In Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America historian Kevin Gutzman examines the legacy of Jefferson.
In a society like the United States where partisans of social justice share the public square with so-called libertarian patriots, and both have a legitimate claim to come from authentically American traditions of thought, questions of “how? what? why? when?” naturally arise to explain the events of protest, division, and violence. How did a country that promoted life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness leave so many Blacks in chattel slavery after its victory over an oppressor of freedom? What were Americans doing about the issue of those in bondage between the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War? And why did it take so long for Americans to formally end the institution of slavery? These and more, are questions that Ben Wright seeks to answer in his most recent book with Louisiana State University Press, A Bond of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism.
Wright’s goal for the book is to “uncover [the] intellectual worldviews that looked to heaven to change life on earth” in order to “understand how Christianity shaped the development of American abolitionism.” Far more than offering a simple chronology of early abolitionism, Wright explores “how both religious ideas and religious institutions inspired and limited the antislavery movement from the Revolution until the dissolution of the major national Protestant denominations.” Wright argues that the divergence of the antislavery movement among White Christians rested on two religious ideas: conversion and purification.
These two religious ideas manifested themselves into an antislavery tug-of-war between those who thought God would use the United States as a means of converting the heathen Africans at home and eventually all heathens of the world, and those who thought God would use the United States to bring social reform by purifying their land from slavery.
“Early antislavery existed in a world filled with both anxiety and hope.” Conversionists like 18th century minister John Leland, knew that “the whole scene of slavery is pregnant with enormous evils” but oddly enough still thought abolitionism was a sin. For the majority of White Christians, salvation “had to begin with the soul and not with the exploited bodies of the enslaved. Bodily liberation would ensue, but damned souls required spiritual salvation first.” As Wright fleshes out example after example of this, he demonstrates that White conversionists could not deny the evils of slavery but thought Black activism would deter the salvation of the nation, eventually the world, and, therefore could not commit to emancipation. Many conversionists were “confident that God would solve the problem of slavery without divisive, human-led political agitation.”
The purificationists were fully aware of the moral blind-spots that conversionism presented to the antislavery movement. Ministers like Samuel Hopkins called slavery “a national sin, and a sin of the first magnitude—a sin which righteous Heaven has never suffered to pass unpunished in this world.” Employing revolutionary rhetoric, Hopkins saw God’s providence in the American victory as a forerunner of giving liberty to Blacks and that the real “evil we are threatened with is slavery.” For Wright, the purificationists’ fight to end slavery was not enough to convince White conversionists that bodily liberty for Blacks should coincide with their salvation. Purificationists and the problem of slavery eventually was reduced to background noise to larger events which that would lead to tension between northern and southern states; namely, the incursion of denominational nationalism being created in the American south.
Wright argues that “In pursuing national missions of salvation, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists all suppressed even the mere discussion of slavery.” The formation of missional societies and various denominations became the “mechanisms for clergymen to define the nation and direct its destiny.” Decisions about abolitionism had even come to local denominational levels. Highlighting the Elkhorn Association in Kentucky as an example, some Baptists resolved that it was “improper for Ministers, Church, or Associations, to meddle with emancipation from slavery.” The dispute between converting Blacks as means to the salvation of the country and liberating slaves to purify the nation of its sin remained a struggle into the early 1800’s. As religious networks were created and after the War of 1812, the “nation began to recognize itself as a unified body, [and] the sins of the day took on a greater threat.” Some in the conversionist camp wished to avoid the issue altogether, but the problem of slavery in America had come to a head and eventually shattered national denominations.
Identities bound up with a distinct “north and south” mentality coupled with interdenominational debates over slavery had already created fuel for a civil war. Wright explains that “tracking the new purificationism of the 1840s and the ensuing division within each of these churches demonstrate how conflicts over slavery and salvation set the scene for the nation’s undoing.” Understanding how to bring salvation to the whole of the United States created schism between all three major denominations; Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. To some like the Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, thought that “abolition was a distraction, a heresy, and an obstacle to emancipation,” while new purificationists saw people like Hodge “opponents of purity” and therefore “opponents of the true gospel.” Wright correctly sees the disunion of denominations as a foreshadowing of disunion of the states and finds clout in John C. Calhoun who decried, “All of the things tying together the United States ‘the strongest of those of spiritual and ecclesiastical nature, consisted in the unity of the great religious denominations, all of which originally embraced the whole union.” But salvation required a pure nation, and the conflict over the bonds of salvation would lead to secession in the events of the Civil War.
While Wright offers admirable precision about the struggle between Christian abolitionists and proslavery leaders, and the creation of their respective denominations, discussions about their theological underpinnings that fueled their abolitionism or proslavery commitments are somewhat lacking. Many, if not the majority, of the influential figures discussed in this work are ministers whose reading of biblical texts directly influenced their politics. Therefore, one might assume their theological views that inspired or limited abolitionism would be discussed. However, Wright chooses to focus on main characters, collective bodies, and their responses to institutional change.
For example, Wright argues that Samuel Hopkins’ doctrine of disinterested benevolence was pivotal in the early abolitionist movement in New England because it focused on the interests of African slaves rather than the self-interest without, but does not dive into the theological or scriptural context surrounding Hopkins’ arrival to those ideas. By my count, only a handful of times were scripture verses referenced; and it was mainly Psalm 48. For a work to focus on the role of a certain religion in major events, it’s expected to have the texts (in this case Christian scripture) to be underscored as the basis of action. Moreover, the volume only focuses on the roles of Protestant Christians. So then, the title can be a tad misleading if the reader expects to have the theological context or the biblical, or systematic, belief system presented as a shaper of how Christianity inspired and limited American abolitionism rather than simply Protestant organizational structures.
However, I really think that Wright is onto something important here. He’s uncovered new territory of how to approach antislavery histories by seeing the events of abolitionism as Americans who thought salvation was a national duty that called for their struggle to achieve it. By doing so, Wright has demonstrated how Protestant networks used organizational bodies to both further abolitionism and set the grounds for the Civil War.
The vivid accounts of the divide between religious organizations, both the ardent abolitionists and the proslavery factions in early America, offered in this book help explain the role Christianity had in the tensions of Blacks gaining freedom as well as laying the foundations for the American Civil War. While this study is a microcosm within larger narratives about the history of slavery in America, it does not limit its appeal to those who wish for answers to the “how? what? why? when?” in the early stages of abolitionism. Readers will enjoy this work as a progenitor for the later events in nation’s struggle for emancipation, but will also see shocking similarities in today’s America. Wright’s Bond of Salvation is a story of struggle for America to find redemption; and if anything, is a clear—and needed—indication that what’s to be revealed in the webs of slavery, race, abolitionism, and religion in American history have yet to be untangled.