British Antislavery Influence, 1770-1865
Case Study: The Religious dimension of
British antislavery influence, 1770-1865
Religion was a primary channel through which the British antislavery movement influenced the American slavery debate. Shared Christian beliefs provided a foundation upon which the British built collaborative relationships with American antislavery leaders and supplied a common language through which the British influenced American antislavery ideology. More broadly, connections between British and American religious institutions enabled British religious leaders to directly influence the American churches' positions on slavery. Both British and American antislavery leaders encouraged the leaders of the Baptist, Unitarian and Quaker denominations, among others, to oppose slavery publicly and to encourage their members to support the antislavery cause. British antislavery leaders also appealed directly to American Christians by publishing antislavery tracts and making speeches that condemned slavery as sinful.
Quick Links to Documents:
Documents with Historical Context
The documents in this collection, all written by prominent antislavery advocates, illustrate the role that Christian doctrine played in motivating opposition to slavery and in facilitating the development of a strong Anglo-American antislavery bond. As the included correspondence indicates, these individuals shared two important beliefs: slavery and the slave trade contravened divine law and all Christians had a duty to work toward abolishing these sinful institutions. During the 1820s and 1830s, an increasing number of antislavery advocates began to promote their cause with increased vigor and urgency. Though both countries had ended their participation in the international slave trade in 1807, slavery had not declined, as some reformers had hoped it would. This urgency found expression in the doctrine of "immediate emancipation," a concept that had deeply Christian roots. Two British pamphlets played a significant role in spreading this idea throughout British and American antislavery circles: Elizabeth Heyrick’s Immediate, not Gradual Emancipation and Charles Stuart’s The West India Question.(1) Both documents asserted the necessity of rectifying the great transgression of slavery for the sake of the slave, the slaveholder and society in general. Both warned that allowing slavery to persist, whether actively or tacitly, would result in divine retribution proportional to the enormity of slavery as a sin. The doctrine of immediate emancipation remained at the core of Anglo-American antislavery ideology throughout the remainder of this period, as indicated by the included speech from George Thompson delivered in Boston in 1851.
During the 1830s and 1840s, several British Christian denominations began encouraging their American coreligionists to take firm, public stances against slavery. These efforts coincided with similar actions by American antislavery leaders and with a wave of American intra-denominational debates on slavery and other issues.(2) This collection includes persuasive and, in some cases, contentious British addresses to American Baptists, Unitarians and Quakers. Similar to those in the first collection, many of these documents explicate the ways in which slavery runs afoul of Christian principles. Some of them also advocate for “immediate emancipation” utilizing logic similar to that of Heyrick and Stuart. The collection also includes documents in which Thomas Clarkson and George Thompson address all American church leaders. Clarkson, one of the most well-known and revered British abolitionists, offers a particularly strongly worded criticism of what he characterizes as the American churches' retreat from the antislavery cause. He encourages American clergymen to reengage and attempts to motivate them with an extensive exegesis of the Bible as an antislavery document. The Quaker letters offer similar encouragement to American Quakers but with softer language and a more collegial tone.
British appeals to American churches met with varied responses. Though the leaders of the AASS and, after 1840, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFASS) generally supported these efforts, as evidenced by the letter from Wendell Phillips and the two documents by Frederick Douglass, the responses of American church leaders were varied. In the American Unitarian Church, for example, some, like Orville Dewey in his American Morals and Manners, expressed frustration and indignation regarding communications like the 1843 address from British and Irish Unitarians. Others, though feeling some frustration and indignation as well, followed the advice of their British counterparts, as evidenced by the American Unitarian Church's publication of Protest against American Slavery in 1845.(3) The Baptist correspondence in the prior collection reflects a similarly divided response by Northern Baptists: though many agreed with their coreligionists’ opposition to slavery, they felt that the British Baptists did not fully appreciate the complexity of the American Baptists’ situation and the need for caution in moving against slavery within their churches. As the documents demonstrate, one of the reasons for this was the significant and influential Southern population within the American Baptist ranks. The Remonstrance against the Course Pursued by the Evangelical Alliance on the Subject of American Slavery, published by the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFASS) in 1847, illustrates a different facet of this trans-Atlantic communication. The object of the AFASS's protest, the Evangelical Alliance, was an international and inter-denominational group formed in London in 1846 in an attempt to promote evangelical Christianity throughout the world. It drew significant criticism from the AFASS and other antislavery groups because, as asserted in Remonstrance, it avoided any official pronouncements on slavery and thus squandered an opportunity to push American churches toward a stronger antislavery stance.(4) Frederick Douglass made a similar point in his 1847 “Farewell Speech,” also included in this collection.
REACTION: Excerpt from American Morals and Manners by Unitarian minister Orville Dewey - 1844; defends America against antislavery criticisms like the 1843 address by British and Irish Unitarian ministers
A substantial portion of the British antislavery appeals that flowed into the United States came from religious leaders and contained arguments that were grounded in Christian doctrine. The documents in this collection cover much of the antebellum period, beginning with the seminal Thoughts upon Slavery, by Reverend John Wesley, and ending with an 1851 speech by George Thompson. Like those in the first two collections, all of these documents encouraged antislavery action by appealing to the consciences of American Christians. By asserting a stark contradiction between the messages of the Bible and active or tacit support for slavery, the authors tried to instill a compulsive sense of guilt and impress upon American Christians the urgency and obligation of antislavery agitation. To reinforce this sense of urgency, these authors utilized religious arguments similar to those described in the first collection: immediate emancipation was imperative because anything less allowed a great sin to persist and failure to act quickly and decisively would provoke God’s wrath. The two documents by Thomas Clarkson and the “Fast Day” speech by George Thompson provide the best examples of this argumentation. The fact that Clarkson’s second letter generated an impassioned response from a Southern governor (see Governor Hammond's Letters on Southern Slavery) suggests that some of these documents were read in the South, not just the North.(5) Overall, the language of this collection's documents ranges from critical and harsh, best exemplified by the second half of Clarkson’s 1841 letter in which he harshly scolds Southern slaveholders, to collegial and encouraging, as reflected by Elizabeth Pease’s “Responsibility.”
1 Gilbert Hobbs Barnes and Dwight Lowell Dumond, eds., Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké, 1822-1844 (New York, London: D. Appleton-Century Company,1934). v1, 74n; Dwight Lowell Dumond, Antislavery: the Crusade for Freedom in America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 138-40; Elizabeth Heyrick, Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition: Or, an Inquiry into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery (Boston: I. Knapp, 1838).