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Bonds of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism.

Ben Wright
Published by LSU Press in 2020

The thesis of this monograph is captured nicely by its subtitle: Christian convictions and motivations both energized and obstructed the crusade to end slavery in the United States. Although in its essence the author’s thesis is not novel—the realization that opponents and defenders of bondage both wielded religious arguments is commonplace—Wright offers a provocative analysis of this fundamental irony that foregrounds the role of religious belief in the evolving debate over slavery, the development and fragmentation of American nationalism, and the ultimate collapse of the Union.

Wright’s chronological focus is on the decades extending from the American Revolution to the eve of the war with Mexico. He begins with a simple observation: during these years the majority of American Christians who opposed slavery either actively opposed abolitionism or at least failed to support it. And why was this? Racism was surely a contributing factor, the author acknowledges, but hardly the only one, and arguably not the most important one. More formidable were romantic visions of spreading the gospel to a fallen world. The millennium was nigh, and anything that impeded Americans’ evangelistic mission—a disruptive and divisive crusade against American slavery, for example—would have to be shunned.

Key to the author’s argument is his distinction between “purificationists”—white Christians who believed that the United States must be purged of slavery before it could fulfill its evangelistic mission—and “conversionists,” who prioritized the immediate proclamation of the gospel and insisted that the reformation of society would ensue organically as the Spirit worked in the hearts of believers. To the latter, the insistence on immediate abolition was a reckless distraction that unnecessarily divided (white) Christians, detracted from the gospel message, and impeded the nation’s global mission. What is more, it ironically undermined the work of conversion among the enslaved, as it prompted suspicious southern slaveholders to deny ministers access to the enslaved. The supreme tragedy at the heart of purificationism, conversionists believed, was that it was so utterly unnecessary. As the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions resolved as late as 1845, the spread of the gospel would inevitably “lead to the correction of the social wrongs and disorders” (197).

Conversionists always outnumbered purificationists during the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, and for much of this time the disparity was enormous. It was the commitment to a conversionist mission that prompted the development of denominational structures after the Revolution, and denominational identity functioned as “one of the most powerful sources of American nationalism” (199). If conversionism was near universal among white southerners—Wright calls it “the core of proslavery Christianity” (126)—it was almost as ubiquitous among white northerners. Indeed, “an optimistic expectation in the transformative power of conversion united nearly all white Americans prior to 1830” (11).

This evangelistic optimism, Wright maintains, combined with Enlightenment expectations of progress to propel the early-nineteenth-century colonization movement. The discussion of colonization in The Bonds of Salvation may be the book’s most important historiographical contribution. Historians of colonization have traditionally focused on its relation to slavery and debated whether the movement primarily aimed to weaken or to reinforce slavery in the United States. Wright argues that advocates were far more likely to trumpet a third motive, namely the desire to spread the gospel to the African continent and thus fulfill the promise of Psalm 68 that “Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands to God” (87). Enthusiastic advocates of the American Colonization Society exulted that the organization would be God’s instrument to deliver “salvation for Africa” as well as “moral redemption for the United States.” As black Americans transformed by the gospel returned to their ancestral homeland as missionaries, the slave trade itself would be transformed “from a horrific act of torture into an agent of global Christianization” (87).

For decades, such optimism made it easy for the vast majority of white Christians to embrace conversionism over purificationism. When that optimism began to flag, however, the power of conversionism to foster both denominational and national unity began to dwindle as well. By the 1830s, it was hard for northern opponents of slavery to ignore that conversionism had not delivered what it had promised. Within the United States, the numbers of the saved and of the enslaved grew apace, while across the Atlantic the dreams of converting a continent were proving wildly unrealistic. Even as the promise and reality of conversionism diverged ever more starkly, a concurrent “theological revolution” (138) made the most ardent foes of slavery less willing to wait passively for the fulfillment of the conversionist vision. The ascendancy of Arminian soteriology and its emphasis on human agency, reinforced by the unquestioned assumptions of Jacksonian democracy, prompted northern evangelicals to work out their salvation by taking direct and immediate action against social injustice.

As purificationist demands for immediate action against slavery grew in strength, proslavery voices at the other extreme grew ever more strident in response, and soon the conversionist center was no longer able to hold together the major denominations, and in short order the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists were each torn in two. A generation later the nation as a whole followed suit, and Wright links the collapse of the Union directly to the rupture of denominational unity. “Untethered to one another,” Wright concludes, “American Christians pulled their churches and their nation toward secession and war” (200).

Wright’s argument is sophisticated, but it is also unexpectedly narrow. For a book that pledges to explore the relationship between “Christianity” and American abolitionism, The Bonds of Salvation pays little attention to then contemporary scriptural arguments for or against human bondage. Indeed, apart from the occasional cameo in which “Ethiopia stretches forth her hands to God,” the Bible is conspicuous for its absence in this study. In discussing the schism within Presbyterianism, for example, Wright notes that abolitionists within the denomination backed a resolution denouncing slavery as a “heinous sin” (177), but he makes no mention of how—or whether—they attempted to justify their theological position with a theological argument. And when Princeton theologian Charles Hodge replied that such a charge was “a direct impeachment of the word of God” (177), the reader again gets not so much as a hint of Hodge’s scriptural justification. Wright clearly wants to avoid getting drawn into the theological weeds, which is his prerogative, but he never makes this determination explicit, and readers should know that Wright’s purpose is to demonstrate how one particular aspect of Christianity in the United States—popular understandings of the process and social consequences of Christian conversion—both promoted and obstructed abolitionism.

To complicate matters, the conversionism that is central to Wright’s argument was almost infinitely malleable. As he readily acknowledges, much of the political utility of conversionism lay in its attractiveness to a broad range of white Americans propelled by a broad range of conflicting motives. For principled reasons, many white Christians embraced it because they genuinely hated slavery and desired its end but just as genuinely believed that, in God’s economy, lasting social change could never be coerced, but must follow in the wake of spiritual revival. But countless others could endorse conversionism for more pragmatic reasons having little to do with sympathy for the enslaved. The latter could include whites who saw in conversionism the best hope for denominational or national unity, as well as a host of proslavery southerners who expected the conversionist campaign actually to strengthen slavery and thwart the abolitionist agenda.

To be fair, perfectly disentangling these motives is impossible, even for individual religious leaders who left extensive paper trails for posterity to parse and ponder. To his credit, Wright anticipates the cynical perspective that reduces all religious appeals to self-interested justifications for more fundamental priorities. “Religious conviction cannot be understood solely as a ruse for political ambitions,” he declares (113). And yet beyond this general assertion Wright is unwilling to go. Maintaining a tight focus on the effects of conversionism as a rhetorical argument, he assures us that the motives underlying it are “ultimately irrelevant” (113).

Perhaps. Yet if our goal is to evaluate conversionism theologically—to do more than describe its immediate consequences—then surely those motives become relevant. And they become absolutely vital when the goal is to learn from our encounter with conversionism in the American past, to engage in moral reflection that leads to insights relevant to our contemporary moment in which Christians debate the place of “social justice” in the work and witness of the church. But to do that productively, it would help immensely not only to confront the practical effects of conversionism, but also to wrestle with the conversionist exegesis, to understand how committed Christians two centuries ago read their Bibles as justifying the prioritization of conversion over purification. The Bonds of Salvation is thought-provoking, but it cannot help us do that.

Cite this article
Robert Tracy McKenzie, “Bonds of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:2 , 259-26

Robert Tracy McKenzie

Reviewed by Robert Tracy McKenzie, History, Wheaton College