The role of religion in the abolitionist movement was significant, particularly in terms of religious views of social justice and the fervor within the evangelical churches to bring salvation to all. All abolitionists, inside or outside of any particular religious movement, viewed the institution of slavery, which was favored in the nation for its economic value and in the Southern states particularly as a result of their dependence on the labor force, as not merely wrong as applied to individuals but as a corrupt institution that was a social evil. Religious supporters of abolition, however, took the social argument further by making the issue of slavery a spiritual and moral issue, and injecting it with religious fervor. Religion played a role both in the philosophical debate and in the physical assistance to slaves and former slaves to escape and live as free individuals.
In terms of the philosophical and theological foundation for opposing slavery, many in organized religion “believed fervently in the equality of men before God [and that] slavery was an ugly blot upon the record of a nation conceived in liberty and destined to become a ray of light in a weary world” (Olmstead, 1960, p. 362). This conviction about the equality of individuals was a foundational underpinning for religious activism and support of the abolitionist movement, while concern for the souls of people served as a strong motivational force. As far as the churches supporting abolition were concerned, all supporters and participants in the institution of slavery were in need of salvation; be it the slaves who were not Christian, the politicians who were placing economic gain over spiritual justice, or Christians who didn’t understand that regardless of their piety in other aspects of their lives, there was a blot on their souls as a result of their complicity with slavery. This combination of theology and evangelistic activism made religion a force for change.
In terms of physical assistance and participation in the abolitionist movement, religion was a player as well. Former slaves were often given sanctuary in churches, many abolitionist meetings and lectures were held in churches, and former slaves coming up through the Underground Railroad were given aid and shelter. In one specific instance, as noted in Strother (1962), Dr. Samuel Osgood, who was the pastor of a Congregational church, befriended one such former slave, James, and found him work as a shoemaker as well as enrolling him in a primary school. After James completed his studies, this former slave became an effective abolitionist by making tours and giving lectures throughout southern New England (p. 59).
Religion’s role in the abolitionist movement was both static and dynamic. While not all churches supported the idea (there were several denominational splits during the era), those that did stood on a solid foundation of theology and ideology; all persons should be equal and free. They infused this stance with evangelical fervor as well as the willingness to active participants by giving aid and material support to escaping slaves, allowing their facilities to be used for abolitionist lectures and leaflets, and striving to demonstrate the social evil of slavery as something to be abandoned. Though not all religions agreed on the issue, there is no doubt that religion played a positive role in the abolitionist movement.
Maier, P., Smith, M.R., Keyssos, A., & Kevles, D.J. (2003). Inventing America: A History of the United States (Vol. One). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Olmstead, C.E. (1960). History of Religion in the United States. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Strother, H.T. (1962). The Underground Railroad in Connecticut. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.