Christianity and Abolitionism, Then and Now

Ben Wright

Masthead of the Liberator. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

I recently submitted a revised manuscript. Bonds of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism charts how Christianity structured the possibilities and limitations of the fight against slavery from the American Revolution through the sectional crisis. This project has five goals: 1. Demonstrate how millennial Christianity created the ideological worlds of the early republic. 2. Continue the work of other historians in replacing the gradualist‒immediatist framework for antislavery studies. 3. Foreground denominations as early seedbeds for American nationalism. 4. Track how colonizationists and their opponents relied upon missionary discourse. 5. Explain how the collision of slavery and salvation destroyed denominations and sowed the seeds of secession.

I wrote this book, and the dissertation from which it is drawn, partly to explore questions that gnaw at my soul. How does religion shape the way Americans understand social injustice? How does evangelical Christianity encourage and discourage activism? Has white evangelicalism always been a handmaiden to white supremacy?

The invitation from the Panorama to reflect on the relationship between scholarship on religion in the early republic and contemporary issues of religion and public life allows me a chance to consider what my work can tell us about the above questions, and how the history I tell continues to frame our present.

For the past several years I have worked with Historians Against Slavery to help organize student activists in the fight against modern slavery. This movement is, like its nineteenth-century predecessor, dominated by evangelical Christians, many of whom remain unattuned to the realities of racial and economic injustice that continue to drive human bondage. A real consideration between the relationships between antebellum abolitionism and the modern anti-trafficking movement would require a monograph (and I hope to write that monograph someday), but today, I’d like to sketch out three issues that shape how evangelicals understand modern slavery and the history that informs those understandings and misunderstandings.

Tension between conversion and purification. My book argues that Christians in the late eighteenth century struggled with whether to emphasize conversion or purification. This tension structured responses to slavery. It still does. Zach Hunter represents the many young evangelicals leading the fight against modern slavery. In 2003, at the age of twelve, Hunter started the student-led group Loose Change to Loosen Chains. He describes the origins of this movement as an offshoot of his seventh-grade Black History Month reading. After reading of the exploits of abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, Hunter grew “frustrated that he hadn’t been born earlier—he felt an affinity for these leaders who used their freedom to bring hope to others.”[1] Hunter created a movement that encouraged school children to collect change that would be given to evangelical anti-trafficking groups.

But Hunter claims that some evangelicals have criticized his social activism as a distraction from the more important work of extending Christian salvation. Hunter claims that Christians have asked him “why aren’t you just preaching the gospel when your whole generation is going to hell?” In a Huffington Post article entitled, “Will a Bible Fill an Empty Stomach?” Hunter rejects the binary that Christians must either promote salvation or pursue Christian purity.[2] But the progression of Hunter’s ministry embodies an enduring tension between conversion and social activism. His four books, when taken together, tell an interesting story. Hunter’s first work tackled the issue of contemporary slavery directly, his second offered a broader account of Christian social activism, his third began an inward turn with an emphasis on igniting the individual passions of his readers, and the fourth eschews a discussion of public action in favor of private spiritual development. In this latest book, Hunter encourages his readers to develop their “personal code of honor” by “taking principles of the knight’s code of conduct.”[3]

Hunter’s abolitionism then ran into both theological and political challenges. We see this tension between looking within and without throughout the ways that evangelicals understand injustice.

Amazing Grace

Enmeshment with global capitalism. The politics of historical memory in American evangelicalism are often unpredictable, but William Wilberforce has loomed large in the modern evangelical imagination. Amazing Grace, the 2006 major motion picture chronicling Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, energized a host of evangelicals, and the film reinvigorated evangelical anti-trafficking activism.

Bob Beltz, one of the producers of the film, and Walter Kallestad, pastor of an Arizona megachurch, co-wrote and self-published a book that sought to capitalize on the film’s momentum. With endorsements from televangelist Robert A. Schuller, former Wal-Mart Chief Operating Officer Don Soderquist, and Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, and donors including Soderquist, Chick-Fil-A, and the International Bible Society, Beltz and Kallestad’s World Changers: Live to Serve promised to “find parallels between [William Wilberforce] and the potential world-changers in our modern society today.”[4]

The corporate orientation of these movement leaders, however, makes it impossible to untangle much less address the inextricable connection between modern slavery and global capitalism. And so, rather than reckon with the reality of modern slavery, Kallestad and Beltz produced a self-help book in the tradition of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by identifying seven alliterative character traits shared by Wilberforce, Jesus Christ, and contemporary world changers: pardon, purpose, passion, power, partners, prayer, and persistence. The film’s producers use William Wilberforce and Jesus Christ to offer a message of self-actualization—the famed abolitionist and the Son of God offer seven easy steps to a new you.

In lieu of grappling with the realities of global capitalism shapes modern slavery, then, many white evangelicals instead distort the problem through the lens of sexual politics.

A preoccupation with sex. Calvin College, an evangelical liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, ran an impressive web-based, interview television program called Inner Compass. It’s an excellent example of attempts to connect academic work with social problems. Their episode on sex trafficking, however, begins with an introduction from Shirley Hoogstra, then Calvin’s Vice President for Student Life and now current president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. In her second sentence, Hoostra claims that “the most common form of modern-day slavery is sex trafficking.”[5]

This is false. The International Labour Organization estimates that approximately 24.9 million people are victims of forced labor, and only 4.8 million are victims of sexual exploitation.[6] Statistics on modern slavery are notoriously unreliable. However, there is no doubt that labor trafficking ensnares far more souls than sex trafficking. Still the importance of sexuality and the ongoing influence of the culture wars on modern evangelicalism makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many American evangelicals to disentangle modern slavery with sexuality.[7]

The current evangelical antislavery movement may prove, like its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessor, to be a dead end. But the present is not the past. Perhaps today’s evangelical abolitionists may be at the forefront of a new transnational movement that challenges the complex systems of slavery embedded in the global economy. Future historians will analyze and judge the motivations, methods, and meaning of this modern antislavery movement. Whether they deem it a success or failure, the enduring tensions between conversion and purification will continue to challenge evangelicals who seek to save souls and fulfill the call of the prophet Isaiah to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”


Endnotes

[1] Zach Hunter, “History,” Loose Chains to Loosen Chains, http://www.zachhunter.me/#/loosechange2loosenchains/history.

[2] Zach Hunter, “A Christian Ethic of Social Justice: Will a Bible Fill an Empty Stomach?” Huffington Post Religion, last updated Sept. 2, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zach-hunter/christian-ethic-of-social-justice_b_945615.html.

[3] “Chivalry by Zach Hunter,” YouTube video, 1:52, posted by Tyndale House Publishers, Jan. 10, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UD0yG2tycG4.

[4] Bob Beltz and Walt Kallestad, World Changers: Live to Serve (2007). The quote comes from the handsome cover, featuring images from the film.

[5] “Child Sex Trafficking,” Inner Compass, Calvin College, 2013.  http://www.calvin.edu/innercompass/topic-pages/us-culture.html#1317.

[6] “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage,” Geneva, Sept. 2017.  https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm.

[7] For more on evangelicalism and sexuality, see R. Marie Griffith, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics (New York, 2017).

4 February 2020

About the Author

Ben Wright is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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  1. […] How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism (LSU 2020) to reflect on the contemporary lessons regarding modern slavery and American Christianity. Wright argues that contemporary evangelicals struggle to understand and respond to modern slavery […]

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