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Religion in Abolitionists

Early Religious Opposition to Slavery

When the Mennonites of Germantown, Pennsylvania held their monthly meeting on 18 February 1688, they drafted a set of resolutions in opposition to slavery, or what they called "the traffic of men-body." The Mennonites, German Baptists whose beliefs resembled those of the English and Welsh Quakers, had founded Germantown half a century earlier. They argued that it was hypocritical for whites, especially Christians, to participate in the enslavement that they had themselves so feared for generations at the hands of the Turks on the high seas. They wrote that, "there is a saying, that we should do to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent, or colour they are."10

Sowing the Seeds of Discord

Slavery split several American churches before it moved on to divide and conquer the national party system and then the country itself. In 1793, the General Committee of Virginia Baptists changed course from their previous statements against slavery and decided that the institution was a political issue best left to the legislature, not the church. Yet the obvious moral implications of this inhuman institution prevented most sects from being able to neatly or permanently dispense with the matter. As abolitionists became more outspoken both within and outside of the church membership, and as sectional tensions continued to increase along with the territorial compromises of the nineteenth century, some (especially southern) congregants developed the idea that slavery was perhaps an evil but not a sin. Later on in the antebellum period, several southerners took this reasoning a step further and actually argued that slavery was a positive good that was sanctioned by the Bible in the story of the curse of Ham and all of his descendants.

To many northerners, on the other hand, slavery was inherently sinful and un-Christian. Such radically different approaches could only remain under the same ecclesiastical umbrella for so long. The Quakers maintained unity against slavery only because the vast majority of their members were non-slaveholders in the North who could effectively exile the few slaveholders from the sect. In 1837, the Presbyterians divided into Old and New "Schools" over the issue. Adherents of the New School were much more involved with the recent revivalism of the Second Great Awakening and the evangelical spirit of extending salvation to all men.

The Baptists tried to avoid discussion of the controversial topic but could not after the Baptist Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840. Southern delegates admitted that slavery was a great evil, but maintained that it was no sin. Then, when the Alabama Convention requested that slave owners be eligible to become missionaries, the Baptist Board denied them. Northern Baptists formed a Free Mission Society that "refused 'tainted' Southern money."11 The Baptist denomination officially split in 1845; southern members withdrew to form the Southern Baptist Convention, which eventually grew to become the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The Methodist Episcopal Church controversy arose from an 1844 General Conference resolution that censured Bishop J. O. Andrew of Georgia, who by marriage came into the possession of slaves. When word of the censure spread, southern Conference delegates decided to split off into their own faction. The anti-slavery contingent continues today as the Wesleyan Church; it included members from North Carolina. The southern churches organized the Methodist Episcopal Church (South), at a meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Methodist Schism

Many rank-and-file abolitionists were Methodists, but their antislavery activism prompted considerable discord within the denomination, which had rapidly spread throughout the country, including the South, during the Second Great Awakening. By the 1840s, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest denomination in the country, with more than 1 million members. As historian Chris Padgett has argued, "No other nonpolitical institution reached more individuals in antebellum America than the Methodist Episcopal Church."12 Beginning in the 1830s and increasingly in the 1840s, antislavery activists began seceding from the Methodist Episcopal Church because they had come to the conclusion that it condoned slavery.

In 1842, leading Methodist abolitionists called for their supporters to join them in leaving to establish a new church that would be free of fellowship with slaveholders. Thus the Wesleyan Methodist Connection was established in May 1843 with 6,000 charter members. They quickly developed a newspaper, the True Wesleyan, which was distributed to a grass roots constituency in twelve northern states. Their members included some of the most fervent abolitionists of the day at a time when prominent activists like William Lloyd Garrison routinely criticized most other northern churches for their conservatism on the slavery issue. Frederick Douglass praised the "True Wesleyans" for pursuing an "inflexible Christian course." By 1849, the Wesleyan Methodists had grown to number about 20,000 people, three-quarters of them having joined within the first two years of secession from the Methodist Episcopals (which retained more than 1 million members).


In 1754, John Woolman, a 34-year-old Anglo-American Quaker leader and abolitionist, published at his own expense Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, in which he asked his readers to "suppose that our ancestors and we had been exposed to constant servitude...destitute of the help of reading and good company...while others, in ease, have plentifully heaped up the fruit of our labour...should we, in that case, be less abject than they now are?" This poor shopkeeper from New Jersey traveled through the South to meet with slaveholding Friends, trying to convince them of the error of their ways. He did not live to see the abolition of slavery among all Quakers, dying of smallpox while attending a yearly meeting in England in 1772, but just four years after Woolman's death the Quakers did ban slaveholding by members of the Society of Friends.

George Fox founded the Quakers in England during the middle of the seventeenth century; shortly thereafter, many members immigrated to America, particularly the New England and Middle Atlantic colonies. This sect distinguished itself from fellow Christians through its emphasis on the immediate guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit. They held a silent worship that was devoid of ritual, they believed in a simple style of dress, and they were the only sect that allowed women to serve as ministers. As a result of their unorthodox practices and the threat they represented to more traditional church doctrines and hierarchies, the Quakers found themselves persecuted, whipped, and banished by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1650s and afterwards.

Like the Puritans, the Quakers initially expressed no objection to slaveholding, though few slaves initially inhabited the northern colonies where both Puritans and Quakers settled. George Fox did visit Barbados in the late seventeenth century and admonished the slaveholders he encountered there to train their slaves about God and to treat them "gently and mildly."13 Yet no formal sect-wide action took place until 1742, when Woolman objected to preparing a bill of sale for a black woman that his boss had sold. Although he did ultimately comply, Woolman told his employer that he considered slaveholding inconsistent with Christianity. This started a life-long campaign for Woolman and like-minded members of the Society of Friends. Quakers soon came to compose a disproportionate number of the most conscientious opponents of slavery. Quakers helped to found the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1775. One of their members, Benjamin Lundy, assembled a series of documents in the late 1820s that indicated a pro-slavery plot to acquire Texas. This gave rise to a very powerful "Slave Power conspiracy" thesis that eventually convinced even non-abolitionist northerners that they risked losing their democratic government to the disproportionate power and influence of a wealthy oligarchy of aristocratic southern slaveowners. After 1787, Quakers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts led the fight against the ratification of the Constitution, which they deemed immoral for sanctioning slavery.

Quakers to be Spared in the Planned Slave Rebellion

In 1800, a slave named Gabriel (some historians called him Gabriel Prosser, after his master's surname) unsuccessfully conspired to seize Richmond, Virginia, with a large force of 1,000 armed slaves. The blacks were then to proceed with a general slaughter of whites. Prosser planned that the Quakers should be one of only three groups of whites—the others were the French and the Methodists—to be spared. Clearly Prosser was not thinking strictly in terms of the color line, and recognized that these groups were friends to the slaves.

Christian Women

Religion was mobilized to defend slavery throughout southern congregations during the nineteenth century. Yet in the North, the evangelical revivalist movement known as the Second Great Awakening mobilized many Christians to become antislavery activists. The areas most affected by the revivalism of the Great Awakening mobilized their evangelical fervor and moral spirit to combat what they considered to be a deeply immoral and inhuman institution. Women were in the vanguard of this movement. Faith played a pivotal role throughout the antislavery movement, but women were portrayed and believed to be the more pious sex according to nineteenth-century culture and its prescribed gender roles. Thus it was more acceptable for women to engage in acts that corresponded to their religious activity and their role as moral guardians of the household and the next generation.

In the process, religion could become a means of surpassing traditional gender roles. Women could organize and speak their mind under the auspices of Christian piety and moral suasion; in this sense, religious motivation provided them with a sort of bulwark against criticism that they were being too aggressive or outspoken "for their sex." Nonetheless, most women of this period were not conscious feminists, nor were they simply acting under the guise of faith; they really did believe that it was their Christian duty to convert the general public to an antislavery standpoint and to stamp out the sin of bondage in America. In an 1838 antislavery lecture, Angelina Grimké Weld told an audience of Philadelphia women that the men of her native South who "rule in the councils of the nation...deny our right to petition and to remonstrate against abuses of our sex and of our kind. We have these rights, however, from our God." Grimké thus combined feminism with abolitionist activism: "our sex" obviously referred to women, and abuses of "our kind" referred to human beings. She argued that women possessed the right to act on their own behalf and on the behalf of enslaved people, regardless of the gag rule that silenced their petitions to Congress at the time. She turned to religion as the justification for this right. For Grimké, God could sanction no equivocal position on the slavery issue: "We may talk of occupying neutral ground," she said, "but on this subject, in its present attitude, there is no such thing as neutral ground"; after all, Grimké argued, "God swept Egypt with the besom of destruction, and punished Judea also with a sore punishment, because of slavery. And have we any reason to believe that he is less just now?"

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