In a society like the United States, in which partisans of social justice share the public space with so-called libertarian patriots and both have the justified claim to originate from authentic American thought traditions, the questions arise: “How? What? Why? when? “naturally arise to explain the events of protest, division and violence. How did a country that promoted life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness keep so many black people in slavery after defeating an oppressor of freedom? What did Americans counter the bondage between the end of the Revolutionary War and the start of the Civil War? And why did it take Americans so long to officially end the institution of slavery? These and more are questions that Ben Wright asked in his recent book with Louisiana State University Press, A Volume of Redemption: How Christianity Inspired and Restricted American Abolitionism seeks to answer.
Wright’s goal for the book is to “expose [the] intellectual worldviews that looked to heaven to change life on earth “to understand how Christianity shaped the development of American abolitionism”. Wright is much more than a simple chronology of early abolitionism. He examines “how religious ideas as well as religious institutions inspired and constrained the anti-slavery movement from the revolution to the dissolution of the great national Protestant denominations”. Wright argues that the anti-slavery movement’s divergence among white Christians was based on two religious ideas: conversion and purification.
These two religious ideas manifested themselves in a tug-of-war against slavery between those who thought God would use the United States as a means of converting pagan Africans at home, and eventually all the pagans of the world, and those who thought God would use that United States to bring social reforms by clearing their country from slavery.
“Early anti-slavery existed in a world full of fear and hope.” Conversionists like 18th century minister John Leland knew that “the entire slavery scene is pregnant with tremendous evils,” but strangely enough, abolitionism was still, strangely, a sin. For the majority of white Christians, salvation “had to begin with the soul, not with the exploited bodies of the enslaved. Physical release would follow, but damned souls needed spiritual release first. “As Wright elaborates example after example, he shows that white conversionists could not deny the evils of slavery, but thought that black activism would deter the salvation of the nation, ultimately the world, and therefore 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 well aware of the moral blind spots that conversionism offered the anti-slavery movement. Ministers like Samuel Hopkins called slavery “a national sin and a sin of the first magnitude – a sin which the righteous heaven in this world has never passed with impunity.” Using revolutionary rhetoric, Hopkins saw God’s providence in American victory as the precursor to black freedom and as the real “evil we are threatened with is slavery.” For Wright, the purificationists ‘struggle against slavery was not enough to convince the white conversionists that blacks’ physical freedom should coincide with their salvation. Purificationists and the problem of slavery were eventually reduced to background noise at major events that would create tension between northern and southern states; namely, the penetration of denominational nationalism in the American South.
Wright argues, “In pursuing national salvation missions, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists have even suppressed the very discussion of slavery.” The formation of mission societies and different denominations became “mechanisms for clergy to define the nation and determine its fate”. Decisions about abolitionism had even arrived at the local denominational level. Citing the Elkhorn Association in Kentucky as an example, some Baptists decided that “it is inappropriate for ministers, churches, or associations to interfere in emancipation from slavery.” The dispute between converting blacks as a means of saving the country and delivering slaves to cleanse the nation from its sin remained a struggle well into the early 19th century. When 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 were more threatened. “Some in the conversionist camp wanted to avoid the problem altogether, but the problem of slavery in America had come to a head and eventually destroyed national denominations.
Identities associated with a distinct “North and South” mentality, coupled with interdenominational debates about slavery, had already fueled a civil war. Wright explains that “the persecution of the new purificationism of the 1840s and the resulting division within each of these churches shows how conflicts over slavery and salvation are the arena for the ruin of the nation”. Understanding how to bring salvation throughout the United States created a division between all three major denominations. Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. For some like Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, “abolition was a distraction, a heresy, and an obstacle to emancipation,” while new purificationists viewed people like Hodge as “opponents of purity” and therefore “opponents of the true gospel.” Wright rightly sees the division of denominations as a harbinger of the division of states and finds clout in John C. Calhoun, who stated: “All the things that bind the United States together, the strongest of those spiritual and ecclesiastical, consisted in the unity of major religious denominations that originally all comprised the entire Union. “But salvation required a pure nation, and the conflict over ties of salvation would lead to secession in the events of civil war.
The vivid accounts of the divide between religious organizations, both the ardent abolitionists and the proslav factions in early America, offered in this book explain and lay the foundation for the role of Christianity in the tensions of blacks attaining freedom American Civil War.
While Wright offers admirable precision on the struggle between Christian abolitionists and proslave leaders and the creation of their respective denominations, there is no discussion of their theological foundations that fueled their abolitionism or their proslavery commitments. Many, if not the majority, of the influential figures discussed in this paper are ministers whose reading of biblical texts has directly influenced their policies. Hence, one might assume their theological views that inspired or limited abolitionism would be discussed. However, Wright focuses on main characters, collective bodies and their reactions to institutional change.
For example, Wright argues that Samuel Hopkins’ doctrine of disinterested benevolence was central to the early New England abolitionist movement because it focused on the interests of African slaves rather than self-interest without, but not immersed in the theological or written context around Hopkins’ arrival on these ideas. After my count, there were only a few references to verses in Scripture; and it was mostly Psalm 48. In order for a work to focus on the role of a particular religion in major events, it is expected that the texts (in this case Christian scriptures) be underlined as the basis of action. In addition, the volume focuses only on the roles of Protestant Christians. So the title can be a bit misleading if the reader expects the theological context or biblical or systematic belief system to be portrayed as shaping how Christianity inspired and limited American abolitionism, and not just Protestant organizational structures.
However, I really think Wright is up to something important here. He discovered uncharted territory for approaching the history of anti-slavery by viewing the events of abolitionism as Americans who saw salvation as a national duty that required their struggle to achieve it. In this way, Wright has shown how Protestant networks used organizational organs to both promote abolitionism and lay the foundations for civil war.
The vivid accounts of the divide between religious organizations, both the ardent abolitionists and the proslav factions in early America, offered in this book explain and lay the foundation for the role of Christianity in the tensions of blacks attaining freedom American Civil War. While this study is a microcosm within larger narratives of the history of slavery in America, it does not limit its appeal to those who have answers to the “how? What? Why? when? “in the early stages of abolitionism. Readers will enjoy this work as a precursor to later events in the nation’s struggle for emancipation, but will also see shocking similarities in America today. Wright’s Bond of Salvation is a story of the struggle for America, to find salvation – and if anything, this is a clear – and necessary – indication that what needs to be revealed in the webs of slavery, race, abolitionism, and religion in American history is not yet unraveled.