Abolitionism and the Evangelical Heritage

01 Nov

by Providence Crowder

Donald W. Dayton produced a remarkable historical summary of America’s evangelical[1] legacy in his work entitled, “Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.” This book provides compelling evidence that confirms “the Christian witness” has a powerful impact upon society when the gospel is put into action.  Unlike contemporary evangelicalism, which by and large evades questions of social responsibility,[2] Dayton sets out to prove that the evangelical heritage left by nineteenth century evangelicals such as Catherine Booth and Charles G. Finney demonstrated that the gospel and social responsibility were once intimately integrated.  He provides thrilling accounts of how the nineteenth century evangelical “abolitionists”[3] understood that to right societal wrongs, social injustice demanded a radical and Christian response.  The abolitionist movement was chiefly political and religious; abolitionists believed that slavery was a sin.  Through moral suasion, they set out to change laws in an effort to permanently abolish it.

Dayton revealed how many of the nineteenth century evangelicals joined in on the abolitionist movement and subsequently set the stage for the feminist movement; these activists rejected the governmental laws that legitimized slavery and oppressed women; they instead chose to submit a higher moral authority—God  as opposed to government.  Evangelicals were among the first to reject segregation in worship and ordain women in the ministry; their revivals bore a significant influence on social reform in America. 

Political Activism and Abolitionism in the American Evangelical Movement

Donald Dayton was successful in establishing that the marriage of politics to social responsibility was lived out in the lives of many evangelicals in the past and is a huge part of the American evangelical heritage.  Although the new trend in American evangelicalism, the “religious right,”[4] or the Christian conservative movement, shares much of the same vision for morality in government and society as did the nineteenth century evangelical abolitionists, I have observed that the religious right seems predominantly idealist and less reformist; some have taken to political activism.  Modern social concerns of the Christian conservatives include abortion, same-sex marriage, poverty, and socialism, but most evangelicals by and large avoid direct confrontation of the issues choosing rather to emphasize piety and personal conversion. Modern evangelicals by and large place an emphasis on the authority of Scripture and  ascertain that preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ supersedes the calls for social reform; their convictions are not determined by their social milieu but in the expression of faith that is uniquely connected to the person and work of Jesus Christ.[5]

Nineteenth century evangelicals’ “liberal” [6] theology, according to its critics, tended to ground its theology in human experience;’[7] they held a unique concern for social justice and civil rights in their plight against racism and slavery in America. On the contrary, the nineteenth century Christian social reformists would say that to not stand against the sin of slavery was unquestionably un-Christian.  These Christians submerged themselves into politics, joining themselves to the Republican Party, the anti-slavery party, to bring about morality in government, to change unjust civil laws, and ultimately abolish slavery. 

Evangelicals were labeled radicals because the opposed the establishment, the Democrat Party, and liberals because they sought to change laws that denied freedom and equality for blacks and women; they demanded justice for all Americans.  However, after the civil-rights era, the evangelical descendants of the nineteenth century failed to show the same concern for social reform as their ancestors, believing as Evangelist Billy Graham, “While some may interpret an evangelist to be primarily a social reformer or political activist, I do not! . . . My primary goal is to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”[8] During the post-civil rights era, liberalism in America took on various new meanings, more secular in nature.

Social Responsibility and Revivalism in the Evangelical Movement

Early on in the nineteenth century, Oberlin College, “a hotbed of radicalism,”[9] was a major contributor and advocate in the fight against slavery.[10] The school was founded on the principles of evangelist and revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, the “father of modern revivalism.”[11]  He suggested that the gospel had given men and women a social responsibility to shape society.  Finney believed that resistance to reform hindered revival and that he proclaimed:

Revivals are hindered when ministers and churches take wrong ground in regard to any question involving human rights . . . the church cannot turn away from (the slavery) question . . . Silence of Christians upon the subject is virtually saying that they do not consider slavery a sin.[12] 

Finney further believed that the Church is perjured and the Spirit of God departs from her if she refuses to speak out on the slavery issue.[13] 

Oberlin College, its students, and professors, became politically and socially committed to the cause of abolitionism.  Members of the Oberlin Colony left the conservative Whig party and joined in the Republican ideology to help push the antislavery agenda forward.[14] In most elections, “the Oberlin College voted solidly Republican.”[15]  Although these abolitionists used politics as a tool, the Oberlin members did not see abolitionism as a political plight but a moral obligation.  Rich businessmen Arthur and Lewis Tappan, as a moral obligation and “evidences of piety,” spent their lives and fortunes to support initiatives such the “Underground Railroad,” free churches,[16] and anti-slavery societies.[17] The Oberlin colony rejected fugitive slave laws[18] and saw civil disobedience as a necessary Christian response to laws that upheld slavery.[19]  Many were persecuted and imprisoned for their beliefs.  One Oberlin prisoner was quoted as saying, “We belong to no modern school of politics or theology . . . but we belong to the school of the Fathers, who having been driven from their native land by the persecution of their government, taught their children that resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”[20]

Preaching the Gospel to the Poor in American Evangelicalism

Many conservatives during the nineteenth century believed that the Church should be less concerned with social issues and should “preach the Bible not politics.”[21]  Nonetheless, the evidence presented by Dayton suggested that social injustices such as slavery proved to be the most divisive issues in the nineteenth century Church.  The Methodist branch of Protestantism, for example, experienced a split; those with antislavery sentiments formed new branches.  Under the leadership of bishop Orange Scott, the Wesleyan Methodist Connection was born.[22] Combining “piety and radicalism”[23] these Methodists attacked the sins of the Church, insisted that Christians side with God and stop neglecting the poor, and called Christians to discontinue the corporate guilt of being silent on the issue of slavery—they set out on a mission to spread the gospel of abolitionism.  

Evangelicalism Today

 Dayton has noted that during the period after the Civil War, evangelicalism experienced a drastic decline in social reform—the sin of slavery had been abolished.[24] Since then, time has not faired favorably for evangelicalism.  Urbanization and industrialization complicated the revivalist reform vision and the emergence of biblical criticism, Darwinism, and new geological discoveries caused the troubled movement to lose its great vision for America that once led its fervor for social reform.[25]  Furthermore, the rise a premillennialist[26] eschatology[27] has “undercut the social reform of earlier years.”  The reversal in social reform is demonstrated in prominent and influential seminary schools who insist that Christianity was never designed to dismantle social institutions—their focus has shifted from reform and ethics to doctrine. [28] 

The poor response and sometimes outright opposition of the twentieth century evangelicals to the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s are a clear indication of the detachment to the spiritual heritage once held of the evangelical to transform the world through reform.  Many evangelicals have seemingly forgotten its legacy and lost its appetite for social justice as they had when they stood firmly against slavery.  

My Review

One issue, even one as large as slavery, does not and should not define a Christian’s theology.  Jesus is the focus of the gospel message, not any one social evil or concern.  Nonetheless, the nineteenth century evangelical’s immense opposition to the cruel and inhumane treatment of enslaved blacks was certainly biblical.  They believed that all men were created in the image of God; no man should be permanently subjugated to another.  They agreed with the founders of this great nation in their declared independence from England that “all men were created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights by their Creator.”  Their care and concern for the poor and oppressed was consistent with the biblical teachings of Jesus Christ.   

Unfortunately, social activism in America is now largely a secular sport and the American government, not the Church, by and large provides free food, shelter, and clothing to the indigent; free legal counsel and work among prisoners; public schools and hospitals (none of which are really free); these were all ministries developed and voluntarily performed primarily by the Church.[29] In modern times, the government has taken to the business of providing a “gospel to the poor” and has perverted God’s message of justice.  Under the pretense of “equality” and “fairness,” the government has extorted its citizens through heavy taxation and burdensome legislation to fund “charitable” programs for the poor.  They have usurped the blessings associated with freewill giving and charity.

In reality, both the Church and the American government have done a great disservice to the poor.  Concerning the government, the political powers that be have convinced the poor that they don’t need God and they don’t need the Church, but they need the government to survive and to meet their needs.  The American government has failed the poor because they have done nothing in advising them towards godly and purposeful living, and many of their policies have done permanent damage by enabling the indolent poor to become dependent, lazy, and forego personal responsibility.  The government has also failed the people because they have ignored the power of community and voluntary giving.  The result has been increased class-warfare, strife, and covetousness among the people, and dependency of the perpetually poor upon the government.  Concerning the Church, she has failed the poor because she has not defended them against ungodly and oppressive governments; and she has willingly surrendered her ministry of helps for the sick, the elderly, the orphan, and the widow to a secular state who is more concerned with maintaining their dependency and allegiance through political manipulation than seeing their souls saved.

My Review:  Moving Forward in the Twenty-First Century

Although the notion of social reform in and of itself is a good thing, the gospel of Jesus Christ should not be replaced by the social gospel.[30]  There have been causes and movements throughout all times, there are many sins to confront (namely all of them), and there are many souls to be converted.  Christians should not dwell so much on social issues that they, as Justo Gonzalez has asserted, “become preoccupied with the existing social conditions” and forsake Christian evangelism and discipleship.  The Church’s mandate is to both preach the gospel AND stand against sin in the world.  Christians are both proclaimers of the good news to the lost and defenders of the poor and oppressed.

 Evangelicals have a responsibility to stand against sin and stand on the authority of Scripture as a framework in which to critique modern concerns.[31]  When the Church fails to do both, Satan, the god of this world, will step in with his own gospel and distort God’s truth.  For example, when the Church fails to speak out against the sin of abortion, it ceases to be a moral authority on the subject.  By their inaction and silence; by not proclaiming God’s truth and standing against it, the Church becomes irrelevant.  Satan is then given ample opportunity to persuade many souls to his cause.  

Trusting in God’s moral framework, or standard, in which to “judge” good from evil will prove to help Christians avoid the pitfalls of conforming to cultural norms that are counterintuitive to the gospel; this the abolitionists did when they opposed slavery although it was “legal” and acceptable to most of society at the time.  The twenty-first century looks bright for Christianity.  Today’s Christians should examine modern issues through the lens of Scripture and avoid worshipping the ideological gods of our modern day; Socialism, Capitalism, Communism, Marxism, etc.  We are the voice of truth and we are called to action, radical action; proclaiming the good news and standing against sin in the world.

[1]  The term “Evangelical” has been applied since the Reformation to the Protestant Churches by reason of their claim to base their teaching pre-eminently on the Gospel.  Revivals were a key element of their religious worship and practice.  In some Protestant branches, they lay special stress on conversion and salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ.  In other branches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, evangelicals campaigned vigorously for the abolition of the slave trade.  Social and political reform disappeared from the evangelical program when personal consecration and world evangelism became its focus.  Evangelicals in the twentieth century have experienced a revival and a new concern for politics and social justice.  Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Evangelicalism.”

[2] Donald Dalton, “Discovering an Evangelical Heritage,” (USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2007), 36.

[3] “An abolitionist is a person who advocated or supported the abolishing of slavery in the U.S., especially before the Civil War.”  Definition retrieved from on October 11, 2011 from

[4] “Christian right” is a term used predominantly in the United States to describe “right-wing”Christian political groups that are characterized by their strong support of socially conservative policies. Religious conservatives principally seek to apply the teachings of particular religions to politics, sometimes by merely proclaiming the value of those teachings, at other times by having those teachings influence laws.

In the U.S., the Christian right is an informal coalition of numerous groups, chiefly evangelicals and CatholicsIt is strongest in the South, where it comprises the core of the Republican Party.  Besides conservative positions on domestic issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, the Christian right is a strong supporter of Israel in foreign affairs.  “Christian Right,” Retrieved from on October 10, 2011 at

[5] Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth, 126.

[6] Liberalism came into use early in the 19th century.  It has been defined as ‘the holding of liberal opinions in politics or theology.  If taken to mean freedom from bigotry and readiness to welcome new ideas or proposals for reform, freedom, and progress.  It is a characteristic which many people will readily profess.  In more recent times, the word has held a more secular or anthropocentric humanism meaning which has origins in the Renaissance and is inconsistent with biblical and dogmatic orthodoxy.  ODCC, s.v. “liberalism.”

[7] Ibid., 125.

[8] Dayton, 8

[9] Ibid., 35.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Revivalism is a type of religious worship and practice centering in evangelical revivals, or outbursts of mass religious fervor, and stimulated by intensive preaching and prayer meetings.  In the USA, revivalism has been credited with a considerable influence on social reform.  ODDC, s.v.“revivalism,” and  Dayton, 15.

[12]  Dayton, 18.

[13] Dayton, 18.

[14] Ibid., 43.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Free Churches were a form of protest by the reformers and abolitionists to the practice of selling and renting pews for the construction and maintenance of church buildings.  Renting pews was a practice that alienated and humiliated the poor and often times prevented them from attending church.  In free churches, pews were open to all regardless to class or wealth. Dayton, 66.

[17] Dayton, 67.

[18] Ibid., 49.

[19] Ibid., 48.

[20] Dayton, 61.

[21] Ibid., 49

[22] Ibid., 76.     

[23] Ibid., 77.

[24] Ibid., 122.

[25] Ibid., 125.


[26] Millennium is the belief in a future thousand-year period of blessedness.  The premillennialist group maintains that the millennium will follow the Second Coming of Christ and postmillennialists believe that it precedes the Advent, and prepares the way for it by the spread of righteousness over the earth.  The abolitionists and nineteenth century evangelicals were postmillennialists, hence their focus on social change.  Post-Civil War, eschatological views shifted to premillennialism, hence their focus on preaching the gospel, personal salvation, and repentance.  ODCC, “Millenarianism.”


[27] Eschatology is the doctrine of the last things; that is the ultimate destiny both of the individual soul and the whole created order.   ODDC, “Eschatology.”


[28] Dayton, 128-129.


[29] Dayton, 129.


[30]The Social Gospel movement is a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the early 20th century. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially social justice, inequality, liquor, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, child labor, weak labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospel leaders wanted to operationalize the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done on earth.” They typically were post-millennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort.  Social Gospel leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the Progressive Movement and most were theologically liberal, although they were typically conservative when it came to their views on social issues.”Definition retrieved from on October 16, 2011.


[31] McGrath, 62.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: