Gospel of Liberty: Antislavery and American Salvation
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
Americans understood and sought to solve the problem of slavery in terms strongly colored by understandings of religious conversion. In the early-eighteenth century, Great Awakening revivals fueled a new belief in the transformative nature of religious conversion. By the antebellum era, theological changes – coupled with democratization and sectionalism – prompted greater direct confrontation with social reform. Historians have chronicled the role of religion in motivating antislavery thought, but by privileging political action over religious sentiment, earlier work misses non-political manifestations of early antislavery. If we take religious belief seriously and seek to understand antislavery motivations, the question is not whether reformers were gradualist or immediatist in political action, but whether or not they ascribed to the expectations of conversionist or purificationist causation. While conversionists sought to destroy slavery through the millennial expansion of salvation, other Christians looked within, laboring to purify their own communities through coercive action. Imperatives of conversion drove ministers to consolidate religious authority in new national denominational bodies. Forming these bodies had the unintended side effect of pushing denominationalists toward social reform. This process added organized social reform as an additional religious solution, alongside that of conversionist millennialism, to the era’s social problems. In the early 1830s, the conversionist consensus cracked, and a new coercive, sectionalist antislavery took its place. Conversionist appeals continued, but the antislavery of men and, increasingly, women challenged the causation of conversion and began to look to political agitation as a means of reform. Each stage of this progression shaped the worlds of American antislavery. By foregrounding conceptions of religious conversion, we can begin to understand the problem of human bondage and its potential solutions as did the men and women whose lives entangled daily with the reality of a slaveholding republic.