Religion and Abolitionism
To the Editors:
Gaping holes exist in Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s “Teaching American Abolitionism and Religion” (January 2009). By omitting the southern side of the story, he provides a limited understanding of the role that abolitionism played in dividing the country and causing the Civil War. Is it necessary to insist that slavery represented far more than a “cruel system,” the term Wyatt-Brown casually uses to describe it? Slavery remained the fundamental basis of southern political and economic life for nearly two and a half centuries. However forcefully some northern evangelicals assailed slavery, it was ardently defended by southern politicians and clergy, especially during the 19th century. As John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. declare in their From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 5th ed. (McGraw-Hill): “In the last three decades before the Civil War the church became one of the strongest allies of the proslavery element.” Whether Baptist, Methodist, or Episcopalian, clergymen could justify slavery as divinely sanctioned. They might refer to the curse that Noah levied on Ham’s descendants in the Old Testament (Genesis 9:20–27) or to St. Paul’s injunction that “servants, be obedient to them that are your masters” (Epistle to the Ephesians, 6:5). In any event, the more stridently northern abolitionists assailed slavery, the more Southerners feared and resented them. The election in 1860 of Abraham Lincoln, who enjoyed strong abolitionist support, helped ensure the secession of slave-owning states and the brutal conflict that resulted. Surely both teachers and students also need to learn this side of the question.
James FrigugliettiMontana State University,Billings
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To the Editors:
In response to this protest, I fail to see that its author strenuously objects to my main points. He chiefly slams my omissions in dealing with the [End Page 41] southern clergy’s defense of the slave institution. That issue, however, was not meant to be the thrust of the essay. I “casually” refer, he writes, to slavery as a “cruel system.” What words would he have preferred? To have detailed what we already know of its horrors would have taken me from the point I was trying to make. Whereas most textbooks emphasize the ringing phrases from the Declaration of Independence, I argue that a more important stimulant for antislavery sentiment was the revival of religious faith and its evangelical thrust in the early decades of the 19th century. My task, as I saw it, was to describe not the proslavery argument and the sins of the southern clergy, but the abolitionists’ inspiration that grew from their sense of God’s command to make human creatures equal in His sight on this Earth. I have written elsewhere on the churchmen who defended slavery as a divinely ordained practice and the abolitionist response to that argument.
More to the point, Friguglietti fails to mention the international aspect of the antislavery movement and its religious underpinnings, matters that I find central to understanding its character. The British evangelicals and Broad Churchmen were instrumental in initiating the movement against the slave trade and slavery itself. Americans of similar faith were inspired by that transatlantic source and developed their own tactics and strategies. Friguglietti ignores that facet of the issue.
Bertram Wyatt-BrownJohns Hopkins University
C. Vann Woodward, Military Historian
To the Editors:
I enjoyed and learned much from Sheldon Hackney’s splendid tribute to C. Vann Woodward in the January 2009 issue of Historically Speaking. But I was somewhat disappointed not to see any reference to Woodward’s brief but educational service in the navy during World War II, writing “Combat Narratives” in the Pacific. These were small, classified books or booklets describing naval battles, written immediately after the action with full access to all available sources. One of Woodward’s was published commercially as The Battle for...