, and aggressive, which was recognized and fitly characterized as the Slave Power…” [18]

The religious abolitionists took aim at the Southern churches and church leaders who they believed only buttressed slavery but “had become pawns of wealthy slaveholders and southern theologians apologists for oppression.” [19] As the abolitionist movement spread through Northern churches, especially those with ties to the evangelicalism of the Great Awakenings, and for “Evangelical northerners, the belief in individual spiritual and personal rights and personal religious activism made such involvement necessary.” [20]

For Baptists the issue created a deep polarization with northern Baptists mobilizing around abolitionist principles which came out of their association with English Baptists who had been at the forefront of the abolitionist movement in England where the Reverend William Knibb, who also led the fight to end slavery in Jamaica “became an impassioned defender of the human rights of blacks….his flamboyant speeches aroused the people against slavery.” [21] The Baptist Union in England sent a lengthy letter to the Baptist Triennial Convention in the United States on December 31st 1833 in which they condemned “the slave system…as a sin to be abandoned, and not an evil to be mitigated,” and in which they urged all American Baptists to do all in their power to “effect its speedy overthrow.” [22]

In 1835 two English Baptists, Francis Cox and James Hoby, who were active in that nation’s abolitionist movement with William Wilberforce came to the United States “to urge Baptists to abandon slavery. This visit and subsequent correspondence tended to polarize Baptists.” [23] In the north their visit encouraged faith based activism in abolitionist groups. In 1849 the American Baptist Anti-Slavery Convention was formed in New York and launched a polemic attack on the institution of slavery and called southern Baptists to repent in the strongest terms. They urged that the mission agencies be cleansed from “any taint of slavery…and condemned slavery in militant terms.” They called on Southern Baptists to “confess before heaven and earth the sinfulness of holding slaves; admit it to be not only a misfortune, but a crime…” and it warned that “if Baptists in the South ignored such warnings and persisted in the practice of slavery, “we cannot and dare not recognize you as consistent brethren in Christ.” [24] Such divisions we not limited to Baptists and as the decade moved on rose to crisis proportions in every evangelical denomination, provoking Kentucky Senator Henry Clay to wonder: “If our religious men cannot live together in peace, what can be expected of us politicians, very few of whom profess to be governed by the great principles of love?” [25]

The abolition movement aimed to not only stop the spread of slavery but to abolish it. The concept of totally abolishing slavery was something that even many northerners who exposed its expansion were either indifferent or opposed to. For such people the abolitions of slavery only became an issue for many after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. So long as slavery was regulated to the South, most northerners showed little concern. In fact many northerners profited by slavery, or otherwise reaped its benefits. However, their involvement with slavery was indirect. While they may have worn clothes made of cotton harvested by slaves, while the profits of corporations that benefited from all aspects of the Southern slave economy paid the wages of northern workers and shareholders, few thought of the moral issues until they were forced to participate or saw the laws of their states overthrown by Congress.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Popularization of Abolitionism in the North

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It was only after this act that the abolitionist movement began to gain traction among people in the North. Angelina Grimke Weld confronted the indifference of people in the North in regard to slavery in her book American Slavery as it Is in 1838. The book was a harsh criticism of Northern hypocrisy and indifference and sought to confront its readers that to “deny man’s capacity to for cruelty is to betray a shameful ignorance of human history and, in particular, of America’s past.” [26] Noting the Salem Witch Trials, the persecution of Quakers and Baptists, the transatlantic salve trade and even violent attacks on Northern abolitionists in northern cities the book sold over 100,000 copies.

The abolitionist movement was given a large boost by the huge popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “a vivid, highly imaginative, best-selling, and altogether damning indictment of slavery” [27]

Stowe was a well-educated writer, the daughter of the President of Lane Seminary, Lyman Beecher and wife of Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at the seminary. She and her family were deeply involved in the abolitionist movement and supported the Underground Railroad, even taking fugitive slaves into her home. These activities and her association with escaped slaves made a profound impact on her. She received a letter from her sister who was distraught over the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. He sister challenged Stowe to write: “How, Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” [28]

One communion Sunday she:

“sat at the communion table of Brunswick’s First Parish Church, a vision began playing before my eyes that left me in tears. I saw an old slave clad in rags, a gentle, Christian man like the slave I had read about in American Slavery as It Is. A cruel white man, a man with a hardened fist, was flogging the old slave. Now a cruel master ordered two other slaves two other slaves to finish the task. As they laid on the whips, the old black man prayed for God to forgive them.

After church I rushed home in a trance and wrote down what I had seen. Since Calvin was away, I read the sketch to my ten- and twelve-year-old sons. They wept too, and one cried, “Oh! Mamma, slavery is the most cursed thing in the world!” I named the old slave Uncle Tom and his evil tormenter Simon Legree. Having recorded the climax of my story, I then commenced at the beginning….” [29]

Many of Stowe’s characters were fiction versions of people that she actually knew or had heard about and the power of her writing made the work a major success in the United States and in Britain. The abolitionist movement gained steam and power through it and the play that issued from it. The publication of the book and its success “raised a counter indignation among Southerners because they thought Mrs. Stowe’s portrait untrue and because the North was so willing to believe it.” [30]

But despite the furor of many southerners, the book gained in popularity and influenced a generation of northerners, creating a stereotype of Southern slaveholders, causing people “to think more deeply and more personally about the implications of slavery for family, society and Christianity.” [31] The book drew many people previously ambivalent to the writings of the abolitionists and who did not normally read the accounts of escaped slaves. The vivid images in Stowe’s book “were irredeemably hostile: from now on the Southern stereotype was something akin to Simon Legree.” [32] But those images transformed the issue in the minds of many in the north as they “touched on all these chords of feeling, faith, and experience….The genius of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was that it made the personal universal, and it made the personal political as well. For millions of readers, blacks became people.” [33] One northern reader said, “what truth could not accomplish, fiction did” [34] as it “put a face on slavery, and a soul on black people.” [35]

The book had a transatlantic impact, over a half million women in Great Britain “signed a massive petition advocating emancipation in the United States; this, in turn, encouraged American women to step up their petitioning.” [36] The book ended up touching the conscience of many Americans and it caused many to “think more deeply and more personally about implications of slavery for family, society, and Christianity.” [37]

George Fitzhugh, a defender of benevolent paternalistic slavery noted Stowe’s book “was “right” concerning the “bitter treatment of slaves….Law, Religion, and Public Opinion should be invoked to punish and correct those abuses….” [38] However, such thoughts could not be spoken too openly for fear of other slaveholders who “could not calmly debate internal correction…while outside agitators advertised their supposed monstrosities.” [39] The inability to debate the issue internally made the visceral response in the South to Uncle Tom’s Cabin look petty and impotent. Despite the fact that Stowe steered clear of the more radical abolitionist groups and shied away from the nascent women’s rights movement Stowe was denounced by Southerners as a threat to the established order, they saw “her as the embodiment of radicalism, as an emissary of both abolitionism and women’s rights.” [40]

Notes 

[1] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.93

[2] McGrath, Alister Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2007 p.324

[3] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.289

[4] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[5] Huntington, Samuel P. Who Are We? America’s Great Debate The Free Press, Simon and Schuster Europe, London 2004 p.77

[6] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.93

[7] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes:pp.125-126

[8] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.125

[9] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.12

[10] Ibid. Deyle The Domestic Slave Trade p.57

[11] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[12] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.14

[13] Wills, Garry Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York 1992

[14] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.13

[15] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.13

[16] Oates, Stephen B. Editor The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1997 p.36

[17] Stampp, Kenneth M. editor The Causes of the Civil War 3rd Revised Edition A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1991 p.23

[18] Ibid. Stampp The Causes of the Civil War p.29

[19] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.13

[20] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.35

[21] McBeth, H. Leon The Baptist Heritage Broadman Press, Nashville TN 1987 p.301

[22] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.301

[23] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[24] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage pp.384-385

[25] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.35

[26] Varon, Elizabeth R. Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War 1789-1858 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC 2008 p.140

[27] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.94

[28] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.75

[29] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.120

[30] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.94

[31] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.83

[32] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.94

[33] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.79

[34] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.79

[35] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.83

[36] Ibid. Varon Disunion! p.245

[37] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.83

[38] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.48

[39] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.49

[40] Ibid. Varon Disunion! p.245

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2 Comments

Filed under christian life, civil rights, civil war, faith, History, Political Commentary

2 responses to “Christian Abolitionists: The Spirit of the Gospel

  1. Pingback: The Pope’s moral crusade: Climate change is abolitionism of the 21st century. | www.seanmunger.com

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