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American Abolitionism and Religion

Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Professor Emeritus, University of Florida, and Visiting Scholar, Johns Hopkins University
©National Humanities Center

Students reading about the coming of the Civil War will find the topic of religion and abolition more interesting than they imagined. The religious affiliation of politicians and the religious makeup of voting constituencies are much in the news these days. So it was, too, in the years before the Civil War broke out. In both cases, evangelical Christians were most especially influential when pressing their moral issues forward into the public arena. Growing out of the Great Awakening, these Protestants, largely in New England, were inspired less by earlier Calvinistic doom and gloom theology than by concepts of human betterment under God’s grace and His gift of free will. Out of this fresh religious doctrine, called Arminianism, grew a movement that included the plea for the freedom of all of God’s human creatures, especially the Southern slaves. Eventually the antislavery cause with its strong religious support helped to create the Republican party in the 1850s. This development led directly into the sectional crisis of 1860 and the war that followed.

A General Misconception

Most students probably assume that the antislavery crusade that culminated in the Civil War was largely an outgrowth of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed, “All men are created equal.” Yet a nation of states of which one-half held African Americans in bondage did not fulfill that noble sentiment. Of course, some Southern slaveholders, including George Washington, recognized the discrepancy between the ideal of equality and its violation. Most Americans failed to see such a discrepancy. Northerners did not want to interfere with slavery in the South. Seldom questioning its morality, Southerners were used to a system of labor that had been a way of life since early colonial days. Yet even those slaveholders who felt a twinge of conscience feared insurrection might emerge from any massive effort at manumission. You can ask students why the free and slave states did not go their separate ways even before the writing of the Constitution. After all, slavery was practiced in the Northern states, though only in relatively small numbers. Northern legislatures freed most of the slaves in their states by the late 1820s.

The Two-Nation Emergence of Antislavery Evangelicalism

Benjamin Lay

The cause of immediate emancipation, as the abolitionists came to define it, had a different germ of inspiration from those Enlightenment ideals that Jefferson had articulated: the rise of a fervent religious reawakening just as the new Republic was being created. That impulse sprang from two main sources: the theology and practice of Quakerism and the emergence of an aggressive, interdenominational evangelicalism. Both movements arose in England and America during the Age of Enlightenment—the eighteenth century. The pietism of the Quakers, a radically egalitarian Protestant sect, asserted the love of God for every human being, regardless of color, sex, or station in life. Even before the American Revolution, the most famous of the mid- and late eighteenth-century Quaker reformers, John Woolman, Anthony Benezet, Benjamin Lay, and later Benjamin Lundy began to publish their opinions and raise the issue of human bondage at Quaker meetings, largely in Pennsylvania. Even in Southern states where a greater number in the faith held slaves, their activities led to increased manumissions. Benjamin Lay, however, proved the most dramatic of the early Quaker advocates. A hunchback, he sympathized with the lowly and despised and denounced slavery as the greatest sin against God’s will. As early as 1738, he had addressed the Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia, wearing a long cloak that he threw off to reveal a military outfit. He then cried out to the startled worshipers, “Oh all you negro masters who are contentedly holding your fellow creatures in a state of slavery during life…you might as well throw off the plain coat as I do.” He drew out a sword and plunged it into a book in which he had hidden a bladder of red berry juice. It spilled over those seated nearby.1 Yet, Quaker exertions were successful only within their own ranks, although they persevered with citizens’ petitions to the newly formed Congress to free the slaves. To be sure, the Methodists under the leadership of John Wesley and some Baptist churches proclaimed slaveholding an evil. But the expansion of these faiths in the Southern states during the cotton boom of the early nineteenth century gradually stifled their antislavery convictions.

Much more dynamic than the Quaker movement was another undertaking, not at first in America but in the leading cultural and naval power in the Western World, Great Britain. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, the Rev. John Newton, a London vicar, preached fiery sermons against the horrors of the slave trade and his own participation in it. As a former sailor on slave ships, he called himself, the “African Blasphemer.” When, in his hymn, “Amazing Grace,” he claimed that God’s mercy had “saved a wretch like me,” he meant it. Newton converted to his cause William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament from Hull. The latter soon joined forces with Cambridge-educated Thomas Clarkson and Anthony Benezet’s friend Granville Sharp, long an advocate for black—and American freedom. All three were devout Anglican evangelicals with considerable social standing. Their writings, meetings, and speeches spread the word against the highly lucrative African slave trade and merged their efforts with those of wealthy and pious English Quakers. They included the factory-owner, Josiah Wedgwood, maker of Wedgwood china. Under Wilberforce’s shrewd leadership, the anti-slave trade reformers convinced Parliament to close the African traffic in 1806. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, founded in 1787, set a standard of religious work in politics that would be imitated across the Atlantic many years later. Students should be encouraged to see the film Amazing Grace (2007) which dramatizes the humane work of John Newton, the House of Commons reformer Wilberforce, and others in ending the brutal, forced transportation of Africans to the West.

Indeed, the antislavery crusade in America owed much to the development of the British civic philanthropies that Wilberforce, Hannah More, and many others developed. “Ours is the age of societies,” boasted the evangelical Sir James Stephen.2 Apart from the society to suppress slave trafficking, the most prominent benevolent agencies, The British and Foreign Bible Society (1803), and the Religious Tract Society (1799) spread a vigorous Christian message. Other more narrowly focused agencies included “Guy’s Hospital, For Sick and Impotent Persons, and Lunaticks,” (1721), “The Marine Society, for Educating Poor Destitute Boys to the Sea” (1756), “The Humane Society for the Recovery of Drowned and Suffocated Persons” (1774), and “The Society for Superseding the Necessity of Climbing Boys” (chimney sweeps) (1803).3

The American imitations lacked the colorful titles of the British charities, but they were most successful. Some, like the American Bible Society, still flourish. Stimulated by a gospel of hope and progress, churchmen distributed Holy Scriptures and religious tracts all over America, implanted Sunday schools to teach youngsters how to read scripture and simplified tracts, worked vigorously to suppress alcohol consumption, befriended sailors and young city apprentices far from home, placed prostitutes in domestic service, funded seminary training, and, as the first national lobbying effort and petition drive, urged Congress to stop the mails on Sundays. Success came in 1842. This hard-fought cause provided the abolitionists with early experience in organizing similar campaigns. Like their British colleagues, the American founders of benevolent societies recruited the most distinguished and wealthiest gentlemen for the presidencies and other offices as a way to advertise the societies’ prestige.

With regard to the disposing of slaves, these gentlemen of property and standing first followed the English example of Sierra Leone. It was a repository on the African West Coast for slaves that the Royal Navy patrols caught in the illegal slave trade. With such notables as Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, James Monroe, and Daniel Webster to grace the membership roster, the American Colonization Society established a similar refuge called Liberia in 1818.4 Transporting freed people out of the country appealed to some pious slave owners, but few slaves willingly left home for an unknowable existence abroad. Colonization proved utterly impractical as well as wrong-headed on many counts.

The Origins of the American Anti-Slavery Society

In 1824, an English Quaker, Elizabeth Coltman Heyrick, published a bold tract titled Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition. She was the first of many devout women to defy the more conservative male leadership in the antislavery cause in both countries. Her influence was instrumental in the eventual passage of the Emancipation Act of 1833, which began the liberation of West Indian slaves, although she had died two years earlier. At the beginning of the 1830s, two prominent New York City evangelical merchants, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, funded William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator in Boston. Noted for his boldness and strident journalism, he announced in his new journal, “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation…I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.” His paper appealed largely to a free black constituency.

Expanding on Heyrick’s idea, Garrison proclaimed a new, radical policy: immediate emancipation without compensating owners. He advocated offering slaves the full rights of American citizenship with no stipulation that they had to leave the country. With the former colonizationist Tappan brothers’ conversion and the support of Quaker reformers, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AA-SS) was created in 1833, at a convention in Philadelphia. The newly installed president, the very pious Arthur Tappan, capitalized the enterprise, and his brother Lewis Tappan administered the recruitment of members, organized the distribution of antislavery tracts, hired newspaper editors, and helped to establish chapters and meetings. He was the tireless friend of Joseph Cinque, leader of the captured mutineers on the Amistad (1839), whom the Supreme Court eventually ruled free. The filmmaker Stephen Spielberg’s dramatic rendition of their story misrepresented Tappan’s role and that of his fellow evangelicals who sought the prisoners’ return to Africa as Christian missionaries. But students would be intrigued by this film.

During the 1830s, the majority of abolitionists were Northern white churchgoers and their clergy. No less active were African Americans, within the denominational system and outside it. Most radical of all was David Walker whose Appeal (1829) predated Garrison’s Liberator and full blown immediacy. Walker was a free black, originally from the South, with literary skills, passionate convictions about freedom, wide knowledge of literature, and a strong religious consciousness. He wrote, “Are we MEN! !—I ask you, 0 my brethren, are we MEN? Did our Creator make us to be slaves to dust and ashes like ourselves?” He denounced Christian slaveholders’ hypocrisy and advocated slave uprisings.5 Nat Turner, who organized a famous uprising in Virginia, 1831, was a religious visionary, who found inspiration in the passages of bloody retribution and revenge in the Old Testament. Less combative than Walker, and less murderous than Turner, who was captured and hanged, African-American lay and clerical leaders were also eager participants in the new movement. They helped immeasurably in the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AA-SS). They included the wealthy sail-maker, James Forten of Philadelphia; his son-in-law Robert Purvis, also a respected Philadelphia businessman, along with these clergymen: Princeton-trained Theodore Sedgwick Wright of New York; Episcopalian Peter Williams of New York; and, a few years later, Henry Highland Garnet, an ardent Presbyterian prophet for black freedom. Nearly all the AA-SS chapters were closely affiliated with one church or another as the organization grew throughout the 1830s. No less important were the female antislavery societies where such noted speakers as the Quaker Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the eloquent black Sojourner Truth, and others began their speaking careers. Most famous of all were Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Quaker converts from South Carolina, who spoke—to the horror of conservative clergy—at “promiscuous [mixed male and female] audiences.” Women were supposed to address only other women. At its greatest strength in the latter years of that decade, about 160,000 church people belonged to the AA-SS and its affiliates.

Abolitionist Conversions

The mode of conversion to abolitionism was identical with the revival style of worship. The process began with the penitent’s initial conviction of personal sin of having been proslavery, followed by expressions of heartfelt repentance, and pledges to follow the divine command that all human kind were equal in God’s sight. In 1835, the Tappan brothers recruited Charles Grandison Finney, the leading revivalist of the Second Great Awakening (1800–35), to head the antislavery faculty at their newly founded Ohio college, Oberlin. That institution was later to supply scores of missionary educators into the South after the Civil War. The Tappans also befriended and funded the brilliant Theodore Dwight Weld, whose team of young itinerant disciples from Lane Seminary at Cincinnati braved hostile receptions and won many converts throughout western New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Northern Conservative Reaction

The very appearance of this movement with its religious ideology alarmed newsmen, politicians, and ordinary citizens. They angrily predicted the endangerment of secular democracy, the mongrelization, as it was called, of white society, and the destruction of the federal union. Speakers at huge rallies and editors of conservative papers in the North denounced these newcomers to radical reform as the same old “church-and-state” zealots, who tried to shut down post offices, taverns, carriage companies, shops, and other public places on Sundays. Mob violence sometimes ensued. In 1834, for instance, rioters vandalized Lewis Tappan’s Manhattan residence. They also ran amok in the free black Manhattan district, destroying homes, a school, and Peter Williams’s church.

An AA-SS postal campaign  in 1835 culminated in massive demonstrations throughout the North and South. The abolitionist officers had sent bundles of tracts and newspapers to prominent clerical, legal, and political figures throughout the whole country. In the slave states, the reaction was apoplectic and more violent than in the North. The postal drive thus revealed the fierce determination of white southerners to control their labor force. Yet, the antislavery campaign helped to educate a previously indifferent free-state citizenry, particularly the religious element, about the country’s inhumanity toward African-Americans.

Political Antislavery

Abolitionist growth, however, had its price. The movement splintered in the late 1830s. Garrison’s contempt for the nearly silent American denominations, his extreme pacifism, support of women’s rights, and departure from religious orthodoxy alienated the more traditional antislavery crusaders. The AA-SS divided when, outvoted, the Tappanites walked out of a New York convention in 1840. Garrison assumed control, but the organization was never the same. Impatient with the church-oriented stress on “moral suasion” to convert slaveholders, a third element emerged. In 1840 Elizur Wright, the wealthy Gerrit Smith of New York, the Rev. Joshua Leavitt, and others entered the political arena and formed the Liberty Party. They selected a devout former slaveholder, James Gillespie Birney of Alabama for President. His nomination gained slight notice, but over the next decade, religious abolitionists grew ever more confident. They were to be instrumental in the evolution toward the Republican party and a major force in it beginning in the mid-1850s. Northerners, religious or not, grew ever more assertive about the vices of slave labor and the benefits of free labor. The religious element in the North found in the Republican party platform the inclusion of many of their preferences—from Sunday closings to prohibition. But also, the more radical evangelicals were concerned that God-defying slaveholding was a curse to be checked by federal law if not wholly abolished by statute.

John Brown: Saint or Devil?

In 1859, religious abolitionists were appalled by John Brown’s failed raid at Harpers Ferry. Brown and some twenty, armed white and black men seized a federal armory intending to distribute the munitions and incite a slave revolt. During two days of fighting, about half the men were killed and Brown and others were injured. Ultimately, Brown surrendered and was hanged. The Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Rev. Theodore Parker, Gerrit Smith, and three other God-fearing men of New England had supported Brown’s work without knowing the details of his plans. Brown claimed godly inspiration, even if the result prompted a bloody, internecine war. Combining the highest of ideals with ruthless deeds, Brown’s behavior has always aroused a confused mixture of admiration and condemnation. Currently these issues are no clearer than they ever were. Ambivalence arises from the conflict that readers feel between sympathy for Brown’s liberating cause and their own revulsion at the hard, terroristic destructiveness, which he left behind in Kansas and proposed for Virginia in 1859. Once tried and convicted, Brown posed his death as a symbolic martyrdom for the sake of God’s downtrodden slaves. Students can discuss the injection of violence into a religious cause, especially in light of frightening parallels with Al Qaeda’s Islamic insurgency and terrorism.

Lincoln and War

Brown’s strategy of forcing a confrontation between the two sections was a culmination of religiously driven antislavery. But it was the work of many years’ labor by less violent abolitionists who may share with him the responsibility for the war. Hundreds of thousands were to die, but, through the reformers’ endeavors—and Abraham Lincoln’s Union Army and the President’s antislavery aims–the cruel system was finally crushed. Lincoln himself never joined a denomination, but his spiritual interests and his use of religious language in public utterances indicated that he perceived himself as God’s instrument for fulfilling the meaning of Jefferson’s Declaration. The cause of black freedom owed much to the sacrificial work of inspired, dedicated men and women from the eighteenth century through the Civil War.

Guiding Student Discussion

  1. What was the impetus for ending slavery? If the noble and righteous pronouncements of the founding fathers failed to abolish it, what did? How does the religious fervor of the transatlantic world relate to the antislavery cause?
  2. Discussion could center around one of two films: “Amazing Grace” [see resources] has already been mentioned. It is a grand portrayal of Newton, Wilberforce, and their friends in ending British participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Steven Spielberg’s film, “Amistad,” is also a good choice for viewing and discussing as noted above.
  3. Proslavery advocates were often themselves clergymen and the Biblical references to slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world gave substance to their theological views about bondage. The Northern antislavery clergy chiefly relied on the New Testament and the obvious moral failings of the system itself. Discussion of Biblical literalism and meanings could be a fruitful subject for debate.
  4. Given the restraints on women’s lives that the culture dictated, explore the differences in the abolitionist activities of the male members and the female.
  5. Lincoln’s religious thought and attitudes would make a fine topic for investigation and discussion.

Books that may be of assistance

  1. Robert Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (1994). The key figures of American political and social reform are given full exposure in this study, which also demonstrates how their efforts continue to affect our culture today.
  2. Paul Finkelman, ed., His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (1995). This collection of essays covers many aspects of John Brown’s career and influence, with special attention to his personality and political impact.
  3. James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (1997). This overview of the antislavery movement discusses how the movement developed and eventually helped to end the South’s “peculiar institution,” as it was called.
  4. Julie Roy Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement (1998).  Jeffrey’s account explains the grassroots work of antislavery women who essentially shaped Northern opinion against the slave institution.
  5. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan the Evangelical War against Slavery (1997). The author deals with a major figure in the antislavery crusade but shows the importance of religion in the development of the cause.



1 Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost, The Quakers. (Westport, Con.: Greenwood Press, 1988).

2 Sir James Stephen, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography. (2 vols.; London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853), 1:382.

3 Ford K. Brown, Fathers of the Victorians: The Age of Wilberforce (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 330–35.

4 P. J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement, 1816–1865. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961).

5 Sean Wilentz, ed., David Walker’s Appeal, In Four Articles: Together With A Preamble To The Coloured Citizens Of The World, But In Particular, And Very Expressly, To Those Of The United States Of America. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 25.


Bertram Wyatt-Brown is Richard J. Milbauer Emeritus Professor of History, University of Florida, and Visiting Scholar, Johns Hopkins University. He was an NEH Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1989–90 and 1998–99. Professor Wyatt-Brown has published the following works: Lewis Tappan and the War against Slavery (1969, 1996); Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982); The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family (1994); The Literary Percys (1994); The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War (2001); Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition (2003); and (co-editor), Virginia’s Civil War (2004).

Address comments or questions to Professor Wyatt-Brown through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

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To cite this essay:
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. “American Abolitionism and Religion.” Divining America, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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