Abolitionists

Religion and Race

This spring, when inflammatory comments by Rev. Jere­miah Wright—Sen. Ba­rack Obama’s retiring pastor—dominated talk radio, TV, and the blogo­sphere, race once again surfaced as a front-burner issue in the 2008 run for the presidency. From slavery to segregation, America’s tragic past demands a robust theological ac­count. As we reflect on race in the 21st century, it is vital that we turn once again to a great prophet of racial justice of the early 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois. Edward Blum’s thoughtful and readable W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet is vital to not only thinking, but theologizing, through our current moment, where we are witnessing the advent of an anti-racist/pro-reconciliation pro­phetic Christianity in North Ameri­ca.

While the Civil War solved the problem of slavery in the United States, the problem of racism rages on in American public life. In his earlier work, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and Amer­i­can Nationalism, 1865-1898, Blum argued that after the Civil War the country reconstituted itself in whiteness. This led to the cultures of segregation and lynching that Du Bois critiqued in the late 19th and early 20th century.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2008
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'If Such Women Should Rise!'

In the United States of the 1830s, it was unheard of for a woman to speak publicly to large groups that included men as well as women. Especially if the topic was a burning political issue.

But Maria W. Stewart, a free African-American woman in Boston, suffered social censure rather than defy her faith and conscience. Not yet 30 years old, Stewart stood up to lecture in Boston’s Franklin Hall at a September 1832 anti-slavery gathering of African-American women and men. Her topic: opposition to the “colonization” movement, which sought to ship free blacks and ex-slaves back to Africa rather than redress the wrongs done them. Her opening was blunt and provocative, a call to active resistance: “Why sit ye here and die? If we say we will go to a foreign land, the famine and the pestilence are there, and there we shall die. If we sit here, we shall die. Come let us plead our cause before the whites: if they save us alive, we shall live—and if they kill us, we shall but die.”

Then she makes a brief aside, so timed, one assumes, to answer the grumblings her boldness of speech would elicit from some. “Methinks I heard a spiritual interrogation—‘Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?’ And my heart made this reply—‘If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!’”

Having claimed the only credential that by her standards mattered, Stewart returned to her lecture.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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The Saints Go Marching

The 18th century may seem like ancient history. But today's antislavery activists can learn a lot from the campaigners who, within a few short years, created a mass movement in Britain that swayed first public opinion and finally Parliament to abolish the slave trade and later slavery itself within the British Empire.

They overcame many of the obstacles faced by activists in our world: lobbying by elites invested in the status quo, a legislature that delayed action in favor of "further study," and a reactionary wartime political climate, to name a few. And, as Adam Hochschild points out in his lively abolitionist history Bury the Chains, antislavery organizers pioneered many tactics used today: speaking tours, mass boycotts, local chapters of national groups, and voter guides, all to fight an unjust economic system with global reach.

Throughout the 1700s, many thinkers were against slavery—in theory. Plays and other forms of popular culture milked the plight of slaves for sentimental drama. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote a tract called "Thoughts on Slavery" in 1774 that proposed a boycott of slave-produced sugar and rum. Quakers went the furthest, banning slave owners from their denomination.

But a concerted, large-scale movement to end slavery seemed out of reach. Other than Wesley, many evangelicals, inside and outside the Church of England, spent the first four decades after the Great Awakening more interested in converting slaves than freeing them. John Newton, who penned the hymn "Amazing Grace," worked as a slave ship officer for six years after his conversion and did not publicly oppose the slave trade until he had been a minister for decades.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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'In You I Take Refuge'

In 1994, Pierre Tami established the Hagar Shelter in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as a haven for women who had fallen victim to violence and sexual exploitation. Hagar has assisted more than 100,000 women and children through its social programs and economic projects. The U.S. State Department in 2004 selected Tami and the Hagar project as one of its six international heroes in the struggle against the global slave trade. The story of how Pierre Tami created one of the most innovative programs for freed slaves will inspire even the most entrenched cynics.

Tami, a Swiss businessman, had devoted 12 years to helping people in crisis—including a long stint in Japan aiding the homeless in the parks of downtown Osaka and several years more building up a youth drop-in center in Singapore. He could not explain why, but he understood these ventures as a training ground for some greater project. He received the invitation to visit Cambodia in June 1990.

A civil war threatened to throw the country into chaos. Though the ruling regime was paranoid about the presence of foreigners, it asked Tami to evaluate the potential of providing aid to its impoverished masses. Only 25 nongovernmental aid agencies were operating in Cambodia at the time.

When Tami first arrived in one village, silence blanketed the town—except for a single, terrible wail. A mother had just lost her 6-month-old baby, a casualty of malaria. She spilled out her agony and protest.

A traditional Cambodian (Khmer) proverb muses, "If Heaven could cry, then Cambodia would never know drought." For Tami, the mother's wail became the cry of a people, and it haunted him long after he had left the country.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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Revival for Justice

Some years ago on a trip to the U.K., I walked through the historic Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common in South London. This Anglican parish was the home church to William Wilberforce, the abolitionist parliamentarian who wrote Britain's anti-slave-trade legislation. Wilberforce and a group of Christian fellow parliamentarians and lay people known as "the Saints" were behind many social reforms that swept England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The current vicar was very proud to show me around. On the wall were pictures of these typically English-looking gentlemen who helped to turn their country upside down.

Finally, the vicar pointed to an old, well-worn table. "This is the table upon which William Wilberforce wrote the antislavery act," he said proudly. "We now use this table every Sunday for communion." I was struck—here, in dramatic liturgical symbol, the secular and the sacred are brought together with powerful historical force. How did we ever separate them? What became of religion that believed its duty was to change its society on behalf of justice?

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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No More Auction Block

Dr. Samuel Cotton, a pioneer of the modern anti-slavery movement, died in December after a protracted battle with cancer. Cotton first learned about contemporary slavery in Sudan and Mauritania in 1995 when the City Sun, an African-American newspaper in New York, asked him to look into the story. He soon found that thousands of dark-skinned Muslims and black Christians were being held in bondage by lighter-skinned Muslims in the two countries. Cotton worked tirelessly for their emancipation, speaking at conferences and lectures and testifying before the U.S. Congress about his findings - all of which set off storms of controversy. He founded the Coalition Against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan (CASMAS), an abolitionist movement to eradicate slavery and other forms of human rights violations in Africa.

Cotton undertook a 28-day undercover mission to aid slaves in Mauritania, which formed the basis of his book and film Silent Terror: A Journey Into Contemporary African Slavery. These became a call to action for Americans, particularly African Americans, to join the new abolitionist movement.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2004
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A Soul on Fire

In 1851, ex-slave Sojourner Truth addressed a convention of white suffragettes and white ministers debating which issue was more important, abolition or women's suffrage. In the midst of the squabbling, Sojourner Truth asked a simple question: "Arn't I a Woman?" That question, though 150 years old, turned my world upside down. The passage of time has not eroded the relevance and power of her question. Her voice still rings-breaking down walls, changing worlds.

Sojourner's life and witness flows through time as a stream of consciousness. It connects with our own stories. She still speaks for those who have known the double oppression of race and gender. She has been my spirit guide for as long as my story and my center flowed into her existence. She went before me to carve the path that I now walk. Her voice beats within my heart. Her unwavering commitment to freedom has enabled me to move beyond boundaries that would limit who I am. She has shaped my identity and plowed my standing ground.

In 1843, Sojourner decided to abandon her slave name of Isabella Baumfree for her God-given name of Sojourner Truth. There is an African proverb that says, "It's not what they call you that really matters, it is what you answer to." Sojourner was clear that she needed a name that she could answer to. She had to leave behind all the vestiges of bondage. Therefore, when she left her Egypt of slavery, she asked God to give her a new name. Her name expressed her new mission-that of traveling up and down the land telling the truth.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2001
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Slave Ways No More

When Isabella Baumfree was born into a Dutch-speaking family in upstate New York in 1797, 20 percent of the population in the 13 colonies was of African descent. Twelve percent was held in captivity as slaves-700,000 people. When she was 11, her family was sold for the first time. Slavery was not milder in the North, just different. Since the land holdings were small, fewer slaves were needed, but they were sold more often. Isabella's family was broken up. She was kept in unspeakable conditions. As her hatred toward her white masters grew, she asked God to help her escape. In a spiritual vision God gave her an escape plan. She walked away from slavery, left her slave ways on the cellar floor, and stepped into freedom. Her new name marked her liberation.

Sojourner Truth started a street preaching ministry in New York City. She gave firsthand accounts of slavery and agitated for abolition. Her work led her to experimental utopian communities where she met abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Olive Gilbert. In 1850, Truth dictated her memoirs to Olive Gilbert, who published them under the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. Gilbert partially censored the work: Some of the sexual events that were typical episodes in a slave woman's life were "too delicate" for the expected readership.

Truth became a staunch supporter of women's rights when she learned that the World Anti-Slavery Convention refused to admit women delegates. In 1851, at the women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth convicted the crowd with her famous question. Sojourner Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan, on November 26, 1883, at 3 a.m. At the time of her death she said, "I'm not gonna die. I'm going home like a shooting star."

Rose Marie Berger is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2001
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