Anti-Slavery Movement/Religious Origins












































































Sadena Thevarajah

Religious Influences in the Anti-slavery Movement


As with much of the events of the period (the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century), the anti-slavery movement was largely propelled by religious influences. Religion permeated most aspects of life and so when large denominations began to preach against (or condone) slavery, their voices were heard. Many abolitionists were either active members in the religious community or had strong religious backgrounds while growing up. The basic beliefs that they held concerning man and God helped to build the foundation for the anti-slavery movement.

Evangelical Denominations

Although Quakers were known to be the most vocal concerning their opposition to slavery, there were also other denominations that did not favor slavery. Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians initially were very vocal concerning their dissatisfaction with slavery. However, their main concern was that large amounts of the population were not being exposed to God. They had to resolve whether the larger concern was to end slavery and thus allow many " unchristian" people to go to hell after death, or to evangelize the slaves while letting the issue of slavery slide under the carpet. This was the ultimatum since most slave owners would not let these radical ministers near their slaves while they so vehemently objected slavery, lest they give the slaves bad ideas of revolt. So, many people from the clerical community decided that to save the slaves’ souls by exposing them to God was far more beneficial than to alleviate their suffering in this world. Even though slave owners thought that converted slaves would also cause problems, they also thought that a Christian slave might be better than a heathen slave might. Another issue was that slaves should be free in order to be able to Christianized, since a Christian can’t hold another Christian in bondage. This ideology was eventually worn down and little by little, slaves were allowed to hear services by these Evangelical denominations. Subsequently, Methodists and Baptists also became the two denominations to achieve the earliest successes in proselytizing slaves (Lane 184). From here, slavery became a political controversy rather than a moral one.

The Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening

The Great Awakening (mid 1730’s) should receive approbation for the good that was behind it concerning slavery, however, at that early in time society was stubborn to new ideas and results were minimal. Many of the religious figures coming to America from Virginia during this interval of religious revivals were very much so against slavery. These preachers who came over, welcomed Africans into their churches, which was formerly unheard of. However, since their masters didn’t allow slaves to attend, there were very few that would actually show up. Also, none of the clergy was motivational enough to be able to convince the populace that slavery was a moral evil, or that slavery should be abolished. So, the Great Awakening came and passed, giving a trivial push for the Anti-Slavery movement.

The impact of the Second Great Awakening on the Anti-Slavery Movement, however, is perhaps the single most influential agitator in the movement. The Second Great Awakening was also a series of revivals similar to the Great Awakening, but this had accumulated a better result than the first Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening was influential due to its emphasis on the theory of creating a true Christian republic. This theory was based on the hope that God would bestow favor on true Christian republics, meaning the United States. Through the Second Great Awakening, slavery returned to being a moral issue, and the ideology of becoming a perfect society instigated new thoughts. "Perfectionism" (that people could live without sin) preached that people should not conform to the evil that slavery brought and that moral inducement along with disobedience should be their weapons to fight against it.

Some slave-owners thought that evangelizing the slaves would be a good idea since they rationalized that slaves would learn to have devotion towards God and, eventually, to their owners. Slaves did not look at religion in this manner; they tended to interpret the Bible to reflect their lives (Pop Up #2). The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt was symbolized to mean the escape from slavery to freedom, Daniel being delivered from the lion’s den prompted the thought that God freed men from their difficult situations, and the Resurrection symbolized a man being brought from death to life. Many Black men and women went on to become prominent figures in the African churches, which were constructed later on.

Religious Characters

Bishop William Fleetwood- One of the bishops who traveled over to America from England in 1701 through the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts." One of the main objectives of the Society was to Christianize the slaves however, Bishop Fleetwood went so far as to denounce the institution of slavery itself (which prompted him to be considered a radical).

Charles Grandison Finney- A man who felt he was strongly affected by the Second Great Awakening and in turn he affected many others. He converted to Presbyterianism and began conducting revivals. He preached that sinning was purely voluntary and that men and women could effect their own salvation if only they would surrender to the Lord. He preached "Perfectionism."

Theodore Dwight Weld- Weld was one of the most active early antislavery crusaders. He attended the Lane Seminary in 1831. After coming under the influence of Charles G. Finney, he convinced a large number of students to join the abolitionist cause. He was expelled for being such a disruption to the school and became a member of the first class at Oberlin College (Oberlin is a college founded on religious and moral reform). He composed both The Bible Against Slavery and American Slavery As It Is. After his schooling, he served as an agent in the American Antislavery Society, and eventually trained a number of disciples, including his wife Angelina Grimké.

Denmark Vesey- Vesey was a slave who was always absorbed by stories of slave rebellions that he would hear when slave-owners would come and stay at his master’s house. In about 1799, he had purchased a winning lottery ticket and was able to buy his freedom. He quickly became a dominant force. He was an active member of the African Methodist Church of Charleston and would have such an impact on the other members that they would call him a prophet. He would always draw parallels between African slaves and the Israelites in the Bible, claiming that they too should fight their way to freedom. In late 1821, he devised a plan for a revolt which, at last count involved 9,000 people (Lofton 126). However, the secret was leaked out and the plans crashed. There were many consequences of the conspiracy of the revolt, including that the instruction of blacks became outlawed, free blacks weren’t allowed to enter the state, and strict limits were placed on the unsupervised movement of slaves. However, Vesey became a martyr and a model to slaves and the abolitionist cause.

Harriet Beecher Stowe- Beecher Stowe belonged to the nation’s most renowned Protestant household. She was one of the eleven kids of Leeman Beecher who was a well-known congretional minister. She wrote the controversial Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she described a slave’s hard life. She had intended Tom to be a Christ like figure who redeemed America from the sin of slavery.

James Henry Thornwell- Thornwell was a Presbyterian minister who was in favor of slavery. He wanted to evangelize slaves, but not emancipate them. He insisted that the church was a spiritual organization concerned with matters of heavenly (not earthly) concern (The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church). He maintained that Presbyterians did not want to entangle their lives with issues that did not affect the final test of God.



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