Abolitionist Atheists

Today we find two letters to the editor in response to a guest column by Los Angeles Times contributor Joseph Loconte published last week in The Florida Times-Union. In his piece, Loconte rightfully extols the abolitionist activities of William Wilberforce in Great Britain, but makes the demonstrably false claim that atheists did not help lead the campaign against slavery.

The first letter by Jay Mooney was published under the heading, “History: Human bondage was not right.”

Joseph Loconte's Feb. 23 Point of View column titled "Religious faith ended slavery" is an example of turning history on its head.

Loconte, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, extols the leadership of people with "deep Christian convictions" in ending slavery. But, he conveniently forgets that many other Christians used biblical Scriptures to justify slavery. Indeed the Bible - both the Old Testament and New Testament - is rife with language that clearly and unequivocally states that slavery was a positive thing.

Loconte says that it was Christians, not atheists, who led the effort against the slave trade. Perhaps he forgets that slavery was abolished in France in 1791, not by the church, but by the atheistic founders of the revolution. In the United States, the early critics of slavery - Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams - were all either atheists or deists. Later, the abolitionist cause was taken up by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister turned atheist; William Lloyd Garrison, an atheist; and Robert Ingersoll, the "Great Agnostic." Indeed, the "Great Emancipator" himself, Abraham Lincoln, never acknowledged being a Christian and was (at the very least) thought to be a freethinker in matters of religion. In England, atheists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were leading abolitionists.

Atheists and freethinkers of all stripes worked closely with progressive Christians to abolish slavery and to fully extend voting and civil rights to African-Americans. To suggest otherwise is an affront to the rich history of free thought in America.

Like Loconte, I look forward to seeing Amazing Grace, a new biographical film about William Wilberforce, a Christian activist and member of the British Parliament. Indeed, he was a great leader in the worldwide anti-slavery movement.

I realize there is a nonliteral way to read Scripture that provided people like Wilberforce a way to attack slavery from their religious perspective. But, let's be fair. It does not take reading Scripture to know that human bondage was not right. That just took common sense and a commitment to human rights, something that most of us freethinkers have in abundance.
This is a good letter. It directly counters the false claim that atheists didn't contribute to the abolitionist movement. It also discusses the traditional acceptance of slavery by the religious.

The second letter by Hugo Borreson was published under the heading, “History: Churches owned slaves.”
A lot of historians will be surprised to read the Point of View column titled "Religious faith ended slavery."

Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches owned slaves; Baptist churches owned the most. Christians obeyed the 10th commandment that forbids coveting a neighbor's "manservant" and "maidservant" (slaves). In the Civil War, some 250,000 Southern men died defending states' rights and slavery.

Atheists could not lead the effort to end slavery because they had no political power. Just as today, they have little chance to be elected to public office. Christians have accepted slavery for centuries. William Wilberforce did, indeed, end slavery in Great Britain by the end of his life. He overcame the policies of an empire that relied on slaves.

But, he also voted in favor of the corn laws, which taxed corn. Corn was the basic food of poor people in England. He wanted their main food taxed.
This letter is somewhat disappointing. Perhaps due to ignorance, the author doesn't correct Loconte's assertion that atheists weren't involved in the abolitionist movement, and the statements about a corn tax seem irrelevant to the discussion at hand. At least it does attempt to respond to the ideas of the original piece.

Loconte's piece is a perfect example of the rewriting of history. Slavery is explicitly approved in the Old Testament and implicitly approved in New Testament. The international slave trade arose and thrived during a religious era. Many abolititionists were religious, but so were many of those supporting slavery who cited the Bible to justify their practices. Today now that all of society agrees that slavery was wrong, someone like Loconte comes along to claim that religion “ended” slavery. The same is true of the civil rights movement. There were religious people on both sides of the issue, yet some claim that religion “ended” segregation. Today our society struggles with homosexual rights, with the religious on both sides of the issue. In several decades, when homosexuality has become completely acceptable, I predict the religious will claim that religion “ended” homophobia.

It's just like prayer. God gets all of the credit and none of the blame.



Anonymous said...

I would like to see some comparison between secular abolitionists and religious abolitionists. Some religious abolitionists like John G. Fee were very outspoken even in the face of death threats and other persecutions. Maybe secular abolitionists were just as outspoken but I haven't read about them yet. Has anyone done scholarly research on this subject matter and comparison?

Dark Star said...

Hey, I'm only 5 years late on commenting.

I would like to point out that Christians were not the FIRST to oppose slavery either, not by a long shot. As best I can tell that credit goes to some of the Zoroastrian Persian's, LONG before Christianity.

So clearly we should all convert to Zoroastrianism immediately as this proves it's the one, true religion, Right?

I also highly recommending about Ernestine Louise Rose, atheist feminist, and abolitionist. She was absolutely brilliant. As was Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

And if you don't recognize these two KEY persons you might wonder why not after you read more about them. I would assert that religious bigotry has excluded them from exposure other activists enjoyed.

Religion poisons everything, indeed. Especially history.

Diana Lesperance said...

William Lloyd Garrison, an atheist?

Seriously. . .

Perhaps he was anti-clerical and despised hypocrital religious leaders, but he loved Jesus.

He said he wasn't a follower of any man--not Luther, not Calvin, nor "His Holiness the Pope." But as a "lover of his fellow-man, I ought not to shun; as a lover of Jesus Christ, and of his equalizing, republican and benevolent precepts, I rejoice to perform." Louis Ruchames, The Abolitionists: A Collection of Their Writings (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1963), 188.

Dark Star said...


I don't know if Jay Mooney's specific claim about Garrison is correct or not (I thought he was Unitarian, which doesn't say much). But surely you realize a single quote doesn't define the beliefs of an individual through their lifetime?

Nor does claiming to be a "as a lover of Jesus Christ" in the context of the quote you gave, necessarily make one a Christian (ignoring the whole sub-text of who is and isn't a true Christian). Muslims will often claim to love Jesus Christ also and even atheists have said that they like the ideals of the Jesus story. (IMHO, anyone saying this hasn't read the Bible very carefully :).

If you quote me from my earlier years I would seem a zealot for Christ, and I was. My position changed as I learned more about the world and my view changed. Now I not only believe it's hogwash, I find little evidence to support a belief that Jesus existed even as a mere person as described in the Bible (some events ascribed to Jesus seem to describe the actions of other real people, such as Judas of Galilee).

I really dislike these arguments about the religiosity of someone who did X because they are ultimately irrelevant. Christians do good things, Atheists do good things, Muslims do good things... even VERY BAD PEOPLE do good things. Hitler did some wonderful things for Germany, Hamas does wonderful things for many Palestinians, Saddam Hussein did some wonderful things in Iraq.

And people who should be good, likewise do some pretty horrible things.

This is different from saying that some people are ignored in history due to their religion (or lack thereof), that most certainly happens - on all sides.

The question is for me in this case is, what does the Holy text of the religion itself actually say and the Bible is clearly in support of Slavery. So any person, Christian or otherwise, went against the Bible when they supported its abolition. Good for them - but IMHO, bad for Christianity.

The failure of Jesus to say something akin to "WHAT IN GOD'S NAME ARE YOU IDIOTS DOING KEEPING SLAVES" destroys any authenticity of the Bible for me. I will not, cannot support a religion that couldn't even make this simple observation: treating other humans as property is WRONG.

I'll let others argue about the specifics, I really don't care -- but I did want to point out a possible flaw in your historical approach to the question as being far too narrow to actually address the question.

But I do thank you for raising the possible issue. We must strive to be accurate in our claims; especially when they are inconvenient to our argument.

Anonymous said...

Joe Loconte, and not for the first time, commits the fallacy of assuming that because Christians do something righteous, the deed itself must be inherently Christian. There are plenty of nonreligious people who perform the same types of good works that Christians do. I am not "hostile" to Christianity -- far from it. But I resent Loconte's highly disingenuous attempt to rewrite history, replete with a telltale selective use of facts.