The Abolitionist movement began in Britain, where evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce succeeded in ending slavery by 1833. The idea migrated to America with religious groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But Abolitionism would prove more problematic in the U.S., with its millions of slaves throughout the southern states, than in the British Empire, where slavery mostly existed in far-flung colonies.
In the 18th century, most Americans, North and South, believed that slavery was basically an evil, although regrettably a necessary one. But by the 1820s and 30s the cotton gin, the amazing profits to be made from cotton, and the correspondingly high price of slaves had effected a change in attitudes. Slavery was increasingly being promoted in the South as a positive good, something that needed to be expanded. A number of states passed laws making manumission illegal. Southerners became hostile to any criticism of slavery.
The earliest anti-slavery organizations in the U.S. advocated the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa. Groups like the American Colonization Society believed that slaveholders would willingly let their slaves go if they knew that upon their emancipation the freedmen would immediately leave the country. But this supposedly painless option never materialized; only a few free African Americans migrated to Liberia, and the Society never freed a single slave.
Abolitionists found the deportation idea offensively tame. They called for an immediate, uncompensated termination of slavery. Most Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, to whom slavery was a blatant violation of God’s command to love one’s neighbor, a sin that must be completely renounced.
Churches were enormously important institutions in the early 19th century. The American Methodist Episcopal denomination had more than one million members, with regular church attenders numbering two to three times that many. On any given Sunday, one in five Americans was sitting in a Methodist church! The Methodist church had always been strongly anti-slavery, and in 1800 the General Conference required conferences in slave states to petition their legislatures for abolition.
But mainstream Americans considered abolition a dangerously radical idea. It was frightening, not so much because of the financial loss it would cause, which was considerable, but because the specter of a lot of freed slaves suddenly living among whites on a basis of equality was too shocking to comprehend.
In the 1820s and 30s, Abolitionists were a radical minority; even in the North, abolitionist orators were often the targets of mob action. Southern leaders threatened to lynch any northerner found carrying Abolitionist literature. Southern congressmen succeeded in banning Abolitionist materials from the U.S. Mail. In 1836, proslavery congressmen passed a “Gag Rule” – no petition about slavery would be read or debated. A similar rule was passed in the Senate.
But the harder proslavery forces worked to suppress Abolition, the more northerners joined the cause. Americans who were not at first interested in slavery were stirred by Congress’s blatant infringement of their time-honored right of petition. Suddenly, antislavery petitions began flooding the Capitol, and a small group of sympathetic congressmen, including John Quincy Adams, fought to get them read. And it seemed that every time a southern mob attacked an Abolitionist, more and more complacent northerners were awakened to the tyranny of slavery.
To many northerners, the final straw was Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: the Fugitive Slave Law. This law meant that slave states could override the rights of free states by retrieving escaped slaves from states were slavery did not exist. This was an intolerable violation of states’ rights.
For many citizens, the Fugitive Slave Law was asking them to place human law above divine law. Church congregations and abolitionist groups all over the North passed resolutions declaring that human laws contrary to divine law were not binding. By 1848, seven northern states had passed personal liberty laws, declaring that no state personnel or facilities could be used for retrieving runaway slaves. If the federal government insisted on dragging people into slavery, it would have to attend to the matter itself.
Meanwhile, more and more northerners were becoming involved in aiding fugitive slaves, and many colleges, seminaries and other Christian institutions became stations on the Underground Railroad.
But Methodism, facing constant pressure from its southern congregations, dropped the ball. National Methodist leadership began to assert that slavery was a social evil, rather than an individual one. Therefore, slaveholders would not be barred from church membership. The rapid influx of unrepentant slaveholders irreparably weakened the denomination’s stance on slavery. By the 1820s Methodist periodicals were urging church members not to be “judgmental” against slavery. In 1836 the General Conference, as always more interested in stability than in religious zeal, announced that the Methodist Church would henceforth refrain from discussing the disturbing subject of slavery.
This did not reflect majority sentiment in Methodist pews and pulpits in the North. Seven of every eight Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, and most were Methodists. Dissatisfaction with denominational acquiescence on slavery inspired about 15,000 Methodists to splinter off and form a new antislavery denomination, the Wesleyans, in 1843. Then in 1844, following a scandal concerning a slave-owning bishop, outraged southerners left to form their own strongly proslavery denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
Similar splits occurred within the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. These various schisms in the 1840s reflected the beginnings of a major rift within the nation as a whole. For the average American, religious matters were much more important day-to-day than the doings of Congress. By polarizing along strictly North-South lines, the denominations succeeded where politics had failed: now, to the average American, the country was beginning to seem divided in two.