“Abolitionisn is the primordial reform movement of American history,” wrote historian Adam Rothman. “It spawned other movements, most notably feminism.”
Popular understanding often associates abolitionism (the campaign to end slavery) with the churches. In fact, mid-eighteenth century preachers and their churches were almost evenly divided between attackers and defenders of slavery. (Defenders could note that Jesus condoned slavery in the New Testament.) It is also worth noting that the ministers and other religious activists who embraced abolitionism prior to about 1840 tended to be radicals within liberal denominations such as the Unitarians and Quakers.
[Pictured above right, a graphic widely used as a logo of the abolition momement.]
The earliest critics of slavery were anything but religious; most were eighteenth-century rationalists in the Enlightenment tradition who had come to view slavery as contrary to the recently-articulated “rights of man.” Somewhat later, pioneer Quaker abolitionists branded slavery “un-Christian.” Slavery was outlawed in Britain in 1772, and in the U. S. states north of Maryland between 1777 and 1804. These reforms were generally the work of political, not religious, activists.
The American abolition movement arose in response to the recognition that slavery south of the Mason-Dixon line would not dissolve under the pressure of moral suasion. Early activists included William Lloyd Garrison (1805 - 1879), a journalist and activist who personally inspired most of the other principal abolitionist leaders. Among these was the nondenominational minister Beriah Green (1795 - 1874); at this time, declining to align with any established denomination was a radical stance. Green preached America’s first abolitionist sermons in Ohio in 1832; from 1833 to 1844 he led Oneida College, a labor college that pioneered integration of black and white students. (Oneida was located in the ironically named Whitesboro, near Syracuse.) Speaking of irony, Beriah Green was a friend of the Rev. John Ingersoll, who gave his youngest son the middle name Green in Beriah’s honor. This child was Robert Green Ingersoll (1833 - 1899), the best-known and most influential agnostic orator in the nation’s history. (Ingersoll’s birthplace is an attraction on the Freethought Trail.) Other early activists included the radical Unitarian cleric Theodore Parker (1810 - 1860) and the freethinking author Lydia Maria Child (1802 - 1880).
The later 1830s were marked by a relative decline in the number of abolition leaders from even radical religious backgrounds, relative to the swelling ranks of more secular activists. Historian Whitney R. Cross remarked on “the now non- or antireligious emphasis of the abolition leaders” circa 1840.
With its social ferment, its friendliness toward radical reformers, and its proximity to the Canadian border, west-central New York State was home to many notable abolitionists. In 1836, historian Milton C. Sernett reported that the state was home to one-fifth of all the American Anti-Slavery Society auxiliaries in the country, most of them “concentrated along the axis of the Erie Canal.” From his estate at Peterboro, millionaire activist-philanthropist Gerrit Smith not only inspired but personally funded abolitionist and Underground Railroad activities. The first complete public abolition meeting took place in Peterboro at Smith’s behest, after a mob in Utica prevented the meeting from going forward there the day before. The Peterboro site now houses the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum.
Rochester was a special hotbed of abolitionist sentiment. The Quaker activists Isaac and Amy Post (1798 - 1872 and 1802 - 1889, respectively), former slave Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895), and Susan B. Anthony frequently collaborated on abolitionist matters. They also exemplified the cross-fertilization between reform traditions so characteristic of the Freethought Trail: Amy Post attended the 1878 conference of the New York State Freethinkers Association held at Watkins, now Watkins Glen. Susan B. Anthony is of course better known for her woman’s suffrage activism than for her significant abolitionist work. Douglass was an outspoken freethinker, a friend of Robert Ingersoll, and an attendee at the 1848 Seneca Falls, N. Y., convention that launched the woman’s rights movements and the reform career of freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815 - 1902). All the activists named in this paragraph participated in the Underground Railroad and at various times harbored escaped slaves in their homes.
Perhaps no quotation better captures the power of the freethinkers’ case against slavery than this fiery passage delivered by Frederick Douglass at Rochester’s long-lost Corinthian Hall: “I would say welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel as preached by those divines [i.e. clergy who defend slavery]! They convert the very name of religion into a barbarous cruelty.”