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Models for Reformation: The Christian Abolitionists (1800s)

By Jay Rogers
Published March 31, 2008

In the early 1800s, Christian evangelists were seeing thousands of individual’s lives changed through the preaching of the Gospel. Charles G. Finney and other reformers of this time believed that Jesus Christ, working in the lives of a perfected people, was going to change the world.

Up until the early 1800s, those within the abolitionist movement saw the elimination of slavery as a long, slow process. But it was not until the preaching of Charles G. Finney that Americans began to realize that slavery could be done away with suddenly, once and for all.

Charles G. Finney, the great revival preacher, recorded in his Memoirs, “I had made up my mind on the question of slavery, and was exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject. In my prayers and preaching, I so often alluded to slavery, and denounced it, that a considerable excitement came to exist among the people.“1

The excitement that accompanied Finney’s revivals affected one young man named Theodore Weld. Weld was initially and vehemently opposed to Finney’s work, but was converted in Utica, New York, during one of Finney’s meetings. Weld was a formidable enemy to Mr. Finney, but after his salvation he became an ardent supporter. Weld traveled with Finney, assisting the preacher in his meetings and later emerged as a student leader at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio.2

For a period of time when Weld traveled with Finney, he was taught the biblical view of sin and its effects on the individual and society. Finney believed that individuals could be liberated from sin and that sin in society could be confronted and overthrown through preaching the Gospel. Anything that was destructive or dehumanizing to the human race was deemed as sin.

Studying the Old Testament story of the tribes of Israel and their liberation from slavery in Egypt, as well as the teachings of Jesus Christ, both Finney and Weld came to a common conclusion: slavery was sin. Therefore, it had to be rooted out and destroyed immediately. It could not be tolerated, not even temporarily. Slavery, according to Finney and Weld’s view, must be attacked and overthrown by the power of God’s Holy Spirit in the believer’s life.

Other Christians such as Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison emerged later and did much to fan the flames of the abolitionist movement. From beginning to end, the most notable abolitionists were Christians who had dedicated their lives to bringing social justice to America.

1 Charles G. Finney, Memoirs (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1876), p 324. 2 Ibid, p 185-188.


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Your comments are welcome!

I’m confused how you caught the fact that the Exodus story did have an anti-slavery message to it but ignored the rest of the Old Testament and sections of the New Testament that gave the practice not only it’s blessings but rules on how to keep and beat slaves? In the same book of Exodus even we get scripture like When a slave owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property. (Exod. 21:20-21).

You can either ignore history and pretend all Christians were against the practice or you can look up why the Baptist denomination split and the South became the Southern Baptist Convention or the head of the Catholic church in America did not condemn owning slaves, only the market of selling them. The Northerner’s who were Christians did use the Bible in denouncing it but at the same time, the South used the Bible and exact scripture, to prove the practiced was justified and legal under God’s authority.

Susan B. Anthony said it best on the topic of Slavery and Woman’s Suffrage, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it often coincides with their own desires.”

Posted by Rob on 02/28/2010 07:15 PM #

Unlike Rob, I appreciate the piece and think that it is important to remember those who were not bound to the letter of the text but were able to discern the trajectory of the biblical text and its emphasis upon justice. I understand your point that slavery was a common and accepted practice in biblical history and, of course, it is easy to proof-text your way through an argument that the Bible should be invalidated because it never explicitly condemns slavery. It would be equally easy to argue that the movement of the biblical text is toward justice – that as people came to more fully understand God’s intent for their lives just is more fully revealed. This is no more evident than in many of the prophet’s critique of religious leader’s maltreatment of the most vulnerable in their society, the call for justice in Micah, Amos and Isaiah, and in Jesus’ own practice of crossing the many boundaries intended to keep people separate and thus devalue some while inordinately elevating others. It makes sense, therefore, that we continue to listen for God’s voice in these centuries since the canon close and ask again and again what it means to live more fully as God’s creation in a world that is deeply stained by injustice. In that respect, I rejoice that the Exodus narrative awakened something in Finney that catapulted him toward justice. Would that other would here echoes of justice in what ever holy book they study and conceive of justice as creating a world in which all are well, fed, clothes, sheltered and able to receive that which sustains life. That would be a marvelous turn of events in a world and in societies that still place far too much emphasis upon conquering and destroying those whom we deem unacceptable.

Rob, here’s where I do agree with you. It is shameful that so many in the Christian church and in other traditions have chosen opted for the easy way out – maintaining the status quo – instead of taking the risk of faith and declaring with Jesus (via Isaiah), “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). And whether or not you can appreciate it as a biblical text, receive it as a word of hope for a just and life-affirming existence for all people.

Posted by Living With Hope on 11/08/2010 03:01 PM #

I love this website.

Posted by nicole jackson on 01/21/2011 01:05 PM #

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Dr. Francis Schaeffer - How Should We Then Live? (DVD)

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After 40 years of intense study and world-wide ministry, Dr. Francis Schaeffer completed his crowning work of scholarship – to present profound truths in simple film language. Dr. Schaeffer’s brilliant analysis of the past and predictions for current trends have proven so uncannily accurate that this amazing series still feels contemporary almost three decades after its initial release. Ultimately, Schaeffer concludes that man’s only hope is a return to God’s Biblical absolute, the truth revealed in Christ through the Scriptures.

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Amazing GraceAmazing Grace: The History and Theology of Calvinism (DVD)

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Just what is Calvinism?

Does this teaching make man a deterministic robot and God the author of sin? What about free will? If the church accepts Calvinism, won’t evangelism be stifled, perhaps even extinguished? How can we balance God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? What are the differences between historic Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism? Why did men like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Whitefield, Edwards and a host of renowned Protestant evangelists embrace the teaching of predestination and election and deny free will theology?

This is the first video documentary that answers these and other related questions. Hosted by Eric Holmberg, this fascinating three-part, four-hour presentation is detailed enough so as to not gloss over the controversy. At the same time, it is broken up into ten “Sunday-school-sized” sections to make the rich content manageable and accessible for the average viewer.

Running Time: 257 minutes

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Massacre of Innocence (DVD)

Exposing The Occult Roots of Abortion

This presentation looks at the spiritual roots of abortion and exposes the myths surrounding child killing. Little known historical facts about abortion and how they relate to modern feminism are presented logically and accurately. Has been effective in converting many to a pro-life position.

Massacre of Innocence goes where no pro-life presentation has gone before in “tearing the lid off abortion” to reveal the spiritual realities we must battle if we will bring an end to this crime. The presentation is absorbing, fast-paced, informative and incredibly devastating to any attempt to justify abortion.

“… an extraordinary statement … a powerfully articulate presentation about what abortion really means, and why a great and moral nation like the United States must not allow the slaughter to continue.”
— Congressman Robert K. Dornan

Running time: 85 minutes

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The Real Jesus: A Defense of the Historicity and Divinity of ChristThe Real Jesus: A Defense of the Historicity and Divinity of Christ (DVD)

Who is the Real Jesus?

Ever since the dawn of modern rationalism, skeptics have sought to use textual criticism, archeology and historical reconstructions to uncover the “historical Jesus” — a wise teacher who said many wonderful things, but fulfilled no prophecies, performed no miracles and certainly did not rise from the dead in triumph over sin.

Over the past 100 years, however, startling discoveries in biblical archeology and scholarship have all but vanquished the faulty assumptions of these doubting modernists. Regrettably, these discoveries have often been ignored by the skeptics as well as by the popular media. As a result, the liberal view still holds sway in universities and impacts the culture and even much of the church.

The Real Jesus explodes the myths of these critics and the movies, books and television programs that have popularized their views. Presented in ten parts — perfect for individual, family and classroom study — viewers will be challenged to go deeper in their knowledge of Christ in order to be able to defend their faith and present the truth to a skeptical modern world – that the Jesus of the Gospels is the Jesus of history — “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He is the real Jesus.

Speakers include: George Grant, Ted Baehr, Stephen Mansfield, Raymond Ortlund, Phil Kayser, David Lutzweiler, Jay Grimstead, J.P. Holding, and Eric Holmberg.

Ten parts, over two hours of instruction!

Running Time: 130 minutes

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The Abortion Matrix: Defeating Child Sacrifice and the Culture of Death (DVD)

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Is there a connection between pagan religion and the abortion industry?

This powerful presentation traces the biblical roots of child sacrifice and then delves into the social, political and cultural fall-out that this sin against God and crime against humanity has produced in our beleaguered society.

Conceived as a sequel and update to the 1988 classic, The Massacre of Innocence, the new title, The Abortion Matrix, is entirely fitting. It not only references abortion’s specific target – the sacred matrix where human beings are formed in the womb in the very image of God, but it also implies the existence of a conspiracy, a matrix of seemingly disparate forces that are driving this holocaust.

The occult activity surrounding the abortion industry is exposed with numerous examples. But are these just aberrations, bizarre yet anomalous examples of abortionists who just happen to have ties to modern day witchcraft? Or is this representative of something deeper, more sinister and even endemic to the entire abortion movement?

As the allusion to the film of over a decade ago suggests, the viewer may learn that things are not always as they appear to be. The Abortion Matrix reveals the reality of child-killing and strikes the proper moral chord to move hearts to fulfill the biblical responsibility to rescue those unjustly sentenced to death and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 24:11,12; 31:8,9).

Speakers include: George Grant, Peter Hammond, RC Sproul Jr., Paul Jehle, Lou Engle, Rusty Thomas, Flip Benham, Janet Porter and many more.

Ten parts, over three hours of instruction!

Running Time: 195 minutes

$19.95 — ORDER NOW!

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The Abortion Matrix:
Defeating Child Sacrifice and the Culture of Death

is a 195-minute presentation that traces the biblical roots of child sacrifice and then delves into the social, political and cultural fall-out that this sin against God has produced. You can order this series on DVD, read the complete script and view clips on-line...
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