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The Religious Roots of the American Abolition Movement

An Online Professional Development Seminar


Recording and presentation available on seminar Website.

  • To better understand the role of religious beliefs and institutions in the battle to end slavery
  • To understand the different audiences for abolitionist arguments
  • To offer primary documents from a variety of participants
  • To better understand how to use documents with students in class


  • Why did Protestant churches come to see slavery as an evil that
  • needed to be eradicated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
  • centuries?
  • What religious arguments did abolitionists use to make their case?

How did abolitionists use religious strategies and sentiments to appeal

to other Christians—black and white, northern and southern, male and



Laurie Maffly-Kipp

National Humanities Center Fellow


Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Current research and teaching focuses on African-American religions, religion on the Pacific borderlands of the Americas, and issues of intercultural contact.


David Walker

  • (1785-1830)
  • Born free in Wilmington, North
  • Carolina.
  • Settled in Boston where he ran a
  • clothing store during the 1820s.
  • Agent for Freedom’s Journal,
  • a New York-based weekly
  • abolitionist newspaper.
  • His works were banned in several
  • states and were instrumental in
  • initiating slave escapes and
  • insurrections.

David Walker, Appeal, “Preamble” (1830)

The fact is, the labour of slaves comes so cheap to the avaricious usurpers, and is (as they think) of such great utility to the country where it exists, that those who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. In fact, they are so happy to keep in ignorance and degradation, and to receive the homage and the labour of the slaves, they forget that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, having his ears continually open to the cries, tears and groans of his oppressed people; and being a just and holy Being will at one day appear fully in behalf of the oppressed, and arrest the progress of the avaricious oppressors; for although the destruction of the oppressors God may not effect by the oppressed, yet the Lord our God will bring other destructions upon them--for not unfrequently will he cause them to rise up one against another, to be split and divided, and to oppress each other, and sometimes to open hostilities with sword in hand. Some may ask, what is the matter with this united and happy people?--Some say it is the cause of political usurpers, tyrants, oppressors, But has not the Lord an oppressed and suffering people among them? Does the Lord condescend to hear their cries and see their tears in consequence of oppression? Will he let the oppressors rest comfortably and happy always? Will he not cause the very children of the oppressors to rise up against them, and oftimes put them to death? "God works in many ways his wonders to perform."


David Walker, Appeal, “Preamble” (1830)

I will not here speak of the destructions which the Lord brought upon Egypt, in consequence of the oppression and consequent groans of the oppressed--of the hundreds and thousands of Egyptians whom God hurled into the Red Sea for afflicting his people in their land--of the Lord's suffering people in Sparta or Lacedaemon, the land of the truly famous Lycurgus--nor have I time to comment upon the cause which produced the fierceness with which Sylla usurped the title, and absolutely acted as dictator of the Roman people--the conspiracy of Cataline--the conspiracy against, and murder of Caesar in the Senate house--the spirit with which Marc Antony made himself master of the commonwealth--his associating Octavius and Lipidus with himself in power--their dividing the provinces of Rome among themselves--their attack and defeat, on the plains of Phillipi--of the last defenders of their liberty, (Brutus and Cassius)--the tyranny of Tiberius, and from him to the final overthrow of Constantinople by the Turkish Sultan, Mahomed II. A.D. 1453. I say, I shall not take up time to speak of the causes which produced so much wretchedness and massacre among those heathen nations, for I am aware that you know too well, that God is just, as well as merciful!


David Walker, Appeal, “Preamble” (1830)

All persons who are acquainted with history, and particularly the Bible, who are not blinded by the God of this world, and are not actuated solely by avarice--who are able to lay aside prejudice long enough to view candidly and impartially, things as they were, are, and probably will be--who are willing to admit that God made man to serve Him alone, and that man should have no other Lord or Lords but Himself--that God Almighty is the sole proprietor or master of the WHOLE human family, and will not on any consideration admit of a colleague, being unwilling to divide his glory with another--and who can dispense with prejudice long enough to admit that we aremen, notwithstanding our improminent noses and woolly heads, and believe that we feel for our fathers, mothers, wives and children, as well as the whites do for theirs.


Angelina Grimke

  • (1805-1879)
  • Born in Charleston, South
  • Carolina into a prominent family.
  • Leaves South Carolina in 1829
  • and moves to Philadelphia,
  • where she becomes a Quaker.
  • Joins Philadelphia Female Anti-
  • Slavery Society in 1835.
  • Through association with
  • William Lloyd Garrison
  • becomes major abolitionist
  • speaker.

Angelina Grimke, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South

But there are other Christian women scattered over the Southern States, a very large number of whom have never seen me, and never heard my name, and who feel no interest whatever in me. 'But I feel an interest in you, as branches of the same vine from whose root I daily draw the principle of spiritual vitality—Yes! Sisters in Christ I feel an interest in you, and often has the secret prayer arisen on your behalf, Lord "open thou their eyes that they may see wondrous things out of thy Law"—It is then, because I dofeel and do pray for you, that I thus address you upon a subject about which of all others, perhaps you would rather not hear any thing; but, "would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly, and indeed bear with me, for I am jealous over you with godly jealousy."


Angelina Grimke, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South

I have thus, I think, clearly proved to you seven propositions, viz.: First, that slavery is contrary to the declaration of our independence. Second, that it is contrary to the first charter of human rights given to Adam, and renewed to Noah. Third, that the fact of slavery having been the subject of prophecy, furnishes no excuse whatever to slavedealers. Fourth, that no such system existed under the patriarchal dispensation. Fifth, that slavery never existed under the Jewish dispensation; but so far otherwise, that every servant was placed under the protection of law, and care taken not only to prevent all involuntary servitude, but all voluntary perpetual bondage. Sixth, that slavery in America reduces a man to a thing, a "chattel personal," robs him of all his rights as a human being, fetters both his mind and body, and protects the master in the most unnatural and unreasonable power, whilst it throws him out of the protection of law. Seventh, that slavery is contrary to the example and precepts of our holy and merciful Redeemer, and of his apostles.


Angelina Grimke, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South

But perhaps you will be ready to query, why appeal to women on this subject ? We do not make the laws which perpetuate slavery. No legislative power is vested in us; we can do nothing to overthrow the system, even if we wished to do so. To this I reply, I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken. You can do much in every way: four things I will name. 1st. You can read on this subject. 2d. You can pray over this subject. 3d. You can speak on this subject. 4th. You can act on this subject. I have not placed reading before praying because I regard it more important, but because, in order to pray aright, we must understand what we are praying for; it is only then we can "pray with the understanding, and the spirit also."


Angelina Grimke, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South

I know that this doctrine of obeying God, rather than man, will be considered as dangerous, and heretical by many, but I am not afraid openly to avow it, because it is the doctrine of the Bible; but I would not be understood to advocate resistance to any law however oppressive, if, in obeying it, I was not obliged to commit sin. If for instance, there was a law, which imposed imprisonment or a fine upon me if I manumitted a slave, I would on no account resist that law, I would set the slave free, and then go to prison or pay the fine. If a law commands me to sin I will break it; if it calls me to suffer, I will let it take its course unresistingly. The doctrine of blind obedience and unqualified submission to any human power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is the doctrine of despotism, and ought to have no place among Republicans and Christians.


Angelina Grimke, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South

Such appeals to your legislatures would be irresistible, for there is something in the heart of man which will bend under moral suasion. There is a swift witness for truth in his bosom, which will respond to truth when it is uttered with calmness and dignity. If you could obtain but six signatures to such a petition in only one state, I would say, send up that petition, and be not in the least discouraged by the scoffs, and jeers of the heartless, or the resolution of the house to lay it on the table. . . .You may petition, too, the different ecclesiastical bodies of the slave states. Slavery must be attacked with the whole power of truth and the sword of the spirit. You must take it up on Christian ground, and fight against it with Christian weapons, whilst your feet are shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. And you are now loudly called upon by the cries of the widow and the orphan, to arise and gird yourselves for this great moral conflict, with the whole armour of righteousness upon the right hand and on the left.


Angelina Grimke, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South

There is every encouragement for you to labor and pray, my friends, because the abolition of slavery as well as its existence, has been the theme of prophecy. "Ethiopia (says the Psalmist) shall stretch forth her hands unto God." And is she not now doing so? Are not the Christian negroes of the south lifting their hands in prayer for deliverance, just as the Israelites did when their redemption was drawing nigh? Are they not sighing and crying by reason of the hard bondage? And think you, that He, of whom it was said, "and God heard their groaning, and their cry came up unto him by reason of the hard bondage," think you that his ear is heavy that he cannot now hear the cries of his suffering children? . . . the time is to come when every man is to sit under his own vine and his own fig-tree, and no domineering driver, or irresponsible master, or irascible mistress, shall make him afraid of the chain or the whip. Hear, too, the sweet tones of another string: "Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased."


Frederick Douglass, “The Relation of the Free Church to the Slave Church”

I, for one, when I heard of the formation of a free church in Scotland, my soul lit up with joy. I had known none but slave churches—no church organization but had linked within its folds the bloody system. But God be praised! a Free church has sprung up, and, not content with spreading its doctrines in Scotland, it has appointed a delegation to go to America. I clapped my hands for joy—I proclaimed the fact that the cause of freedom was onward in Scotland—a free church is born, and they are going to visit us. Shake your chains, and cheer up your broken spirits!—freedom is onward! But oh! what a sudden reversal! How dark and gloomy became my soul, when I heard they had another object in view than the cause of freedom.


Frederick Douglass, “The Relation of the Free Church to the Slave Church”

They came, but not for me or my brethren in bondage; they had not time to come to me, and for the best of all reasons, I had no money, my master had stolen it from me. I had nothing to purchase the advocation of the Free church. Instead of looking into the quarters, they are on their way up to the big house; they want to see master, the man that has the money. They pity us in their heart, but they can do nothing for us. They are less free than some others who do not assume that arrogant egotistical name.


Frederick Douglass, “The Relation of the Free Church to the Slave Church”

There is a law above all other enactments—it is the law written by the finger of God upon the heart, that man shall not hold property in man. They admit they hold fellowship with slaveholders, or men-stealers (that is a better word; I like to call everything by its proper name). Would it be wrong to hold fellowship with a man who was known to be in the practice of sheep-stealing? It would not be right. If it would be wrong to hold fellowship with a sheep-stealer, it is also wrong to hold fellowship with a man-stealer. If it be wrong to steal the soul for which Christ died, will the Free Church hold fellowship with these men as Christians? Slavery exists because it is popular. We have to make it unpopular. What would be thought of the man who said he was diametrically opposed to slavery, while he went and took the money which was wrung from the blood, bones, and sinews of the slave, to build his church and pay his stipend? We would say he aided and abetted slavery. If you hold fellowship with slaveholders, you virtually say to the world that a man can be a follower of the meek and lowly Jesus, although he be, at the same time, the vilest sinner. But whether it be assumed by others or not, I know it to be true, as truth can have no concord with lies, so a free church cannot hold fellowship with a slave one. No quarter is given to slavery by true freedom.


Frederick Douglass, “The Relation of the Free Church to the Slave Church”

A distinction ought to be made between slavery and slaveholders! As well might he tell us that a distinction ought to be made between the sin and the sinner, between the dice and the sharper. He will denounce adultery most powerfully, and then come forward and tell us that distinction ought to be made between the adulterer and adultery. Every sinner, every criminal, may here find a place of escape. A distinction ought to be made between the slaveholder and slavery! O! the artful dodger. The learned, eloquent, and religious Scotch divine has, by much logical research and deep study, at last ascertained that a distinction ought to be made. "By their fruits ye shall know them." No, no, says Dr. Chalmers, with all his brilliant clear sightedness. In order to reform the world, we are to individualize the sinner with the sin.


Frederick Douglass, “The Relation of the Free Church to the Slave Church”

I call upon you as Christians to cry into the ear of that church— SEND BACK THE MONEY. I may be allowed to speak on that system, and I have a right to speak when the blood of four sisters, a brother, and an old grandmother is sticking in the hem of her garment. If you SEND BACK THAT MONEY, I will speak as much in your praise as I have done against you. I have not the power to utter the feelings that agitate my bosom. I have not words strong enough to give vent to my sufferings. If there is a Free Churchman within the sound of my voice, I would say—SEND BACK THE MONEY. Help to unrivet the fetters of the poor bondsmen, and hasten the glad jubilee when three millions of poor down-trodden men shall be delivered from the bloody chains of tyranny and oppression, and God will bless you—the slaves will bless you.


Benjamin Lay


Quaker Benjamin Lay's

1737 address to fellow Quakers.


A contribution box, used to gather pennies, other coins, in support of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society