Despised and often attacked, they courageously carried the slaves’ cause for thirty years. Why have these inescapably Christian men and women been forgotten?
Tim Stafford is senior writer for Christianity Today and author of numerous books including, with Dave Dravecky, Comeback (Zondervan, 1991). He is writing a historical novel on the abolitionist movement.
January 1, 1992
They were the most hated men and women in America. All across the South, rewards were posted for their lives.
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”
Southern postmasters routinely collected their pamphlets from the mail and burned them. In the North, these radicals were mobbed, shouted down, beaten up. Their houses were burned, and their printing presses were destroyed. For thirty years, to the very eve of the Civil War, the word “abolitionist” was an insult.
But you must not mention ‘a message from the LORD’ again, because each one’s word becomes their own message. So you distort the words of the living God, the LORD Almighty, our God. (Jeremiah was imprisoned and distrusted by His people when He called the nation of Israel to repentance.)
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Why Are They Forgotten?
After the Civil War, abolitionists were lionized. Then, soon, they were forgotten. They still are.
Schoolchildren learn about Lincoln and how he freed the slaves, but the men and women who carried the slaves’ cause for thirty years (and who viewed Lincoln through most of his first term as an amoral politician) go nearly unremembered.
People know mainly of the abolitionists’ underground railroad, which they regarded as a sideshow. Helping escaping slaves did nothing, they felt, to get to the root of the problem. Abolitionists wanted to destroy slavery root and branch, not pick up its fallen leaves.
One reason abolitionists are forgotten is that they were inescapably Christian in their motives, means, and vocabulary. Not that all abolitionists were orthodox Christians, though a large proportion were. But even those who had left the church drew on unmistakably Christian premises, especially on one crucial point: slavery was sin. Sin could not be solved by political compromise or sociological reform, abolitionists maintained. It required repentance; otherwise America would be punished by God. This unpopular message rankled an America that was pushing west, full of self-important virtue as God’s darling.
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. (Test the message you receive and Ask the Spirit of God to reveal Truth so you are not deceived. Jesus is Thee (God) way, Thee Truth, Thee Life (God Life).
It remains an unpopular message today. Popular American history finds it much easier to assimilate Abraham Lincoln’s cautious, conscience-stricken path than to admire the abolitionists’ uncompromising indictment of their country’s sin. Yet without the abolitionists’ thirty years of preaching, slavery would never have become the issue Lincoln had to face.
Radical Demands in a Racist Society
Historians usually set the beginning of the abolitionist movement as 1830, because about then abolition’s principal figures—William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and Theodore Weld—began their work. Long before, however, Americans had qualms about slavery. Before 1830 nearly everyone, slaveholders included, agreed that slavery should never exist in an ideal society
The problem was what to do about it. Slavery was important to the economy, both North and South. Americans North and South also profoundly feared freeing millions of slaves. Most Americans were frankly racist; they believed Africans to be not only inferior but also dangerous if not strictly controlled.
For some time, “colonization” had been the favored scheme of those who disliked slavery. Sending the slaves back to Africa would end slavery and eliminate the threat of African-Americans entirely. America would then be undefiled by an institution that contradicted its Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), and untainted by an inferior race.
But abolitionists said an absolute no to colonization. Seen through the eyes of Christianity, colonization was immoral. What right did white Americans have to force black Americans to leave their native country?
Furthermore, abolitionists regarded colonization as a way of preserving slavery through a pretense of moral intentions. A few slaves might be shipped off to Africa, but the money and willpower to send all African-Americans would never come. Colonization was like a drunkard’s vow to quit drinking after just one more drink.
William Lloyd Garrison, responding to a Congregationalist minister’s preference for a gradual elimination of slavery, asked whether the pastor urged his congregation to gradually eliminate sin from their lives.
Abolitionists called their program “immediatism.” To the consternation of their opponents—most Americans—they refused to discuss the problem of what to do with freed slaves. They regarded that as a fatal discursion. Their message was this: First repent of the sin, and then we can talk about what to do.
Not Force, “Moral Suasion”
Quakers formed the core of abolitionism in the early days; they were the only large denomination to have officially banned slave holding. But the movement’s dynamism sprang from New England and the territories farther west, newly populated by Yankee farmers. In Boston and its surroundings, Unitarianism had recently all but supplanted traditional Christianity, but elsewhere Yankee Presbyterians and Congregationalists had taken up revivalism. In upstate New York, Charles Finney spurred huge revivals with thousands of converts. Finney preached that genuine conversion would always result in a changed life. Indeed, evangelicals formed a series of societies devoted to reform causes. The American Anti-Slavery Society, organized in 1833, was only one of these. It was, however, by far the most controversial.
Like all such societies, the American Anti-Slavery Society sought to change the world not by force but by “moral suasion.”
In their official “Declaration of Sentiments” the founding delegates contrasted their methods with those of America’s revolution:
see the new 2016 resolution to the Right to Life written by Andrew Wommack, Declaration of Dependence on God : http://declarationofdependence.org/the-declaration-of-dependence/
“Their principles led them to wage war against their oppressors, and to spill human blood like water, in order to be free. Ours forbid the doing of evil that good may come, and lead us to reject, and to entreat the oppressed to reject, the use of all carnal weapons for deliverance from bondage; relying solely upon those which are spiritual, and mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds. (Thanks be to God these are the same foundation Christian beliefs that led Dr. King Jr. to form the non-violent movement to pressure America to integrate and fulfill the promise of the American Constitution.)
“Their measures were physical resistance—the marshalling in arms—the hostile array—the mortal encounter. Ours shall be such only as the opposition of moral purity to moral corruption—the destruction of error by the potency of truth—the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love—and the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance.” (Dr. King Jr. said hate does not resolve hate. Love overcomes hate as love is of the light and hate is of the darkness. Love is light. We see by light. We cannot see at night. When night comes no one can see. You are blind, walking around in darkness when you are consumed with hate, vengeance and resentment. Jesus came into the world and he was the light of the world. Read the scriptures because they witness of Jesus and your faith comes from reading the Word of God.)
‘Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.’ –Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Jesus the Light of the World
12Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” 13So the Pharisees said to Him, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.” John 8:12
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going.
Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.
I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.
1 John 1:6
If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.
Abolitionists repudiated government’s power in overthrowing slavery. They saw little value in a coerced repentance, even if it were possible. They believed, furthermore, that the U.S. Constitution gave the government no power to abolish slavery. (On this, later, many changed their minds.)
Garrison: Putting Power in Print
The problem was, abolitionists could not go south to speak to slaveholders about their sin. Abolitionists were in danger even as they formed their new organization in Philadelphia; farther south they would almost certainly be lynched.
Unable to go south personally, abolitionists hoped to send literature. Over thirty years, abolitionists published a huge number of newspapers, tracts, and books, particularly in the early years when Arthur and Lewis Tappan’s extremely successful New York business could fund the effort. But little of this literature reached the South, due to postal censorship.
Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, probably penetrated the South more than any other. It did so simply because southern newspapers could not resist quoting its long, vituperative passages to prove the abolitionists were fanatics.
2 Corinthians 11
Paul and the False Apostles
…12But what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.
The Liberator held influence far greater than its small circulation would suggest. Other newspapers came and went, but Garrison’s managed to infuriate and enthrall readers more or less continuously from 1831 until after the Civil War. For lonely abolitionists across a vast nation, The Liberator proved a constant stimulant. Garrison tended to condemn as a heretic anyone who disagreed with him, and to the distress of other abolitionists his intemperate style showed little imprint of the “power of love.” He was, however, unfailingly interesting.
Weld: Facing the Mobs
Garrison might have made few converts unless others had carried the abolitionist argument in person. Unable to reach the South, abolitionists held countless meetings in the North. They hoped a determined body of northern abolitionists would bring moral influence to bear on the South. Theodore Weld was the leading abolitionist in this mode. He was known as the “most mobbed man in America” because of the furious opposition he faced down in countless towns in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
Warning against False Teaching
3As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, 4nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. 5But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion,7wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions. 1 Timothy 1 (You can live as a rebel but you cannot be a teacher of God’s Word too.) 1 Timothy 1 8But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully,9realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers…
Weld, converted in Charles Finney’s revivals, had become one of his chief lieutenants. Wherever Weld went he made a huge impact; every organization wanted a piece of him.
In 1832, while touring Ohio for a reform society, Weld was converted to immediate abolitionism. Shortly thereafter he converted virtually the entire student body of Lane Seminary, in Cincinnati; the students were expelled as a result. Weld then helped found Oberlin College, the first higher institution to admit both women and African-Americans, and moved most of the Lane students there.
So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. (You cannot use the Word of God to oppress His creatures, we who are His children.)
No Other Gospel
6I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.8But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!
Weld went on to become famous as an antislavery evangelist. His methods he learned from Finney’s revivals. Entering a small town or county seat for a series of meetings, he was usually met with rocks, tomatoes, threats, and sometimes, physical violence.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
…9For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously 12giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. 13For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.
Nevertheless, by the end of one to two weeks of nightly speeches or debates, Weld had nearly always silenced the opposition and converted a sizable part of the town to active abolitionism.
Battle for the Churches
Weld went on to train “The Seventy,” a group of abolitionist agents supported by the Tappans. The Seventy were sent out like Jesus’ disciples to imitate Weld’s success across the North. Weld, his voice damaged through constant overuse, retired from speaking but wrote two of the most important and widely distributed books of the abolitionist movement, The Bible Argument Against Slavery, and American Slavery As It Is.
“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
In American Slavery As It Is Weld amassed clippings from southern newspapers and southerners’ testimony to show the cruelty of slavery. Northerners who had little personal knowledge of slavery were shocked.
I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty.minary (her father, Lyman Beecher, was president when Weld was expelled), used American Slavery As It Is as her source and inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel made an incalculable impact in creating anti-slavery sympathy when it was published in 1852.
Paul and the False Apostles
…3But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. 4For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.
In “The Bible Argument,” as it was called, Weld attempted to prove that slavery in the Bible was different in kind from American slavery, for Old Testament slaves had rights and were regarded as persons, while American slaves were property.
The argument was crucial for abolitionists. If southerners could prove that God accepted slavery, the claim that slavery was sin would dissolve. On the other hand, if abolitionists could demonstrate that the Bible condemned American slavery, rather than sanctioned it, they owned a powerful weapon in the battle to win the churches (to win the church is like to cleanse our souls of sin).
And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
Abolitionists expended great energy over this, believing that churches, linked North and South through their denominations, could bring an end to slavery. If slavery was sin, then churches would have to dis-fellowship slaveholders; and slaveholders, abolitionists hoped, would give up slavery sooner than they would give up their church.
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,
1 Corinthians 3:11
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–
Some churches accepted the abolitionist argument and did excommuncate slaveholders. More, however, felt that abolitionists were going too far. Abolitionists ended up disillusioned and disgusted by the church’s response, and some of them lost their faith. The churches, trying to keep peace at all costs, also failed: the largest denominations eventually split between North and South over slavery.
Can you keep peace without Jesus? Can you have love without Jesus?
For through him (Jesus, the Son of God) we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.
Put on the New Self
…14Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
1 Corinthians 10:17
Because there is one loaf (Jesus is the bread of Life), we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,
When we are disobedient, we are at war with God. Jesus ended the War. Receive Jesus into your heart. The War is in your heart. Without Jesus you cannot win the War.
New International Version (NIV)
Made Alive in Christ
2 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time,gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
When we receive Jesus we receive peace. War can be avoided when we receive the peace of Jesus. Do not stay in contention with God and with His character. His Spirit is mightier than any two-edged sword dividing soul and Spirit.
JLM note- (The Word of God is God’s contract or constitution with Himself. He is faithful when we are faithless. He is just when we are not just. He is merciful when we are ruthless.)
If you will, please continue reading so you will see that the grace God desires to show is available and most premium Life that Jesus gave His life to accomplish through His own shed blood. To not do things God’s way results in bloodshed, war, destruction and rebuke. The account of the abolitionists who tried to keep the country from going into War failed, but the life changing message of the Gospel spoken before America was founded will always be true because God cannot deny Himself.
Jew and Gentile Reconciled Through Christ
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (We are cleansed from sin to be built together for a dwelling in which a Holy God lives by His Holy Spirit).
JLM note – Consequence of no repentance for slavery was war that destroyed families, communities, the economy and the assassination of President Lincoln. The wrath of God is awesome, terrible and terrifying.
Finney: Foreseeing Blood
As time went on, abolitionist optimism withered. The rancor of the debate led Charles Finney, now president of thoroughly abolitionist Oberlin College, to urge Weld and his followers to pull back from abolitionism. Finney wrote in the summer of 1836, nearly twenty-five years before his words would be fulfilled:
“Br.[other] Weld, is it not true, at least do you not fear it is, that we are in our present course going fast into a civil war? Will not our present movements in abolition result in that? … How can we save our country and affect the speedy abolition of slavery? This is my answer.… If abolition can be made an appendage of a general revival of religion, all is well. I fear no other form of carrying this question will save our country or the liberty or soul of the slave.…
“Abolitionism has drunk up the spirit of some of the most efficient moral men and is fast doing so to the rest, and many of our abolition brethren seem satified with nothing less than this. This I have been trying to resist from the beginning as I have all along foreseen that should that take place, the church and world, ecclesiastical and state leaders, will become embroiled in one common infernal squabble that will roll a wave of blood over the land. The causes now operating are, in my view, as certain to lead to this result as a cause is to produce its effect, unless the publick mind can be engrossed with the subject of salvation and make abolition an appendage.”
Finney failed to convince Weld or any other prominent abolitionist. Like Old Testament prophets, they would tell the truth regardless of consequences. For them abolition had become God’s great cause on earth.
Success and Failure
Pure abolitionism lasted only through the 1830s. By the end of the decade, the movement was split into two factions. One, led by the cantankerous Garrison, centered in Boston. Many of its leaders had abandoned orthodox Christianity and added causes to anti-slavery: women’s rights, pacifism, “no human government” (which called for the end of any form of human hierarchy), and others. The other faction, led by the Tappans and other evangelical moderates, lost much of its potential when the economic collapse of 1837 bankrupted the Tappan brothers. Weld dropped out of abolition entirely in the early 1840s, due to a personal crisis in which he lost his faith and his hope for reform.
At any rate, the abolitionists’ success had overwhelmed them. They had begun numbering a few hundred; by 1840 they were thousands, organized into local anti-slavery societies across the North. The movement took on a momentum of its own.
Unable to reach southerners to plead for repentance, abolitionists began to petition Congress to abolish slavery where it had the power: in the District of Columbia, and in newly forming states like Texas or Kansas. A small cadre of abolitionist Congressmen brought slavery into political discourse, and slave-holding states fought back fiercely. The question could not be resolved politically any more than it had been religiously. Northerners became convinced that southerners would never be content until slavery dominated America.
Southerners became convinced that they could accept no limitations on their property rights. In the end no middle ground remained. (God does punish sin beyond the first generation. This is called a generational curse. Ignorance is a curse.)
Beginning in the 1840s, moderate abolitionists formed a new political party, the Liberty Party. This led to the Free Soil party, which led in turn to the Republican Party. Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln, were certainly not abolitionists. But they promised to limit the South’s power over the nation, and the millions that abolitionists had swayed supported them. Lincoln’s election led to southern secession, and secession led to war.
I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty.
Jew and Gentile (Yellow and Brown, Black and White) Reconciled Through Christ
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
The wave of blood that Finney foresaw did indeed roll over the land, and slavery ended, not through repentance and love but through military coercion. By their original criteria of love and “moral suasion,” the abolitionists had failed. However, they thanked God when slavery ended, and most of them ultimately supported the Union Army and its Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln. They saw the war as God’s judgment and felt their thirty years of work had been vindicated, if tragically.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he (Jesus) himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (in His Lordship of your life, family).
Copyright © 1992 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.