Abolition And Religion In The Civil War
In its religious aspects the abolition movement had wide ramifications. The subject inevitably found its way into meetings of official church bodies, thus putting a stamp upon religious denominations as a whole. In England antislavery enthusiasm among evangelical sects had presented a striking contrast to the comparative indifference of the Episcopal Church. The established church had shown a friendliness to slavery interests which harmonized with its traditional support of the existing social and economic regime of which it was the beneficiary. Anglican bishops resisted abolitionist reform, which found ready acceptance in dissenting circles. In parliamentary struggles over the slavery question an analysis of the votes by shires shows that where dissent was weakest, abolition votes were fewest. For Americans no easy generalization fits the case as to the relation of the churches to abolitionism. In the South the religious defense of slavery was vigorous and widespread. What is not so generally recognized, however, is that slavery "found many defenders . . . . [in the North] particularly in the colleges and churches" To a large extent antislavery agitation in the North was either an extra-church movement, or, as in the case of Weld and Finney, it was more associated with evangelism and a variety of propagandist efforts than with regular and normal church activity. Furthermore, the undoubted religious emphasis of Weld and Finney does not mean that they captured the Churches. There were notable defenses of slavery written by Northern religious writers, while the antislavery resolutions passed in church assemblies tended often to be perfunctory or lukewarm.
An Analysis of Abolitionist leadership shows "a heavy Congregational-Presbyterian and Quaker preponderance." Among the leaders there were "many Methodists, some Baptists, but very few Unitarians, Episcopalians, or Catholics." Not all abolitionist spokesmen belonged to any organized religious group; in Garrison's case his antagonism toward the churches was conspicuous and well known. Probably no other sect was so unanimous in its support of abolitionism as the Quakers, but, torn between their hostility to slavery and their traditional preference for peaceful rather than violent reform, they did not produce the principal leaders of the movement.
In the case of the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians their general distribution North and South presented a factor of great difficulty whenever the slavery question came up in national gatherings. When in 1844 the general conference of the Methodist Church passed a resolution requesting Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia to desist from duties as bishop so long as he remained a slave owner, the result was the formation of a Southern general conference which effected the complete separation of Southern and Northern Methodists. In the same year there was formed a "Southern Baptist Convention" because of differences with Northern brethren who opposed the appointment of missionaries who held slaves. That slavery should have been powerfully supported by teh churches in the South should cause no surprise. The church exerted its spiritual leadership within the the social order, not by advocating its overthrow. To contend for abolition in the South was to demand a specific concrete reform at home, with social consequences that were deemed revolutionary. To do so in the Northern church circles might arouse opposition at home among those who depreciated abolition as a disturbing factor; but it was also true that antislavery preaching did not threaten to undermine the very basis of the Northern social and economic order.
Source: "The Civil War and Reconstruction" by J. G. Randall and David Herbert Donald, Chapter 1, pages 25-26
This page last updated 04/30/04