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Bonds of Salvation

How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism


Ben Wright


Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020

Hardcover. 253 p. ISBN 978-0807173893. $45/£37


Reviewed by Nathalie Caron

Sorbonne Université, Paris


Ben Wright’s Bonds of Salvation is one in a series of books which have, for more than two decades, revisited the history of American abolitionism. The new historiography has emphasized the agency of African American men and women and their prominent role in the process of emancipation (Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North, 2002; David Williams, I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era, 2014); the length of the struggle against slavery and its continuity (Ira Berlin, The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States, 2015); its interracial and transnational dimensions (John Stauffer, Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, 2002 ; Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, 2016); as well as the contribution of its participants to the reflection on the meaning of democracy and its connection with feminism and the civil rights movement (Carol Faulkner, Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, 2011 ; Kate Masur, Until Justice be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction, 2021). Another important consequence of the new historiography has been a secularization of abolitionism, which for a long time was exclusively referred to as a “reform” movement grown out of evangelical Protestantism. Today scholars tend to describe abolitionism as a social movement—even as the first social movement as we understand the term. In 2002, in The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic, Richard S. Newman argued that abolitionism was “the first social movement to so completely transform itself” while moving away from the tendency to underscore the abolitionists’ religiousness. In the introduction, Newman noted that “[h]istorians ha[d] long known that religion was the primary motivator for generations of abolitionists. However, this focus on motivation has often pulled scholars’ attention away from what abolitionists did and how their activities shifted over time.”

In his own introduction, Wright refers to Newman observing that after him historians have primarily been concerned with “charting the political action of the early movement” and proposes to “foreground”—one of his favorite verbs—“the pivotal role of religion in structuring the ideological possibilities of the movement” [5]. In Bonds of Salvation, Wright confronts a paradox, namely the fact that, in the early American republic, although most Americans were Christians attached to the notion of salvation and although a great deal of them were opposed to slavery, few “took organized action against slavery” and many “watched on the sidelines as the evil institution grew” [1]. Wright proposes to answer the following question: “How did American Christianity encourage this inaction, and what changed to inspire the later, larger and more active Christian abolitionist movement ?” by addressing different visions of salvation [1]. For Wright, racism was not “the only challenge to abolitionism” [2]. Indeed, for most Americans, in this period of millennial hope, the salvation of all was more crucial than the emancipation of enslaved black men and women. Whereas white and black abolitionists sought to purify the nation from its original sin—and consequently save it—by organizing action against slavery, other Christians, most of them white, “prioritized conversion and expanding salvation and accordingly remained outside of the organized antislavery movement” [3].

One of Wright’s aims is “to understand how Christianity shaped the development of American abolitionism,” namely how Christianity “both inspired and limited the movement” [3]. To do so, he focuses on the ideological context, which he contends has been understudied, but may explain antislavery action as well as antislavery inaction. Wright distinguishes between purification and conversion, two ideological trends at work from the beginnings of the nation and both creating “bonds of salvation,” which often were at odds:

A minority privileged purity, believing that God’s kingdom would become manifest only when the church and the nation had proven themselves worthy. The majority of Americans sought to fulfill this holy work by extending Christian conversion, confident that God would save both their souls and the world” [201].

Wright, however, does more than equate purification with abolitionist action and conversion with white inaction or anti-abolitionism. Rather he examines the shifts in the uses of both words and the ways both ideals combined or conflicted. Because he wants to understand why white Christians chose to ignore the activism of their black coreligionists—and hence “the blind spots of the evangelical Christian community in which [he] was raised” [ix]—Wright is mostly interested in the history of conversionism, whose study, he argues, is necessary to understand early American religion [8].

The analysis covers the period from the Revolution to 1845, after the three major national Protestant denominations had splintered over questions of conversion and slavery, or as the author puts it, “over the question of how to expand salvation in a slaving nation” [19]. The first chapter examines the distinction between conversionist and purificationist antislavery between 1776 and 1800, and is organized around three case studies: the Quaker abolitionist purification campaign, the purificationist abolitionism of the Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins, and the move from institutional purificationism to ineffectual conversionist antislavery—and antiabolitionism—by Baptist and Methodist ministers John Leland and Francis Asbury. The second chapter details the creation of national Christian denominations in the 1780s-1810s, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian General Assembly, and the Baptist General Convention, and their role in both binding the nation together and dividing it. The period also saw the foundation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church by Richard Allen, among other independent Black churches. Those denominations built the benevolent empire—a catch-all phrase used to refer to the large number of missionary and reform societies which were founded in the early-nineteenth century—and fostered “dreams of salvation,” which, in the case of white churches, excluded any collaboration with troublemaking abolitionists as illustrated by the eviction of two abolitionist ministers, the Baptist David Barrow and the Presbyterian George Bourne. Wright insists on “the denominational origins of many of the most influential reform organizations of the early nineteenth century” [80], including the American Colonization Society. For Wright, the ACS, whose roots were Presbyterian and its spiritual father Robert Finley, was “the national organization designed to confront slavery while protecting white supremacy” [83]. In the third chapter, dedicated to the ACS, Wright insists on the centrality of conversion in the motivation of its members and the temporary success of its “powerful biracial discourse.” Colonizationism implied the colonization of Africa by free Blacks but also the transformation of black Americans into Christian missionaries. Despite immediate opposition on the part of free Blacks, it attracted both black and white Christians—including the African American poet Phillis Wheatley—because “conversionism led colonizationists to frame their movement as fulfilling the millennial promise of Psalm 68, ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands to God’” [87]. Through conversion, colonizationism would both accomplish the salvation of the African continent and the redemption of the United States.

Chapters 4 and 5 begin with the success and influence of the colonization movement and denominational support for the ACS well into the 1820s, and continues with the failure of colonizationism by looking at anti-colonization movements, in the North and in the South, and the destruction of the conversionist consensus in the 1820s and 1830s. In the South, more slave-owners feared that support for colonization would lead to support for abolition, and opposition grew when attempts were made to secure federal funds for colonization. In the North, black abolitionists managed to “uncouple dreams of salvation from colonization” [136]. In particular, in 1827, Richard Allen, who originally supported the movement, had a letter published in Freedom’s Journal, the first African American publication, in which he argued that colonization was proslavery and articulated an anticolonizationist message which was further expanded by David Walker in his 1829 Appeal—Wright fails to mention that Walker actually quotes an extract from Allen’s letter. In chapter 6, Wright recounts the splintering of the national churches in the late 1830s and mid-1840s, and follows in the wake of other historians who have shown that “churches North and South … pushed the nation on the path of violence” [172]. In particular, Wright mentions C.C. Goen, whose Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War (1985) deals with the failure of “the Evangelical bond” to maintain national unity and may have inspired the title of his book. Wright underlines that churches first split over issues of salvation. As Southern enslavers “came to see slavery as an essential ally to salvation,” [181], “more and more Christians came to believe that enslavers could not serve as agents of salvation” [184]. By the 1840s, “the old tactics of preserving unity by foregrounding salvation had pretty much failed” [197]. The Presbyterians split in 1837, the Methodists and Baptists in 1845.

Wright concludes on the “collision of salvation and slavery,” which among other factors led to the Civil War. He does not argue that religious discord or denominational fracture caused the war, but he insists on the interrelation of the split in national denominations, the emergence of “purificationist currents,” and the fall of American democracy. Whereas Christian abolitionists sought to purify the nation from the sin of slavery, Christian enslavers wanted to purify the nation from abolitionists: “Both camps were convinced that the other represented and existential threat to American salvation” [202]. Southern ministers played a major role in convincing a majority of Southerners to support the idea that through conversionism and the cultivation of the faith of the enslaved, slavery was an agent of salvation while abolitionism was “a demonic challenge to both social stability and gospel truth” [203].

Wright’s book may signal a resurgence of interest in the role played by religion, and more particularly Christianity as an institution, in the dynamics of antislavery and abolitionism. One of his strengths is the examination of the reasons for the passivity—a word he does not use—of most Americans in the face of slavery. For Wright, however, Christianity means denominational Protestantism. Nothing is said about American Catholics’ support for slavery and the role the Catholic Church played in the limitation of American abolitionism as demonstrated by scholars of Catholicism such as John T. McGreevy and Maura Jane Farrelly. Because the book focuses on institutional Christianity, it tends to downplay the role of women—without ignoring it—as well as that of non-denominational Christians. Oddly, the African American Christian abolitionist Sojourner Truth is not mentioned. Besides, key notions such as conversion and purity, whose meanings depended on who used them and when, are sometimes a bit fuzzy, especially when associated with a movement—conversionism and purificationism—and could have been defined in the introduction with more clarity. A few inaccuracies can be noted, as on page 112, when Wright refers to “colonizationist movements” in the plural before mentioning “the movement” in the singular in the next sentence. These criticisms aside, Wright makes a strong case in arguing that the paradigm of conversion helps explain what he prefers to call inaction. His book is particularly useful in the ways it distinguishes antislavery and abolition, draws attention to antislavery Americans who have remained outside of antislavery studies—for example the Methodist itinerant missionary Joshua Marsden with whom the book begins—and addresses the support of a number of black Christians for the American Colonization Society.



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