For the Freedom of All

The Christian Roots of Abolition Movements Across the World

In a recent episode of All Things Considered, NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten argues that  “White Supremacist Ideas Have Historical Roots in U.S. Christianity.”[1] The piece focuses first on two southern pastors, Henry Lyon, Jr., and James Henley Thornwall, who defended slavery from their pulpits. A review of these men and others leads Gjelten to conclude, “Elements of racist ideology have long been present in white Christianity in the United States.” He goes on to catalogue a few other historical and living Southern clergy, whom he believes have focused on the salvation of souls to the detriment of social justice. “Evangelicals in particular generally prioritize an individual’s own salvation experience over social concerns,” Gjelten believes. “The primary mission of the church in this view is to win souls for Christ. Working for racial justice, in contrast, may be seen as a ‘political’ issue.”

What Gjelten’s story ignores are the many, many Christians who fought for racial justice in the past two millennia. In fact, Christians were among the first to speak out against slavery. Historian Rodney Stark argues that Christianity is actually the reason that European slavery was eventually abolished. “Slavery ended in medieval Europe,” writes Stark, “only because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews). Within the context of medieval Europe, that prohibition was effectively a rule of universal abolition.”[2] Increasingly, church officials preached against slavery, and many converted kings began to outlaw the practice within their lands.

Fast forward some centuries. In an impassioned speech before the House of Commons in Britain, abolitionist William Wilberforce proclaimed, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” British preacher Charles Spurgeon was also fiercely opposed to slavery, writing “I do from my inmost soul detest slavery . . . and although I commune at the Lord’s table with men of all creeds, yet with a slave-holder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind.”[3] Later on, many key players in the American abolitionist movement were also devoted Christians. Tim Stafford writes in Christian History that abolitionists were “the most hated men and women in America.” They were also, he argues, “inescapably Christian in their motives, means, and vocabulary,” even when they weren’t connected to an actual church. Indeed, a “large proportion” of abolitionists were “orthodox Christians.”[4] Noted Second Great Awakening preacher Charles Finney saw slavery as an abomination, and believed that “Christian indifference” to the issue of slavery was an impediment to the work of sharing the gospel.[5] Leading abolitionist Theodore Weld was also a Christian, having been converted in one of Finney’s messages.[6]

So while the Gjelten piece technically does relate facts—some white Christians were, in fact, white supremacists, and mishandled the Word of God so as to justify slavery—it misses out on the truth in a number of ways. And that truth is that at its core, Christianity is radically egalitarian. As Stark writes, “That God treats all equally is fundamental to the Christian message: all may be saved.”[7] Christ Himself caused scandals by publicly associating with those considered the dredges of society: the prostitutes, the poor, the leprous, the sick, the tax collectors. And history makes clear that Christianity was key to the beginnings of many abolitionist movements worldwide.

Certainly, some Christians have erred along the way, but to focus on those errors and neglect the great good that Christianity has contributed to the freedom of all is to do a great injustice.


[1] Tom Gjelten, “White Supremacist Ideas Have Historical Roots in U.S. Christianity,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio (July 1, 2020), available at https://www.npr.org/2020/07/01/883115867/white-supremacist-ideas-have-historical-roots-in-u-s-christianity

[2] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (New York: Random, 2005), p. 28.

[3] From (Pike, The Life and Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, p. 331, quoted in “The Reason Why America Burned Spurgeon’s Sermons and Sought to Kill Him,” The Spurgeon Center (September 22, 2016), available at https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/blog-entries/the-reason-why-america-burned-spurgeons-sermons-and-sought-to-kill-him/

[4] Tim Stafford, “The Abolitionists,” Christian History 33, available at https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/abolitionists

[5] James David Essig, “The Lord’s Free Man: Charles G. Finney and His Abolitionism,” Civil War History 24.1 (March 1978), 25.

[6] Stafford, “The Abolitioinsts.”

[7] Stark, The Victory of Reason, 29.

is the managing editor of the Howard Center's quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.

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