Let Justice Be Done: Writings from American Abolitionists, 1688-1865

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Editor(s): 
Kerry Walters
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis
    , March
     2020.
     144 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626983649.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This brief volume, Let Justice Be Done: Writings from American Abolitionists, 1688-1865, includes thirty-three primary sources and eighteen pages of introductory material that aim to use the abolitionist movement to “inspire Christians today to remember who we are and what we’re capable of” (x). This explicitly confessional orientation, as well as the nature of the sources selected and the framing of the introduction, leaves the volume better suited for inspirational or devotional purposes than for understanding the role of Christianity in the fight against slavery. After all, while it is true that “almost to a person, abolitionists were deeply faithful Christians,” so too were the defenders of human bondage (ix). But for those looking to draw spiritual strength from the abolitionists, this book has much to offer.

The volume edited by Kerry Walters does well to draw on several recent scholarly trends of widening our understanding of American abolitionists. For at least the last two decades, historians of the antislavery movement have foregrounded the central role of Black Americans in the fight against slavery. Walters mirrors this trend by including powerful words from Phillis Wheatley, David Walker, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. White women are likewise appropriately well represented with excerpts from Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, Angelia Grimké, Sarah Grimké, Hannah and Mary Townswend, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Maria Weston Chapman. Two institutional declarations are included from the Quakers of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and the American Anti-Slavery Society.

The most valuable editorial service comes with the addition of bracketed Bible references throughout the book. As Walters notes, abolitionist authors could expect their 19th-century interlocutors to know these references, but their addition will be very helpful for most modern readers who could have a deeper reading experience if they keep a Bible nearby as they peruse.

The introduction aptly chronicles the rise of slavery, including a deft discussion of the relationship between slavery and racism. It also offers a very broad overview of development of the antislavery movement and the achievement of emancipation. Among the strengths are the adept discussions about the tensions within the American Anti-Slavery Society over issues of women’s roles in the movement and the value of electoral politics under the Constitution. Perhaps most impressive is the efficient synthesis of recent scholarship that asserts abolitionists general support for racial egalitarianism. 

The sources themselves are well selected. Primary source collections like this are threatened by the rise of open educational resources and the growing digitization of primary sources by archives and libraries, to say nothing of the wider availability through online databases including Google Books, the Hathi Trust, and more. Indeed, nearly all of the sources here are available online with many already ably edited and attached to accessible student-ready introductions. One of the notable sources here that is not available online, however, is the Tennessean Thomas Doan’s 1830 call for clergymen to excommunicate enslavers, a statement that, while certainly not representative of white Christian responses to slavery, is powerful for its courage and uncompromising rhetoric.

The volume has a few weaknesses. Despite the focus of the book, there are several moments in the introduction where the relationship between religion and the fight against slavery is underdeveloped. When discussing the rising tide against slavery in the late 18th century, Walters acknowledges “the Revolutionary War’s Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality (xiv),” but does not mention the role of Christian revivalism in sparking the brief but notable bout of voluntary manumissions in Virginia. Similarly, Walters rightly acknowledges the racist goals of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in seeking to attack the growing communities of free Black Americans, but absent is an acknowledgement of the central place of missionary discourse in the rise of the ACS.

The final document sounds a note of triumph, as the stirring poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier begins with a celebration of emancipation that rejoices, “It is done!” (175). It is a common challenge for historians to resist whiggish triumphalism when discussing the achievement of emancipation, and recent historiographical trends of tracking continuities of oppression through the neoslavery of the convict leasing system, sharecropping, and Jim Crow might question whether ending with triumphalism obscures the realities of this era.

A bibliography of twenty-six monographs concludes the volume, but a few of the books cited are out of date. For example, students and scholars of abolitionism interested in an overview of Quaker abolitionism would be better served by looking to the work of Brycchan Carey and Geoffrey Plank, Ryan Jordan, or Jean Soderlund, rather than the cited 1950 study from Thomas Drake.

Reading this small volume might offer inspiration, but it will also distort the history of how Christianity related to the fight against slavery. Christianity proved to be both an asset and obstacle to abolitionism. Walters celebrates the achievement of the abolitionists and draws inspiration from their example by writing, “it’s more than likely that the abolitionists’ tireless condemnation of slavery converted a good number of people to their way of thinking. Prophets, even if reviled in the short run, often do succeed in touching hearts and changing minds” (ix). However, historians can also point to countless moments where the abolitionists’ confrontational approach also alienated and radicalized many in the opposite direction. In the view of this reviewer, the moral lesson of the abolitionists is that aggressive, uncomfortable, polarizing, and even alienating agitation can prove just as consequential in fighting injustice as “touching hearts and changing minds.” Moreover, there are other, more troubling, but no less important lessons in the history of Christianity and abolitionism about “who we are and what we’re capable of.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ben Wright is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Date of Review: 
August 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kerry Walters is professor emeritus of philosophy and peace and justice studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author of forty-two books including The Art of Dying and Living, Rufus Jones, and Giving up God.

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