The Evangelical Impulse Behind the Abolition of Slavery

Did you get a chance to watch The Abolitionists last night on PBS?  If you missed it, you can watch the first episode  here.  The series focuses on five nineteenth-century abolitionists–Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, and Angelina Grimke–and their fight to end slavery in America.  As I watched the show last night I was reminded of the powerful role that evangelicalism played in the abolitionist cause.   Whatever one thinks about the role of evangelicals in public life, it is clear that they have been engaged in moral causes for a long time.

At this morning’s Huffington Post, Carol Berkin, a distinguished historian of American women, describes the “evangelical passion” that informed Angelina Grimke’s opposition to slavery.   Here is a taste of her piece:

The youngest of 14 children, Angelina Grimké was born in 1805 into one of the wealthiest slave holding families of South Carolina. She was destined to a life of ease and material pleasures as the wife of a local planter. But her conviction that God demanded a choice of sin or salvation prompted her to reject the path prescribed for her by Charleston society. She wished, she announced, to serve in Christ’s army when the final battle between good and evil began. In the journal she started keeping in 1828, she recorded her struggle to free herself of sin. She vowed give up frivolity, fashion, idleness and all luxuries. But this was not enough, for she saw these same sins and vices in her family — and in the larger South Carolina society around her.

With the zeal of a convert, she set about to turn these sinners into saints. In 1828 and 1829 she waged a relentless campaign to reform her mother and her siblings, her friends and her neighbors, pointing out their moral failings at every turn. Her efforts met with little success. Her unbending certitude and relentless badgering drove her brothers to hide in their rooms, her friends to desert her and her mother to muster a patience that could only be termed heroic.

As a young crusader, Angelina understood that slavery was the root cause of the sins she saw around her. But this realization did not lead to any particular sympathy or concern for the enslaved men and women that were its victims. Instead, Angelina’s condemnation of the slave system was based on her fear that it endangered the souls of white masters and mistresses. In other words, she worried that slave owners would face eternal damnation but ignored the plight of those suffering the system’s earthly consequences.

And don’t forget to watch the last two episodes of The Abolitionists.  They will air on January 15 and 22.


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