Evangelicals & the Fight to End Slavery

Excerpt from Chapter 3 of The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family

In the early 1800s, a principal leader of the revival movement in east Tennessee was Samuel Doak, the Presbyterian minister who had delivered his famous “Sword of the Lord” sermon in 1780 sending the Tennessee militia off to defeat the British. As the fires of revival flared up in the 1800s, Doak converted to abolitionism, freed all his slaves, and then traveled the countryside preaching that any true Christian would condemn and work to end the institution of slavery. Doak and other early abolitionists planted a host of Presbyterian churches and “log cabin colleges” that taught a strong antislavery doctrine. They laid the basis for eastern Tennessee to become the first true locus of the abolition movement in America. The Emancipator, the first newspaper in America devoted entirely to ending slavery, was published in Jonesborough, Tennessee in 1820, in the same year Dangerfield Rice moved his family from nearby Bedford County out west to Missouri in order to take advantage of new opportunities for owning slaves.

It’s important to note here that the Protestant traditions in America—the Puritanism imported to New England by English immigrants and the Presbyterianism of the Scots-Irish who settled the South—did not lead naturally to either abolitionism or to a defense of slavery. They shared revolutionary roots in the British religious wars of the 17th century. Both embraced a radical egalitarianism that saw all human beings as equals in the sight of God, and that would inspire movements for social and economic justice and worker rights, and against such evils as slavery and discrimination, child labor, the oppression of women, and the denial of democratic rights to various groups. The same radical egalitarianism, however, could just as naturally lead to the belief that any white person, made in the image of God, should have an equal right to own any black person, who was naturally less than human. The theological conclusions one came to seemed to be a function of where one lived and what one’s economy depended upon.

The Second Great Awakening, even more than the First, focused on the emotional and spiritual experience of salvation. To be truly saved, an individual had to have an intense, direct, and personal experience of profound guilt and “conviction” of sin, and then accept the death of Jesus as atonement for the sin and a way for sinners to escape the eternal punishment of Hell. Although all the Protestant denominations grew during this time of revivalism—including Congregationalists and Presbyterians—it was the Baptist and Methodist denominations in particular, with their emphasis on personal salvation, that underwent an extraordinary explosion of growth and influence. Thousands of Baptist and Methodist missionaries and circuit riding preachers traveled the country holding revival meetings and planting churches and religious schools. Though Methodists remained a tiny sect at the end of the Revolutionary War, by the middle of the 19th century they were the largest religious group in the country, and by 1868 General U.S. Grant could refer, only half-jokingly, to the three great parties in the United States: “The Republican, the Democratic, and the Methodist Church.”

As the Protestant denominations—Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and others—were carried into the slave states of the South, into the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, their churches, pastors, and congregants were dipped in the culture and economy of the South, and increasingly found it necessary to defend and justify the practice of human bondage. As the same denominations moved west into the border states of Tennessee and Missouri, they displayed a profound ambivalence to slavery. When Presbyterians moved to the Missouri River Valley with its wide hemp plantations dependent on slave labor, they discovered that their Presbyterianism could justify slavery. But when they moved to another part of the state, away from the rich black bottomlands of the slave economy, they found that their Presbyterianism was opposed to slavery.

The revival movement was responsible for a tremendous spread of Christianity among slaves in the South. Slaves came in their thousands to camp meetings organized mainly by Baptists and Methodists, where they listened to the same sermons, succumbed to the same transports of emotion, and pledged themselves to the same spiritual renewal as white revivalists. At times white slave owners were known to undergo conversion at a revival meeting and then decide to free their slaves.

More commonly, though, the new black Baptists or Methodists found that their fellow white Christians expected the same unequal relationship between black and white outside the church to prevail inside the church as well. As early as 1774 the first black Baptist Church was founded outside of Augusta, Georgia, and in 1787 a group of black Methodists broke away from the white Methodists to found the African Methodist Episcopal (A. M. E.) Church. The evangelicalism of the whites was dramatically different from the evangelicalism of the blacks. For many white Baptists and Methodists in the South, salvation was a matter of an individual sinner coming to a deeply felt and personal sense of guilt, and then seeking a personal salvation and personal regeneration as a Christian. Slave-owning Christians were careful to separate their faith from any implications regarding the justice or righteousness of owning slaves. By contrast, black evangelicalism was based on a theology of liberation from the beginning. Slaves took heart not only from the Old Testament story of the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt to find freedom in the Promised Land, but also from the radically egalitarian teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. The Kingdom of Heaven, for black Baptists and Methodists, was a place where the practice of human bondage had doubtless been ended forever.

The new evangelical movement in the early 19th century was strongly focused on social justice and social equality. The famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon saw some of his sermons burned in America due to his censure of slavery before the Civil War, calling it “a soul-destroying sin,” “the foulest blot" which "may have to be washed out in blood.” Spurgeon was also deeply concerned with social justice more generally, with the poverty, misery, and oppression of the lower classes in England. He was the founder of the Stockwell Orphanage, a leading institutional effort to address the needs of children, now known as Spurgeon’s Child Care, one of the largest international Christian children’s charities.

Charles G. Finney, known as ‚ÄúAmerica‚Äôs foremost revivalist,‚Äù was a major leader of the Second Great Awakening. Finney was a fiery, entertaining, and spontaneous preacher, and was widely influential among millions of Americans. In addition, however, Finney was deeply concerned with social justice. He was an abolitionist leader who frequently denounced slavery from his pulpit and denied communion to slaveholders. He was president of Oberlin, the first college in America to educate black and white men and women in the same classrooms. Through his influence over several decades in public life, Finney helped lay the basis for the Civil War to be a crusade to end slavery, and not just a clash between two different economic systems. For many, at the heart of evangelicalism was a demand for deep integration between one‚Äôs private religion and public morality.