Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Varieties of Abolitionism

In the long history of the abolitionist movement in the United States, which started long before 1775 and separately from the movement toward political independence from England, we see significantly different subgroups within the larger movement. One clear distinction was between the abolitionists in the free North and those in the slaveholding South. Although the two groups admired and supported each other, they operated in very different circumstances.

Even among abolitionists in the South, there was a "broad spectrum of antislavery opinion," according to historian Stanley Harrold. A long list of local abolitionist organizations and societies dotted the map, and various leaders gained public attention for the cause in the South.

Most prominent among them were James G. Birney, Cassius M. Clay, Joseph Evans Snodgrass, John C. Vaughn, John G. Fee, and William S. Bailey.

Some abolitionists worked for the immediate end of all slavery, others took a longer view, supposing that it might take years or decades. Some advocated civil or peaceful means, others were willing to use force or violence.

Of the six individuals whose activities in the slave states drew extended comment from northern abolitionists, three - James G. Birney, Cassius M. Clay, and John G. Fee - are relatively well-known figures. All three were prominent for their activities in Kentucky, and Birney had also been active against slavery in Alabama. Although Birney, was born in 1792, was considerably older than Clay, who was born in 1810, and Fee, who was born in 1816, they had much in common. All three came from slaveholding families, and Birney and Clay had inherited large numbers of slaves. All were educated in the North - Birney at Princeton, Clay at Yale, and Fee at Miami University and the Lane Theological Seminary in Ohio. Each of them based his opposition to slavery on Christian precepts, although Fee's religious commitment was the strongest and Clay's has been obscured by his biographer. Birney and Clay were aristocratic, and they both began their careers as slave-holders who criticized slavery in their state legislatures.

In addition to being united by their antislavery sentiments, abolitionists in the South shared two foundations for these sentiments: first, the generally Christian outlook, and second, a strong sense of the nation's founding documents. To be sure, there was a diversity among them: Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.; but they shared enough of the common Christian belief to be firm in their opposition to slavery. Politically, they saw abolitionism rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - including the Bill of Rights. Those texts contained the seeds of the abolitionist movement, and the years from 1776 to 1863 were in some ways merely an unfolding of what had been put into place by 1775.

Evangelical and political abolitionists of diverse backgrounds began to demand a revival of a religious campaign to directly impact the South.

The abolitionists believed that as people in the South were encouraged to consider authentic Christianity - as opposed to the very unChristian ideology of the slaveholding groups, an ideology which loudly proclaimed itself to be Christian but which was in fact not - they would embrace abolitionism.

Cassius M. Clay, calling on every Christian "to bear testimony against this crime against man and God," also suggested the creation of an abolitionist missionary organization for the South. He wanted an interdenominational board of home missions established in New York City to coordinate the project.

Abolitionists in the North would fund and support the activities of the abolitionists in the South. Clay, himself a Kentuckian, understood the dangers of sending speakers from the North into the South, and so looked to the North to support, but not to operate, the movement in the South. Joshua Leavitt and Charles Torrey, two other famous abolitionist leaders, endorsed a more aggressive version of Clay's idea, encouraging speakers to address the problem of slavery most directly.

Clay did well in envisioning the organizational form of the missionary undertaking in the South. When it emerged in the late 1840s as an important facet of abolitionism, the effort was, nevertheless, closer to the hearts of Torrey and Leavitt than to the Kentuckian's. At that time, the American Wesleyan Connection, the AMA, and the American Baptist Free Missionary Society (ABFMS) each initiated measure to spread antislavery religion in the South.

In those years of antebellum history, of course, AMA stood not for the American Medical Association, but rather for the American Missionary Association, one of the chief abolitionist groups.

Organized abolitionist missions in the South, begun in the 1840s, constituted a more aggressive and enduring effort than the mailing of antislavery publications to prominent southerners during the great postal campaign of 1834-35.

Although the effort to abolish slavery by awakening more southerners to the true meaning of Christianity reached its peak in the late 1840s and 1850s, it did not begin at that time. There

was a long tradition of religiously inspired and northern-supported antislavery action in the South. In 1835, Amos Dresser, former Lane Theological Seminary student and disciple of Theodore Weld, distributed antislavery "tracts and periodicals" in Kentucky and Tennessee. He also talked openly with slaves before a Nashville mob beat him severely for his efforts.

The pattern was common: a southern abolitionist spokesman, funded and supported in part from the North, whose message was a blend of New Testament Christianity and the Founding Fathers. The resistance to such spokesmen was also usually the same: based on economics, but cloaking itself in alleged fears of rampant crime by freed slaves, and hiding its anti-Christian hatred behind the verbiage of an insincere pseudo-Christianity.

Abolitionist missionary efforts of another Weld protege, David Nelson, became the focus of confrontation between religiously oriented abolitionism and slavery in Missouri. A southerner, a Presbyterian minister, and a former slaveholder who had freed his slaves, Nelson was president of Marion College in eastern Missouri when Weld converted him to immediatism in 1835. As an agent of the AASS, Nelson contacted slaves, called on slaveholders in his congregations to free their bondspeople, and attempted to attract young northern abolitionists to his college. Driven out of Missouri by mob threats, he established the Missionary Institute in Quincy, Illinois, that produced Work, Burr, and Thompson's slave rescue attempt in 1841.

The AASS was the American Anti-Slavery Society. Oberlin College in Ohio, filled at the time with Presbyterian spirituality, was another major institution among abolitionists. The word 'imediatism' refers to the idea, common among many abolitionists, that the time for waiting was over, no gradualism should be tolerated, and slavery had to be ended immediately.

Although, to the casual observer, the situation presented possible confusion - both abolitionists and slaveholders claiming to be Christians - there is no great mystery. Upon closer inspection, the southerners who defended slavery and called themselves Christians were nominal believers at best, and cynically manipulating their listeners at worst. The abolitionists from the North who often endured beatings by southern mobs displayed, by means of their wounds, the sincerity of their belief. The slaves themselves could easily tell which side manifested true Christian charity.