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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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The Silent Scream (DVD) Eight Languages

“When the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing.” – President Ronald Reagan to National Religious Broadcasters Convention, January 1981

Ronald Reagan became convinced of this as a result of watching The Silent Scream – a movie he considered so powerful and convicting that he screened it at the White House. More recently, it was by catching just a glimpse of what this film reveals that Planned Parenthood director and abortion advocate Abby Johnson turned and became a strong advocate for the pre-born.

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That Swiss Hermit Strikes Again!

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Schaeffer lists two reasons for evangelical indifference: a false concept of spirituality and fear. He calls on believers to stand against the tyranny and moral chaos that come when humanism reigns-and warns that believers may, at some point, be forced to make the hard choice between obeying God or Caesar. A Christian Manifesto is a thought-provoking and bracing Christian analysis of American culture and the obligation Christians have to engage the culture with the claims of Christ.

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