Abolitionists & their faith focus of PBS series
Jan 8, 2013

NASHVILLE (BP)—The Civil War was fought 150 years ago, but without a small band of abolitionists driven by their Christian faith, the war might never have happened.

That’s the conclusion of a three-part PBS docudrama that begins Tuesday Jan. 8. It doesn’t shy away from recounting the religious beliefs of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Angelina Grimke and Harriet Beacher Stowe. They believed slavery was a sin, and they set out to cause its demise. In turn, they helped change a nation.

Parts two and three of the series, known simply as “The Abolitionists,” will air Jan. 15 and 22. It is the latest installment in PBS’ popular “American Experience” series. 

Each episode is one hour long and is part documentary, part re-enactment. It is rated TV-PG, with some violence and language in the first two episodes. 

The series tells how Grimke, the product of a slave-owning family in South Carolina, came to see slavery as unbiblical.

“She believed slavery was a sin and that God would punish people who had slaves,” historian Carol Berkin says in the series.

The docudrama recounts how Garrison, in his 20s, began publishing an anti-slavery paper, convinced that God was on his side.

“William Lloyd Garrison’s religious background was not just a background, it was at the core of who he was,” historian James Brewer Stewart says in the series. 

Baptist Press spoke about the abolitionists with Daniel W. Stowell, director and editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield, Ill.), a project whose goal is to digitize Lincoln’s writings. (Stowell grew up Southern Baptist and now attends a General Association of Regular Baptist church in Illinois.)

Following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:

BAPTIST PRESS: What role did the abolitionists play in ending slavery in the United States?

DANIEL W. STOWELL: They played a broad role in mobilizing public opinion. Lincoln famously said “whoever controls public opinion controls the government.” They nudged Lincoln; they nudged the North in general toward a view of how slavery was corrupting the nation. They played an important role in moving the public in a direction that Lincoln could ultimately issue an Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure. There’s still a lot of racism in the North during the Civil War. Lincoln is never what I would classify as an abolitionist; he’s anti-slavery. It remains a very open question how much sympathy he had for enslaved African Americans vs. the corruption that slavery wrought in the nation at large.

BP: And there were times that the abolitionists themselves thought that Lincoln was on the wrong side of the issue and that he was working against them.

STOWELL: Absolutely. The famous book on this is Lerone Bennett’s Forced into Glory, where he basically argues that Lincoln was forced into issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and that each of his actions against slavery were forced by abolitionists and radical Republicans. I think that’s too simplistic. The kernel of truth that lies in it, however, is that Lincoln was not a Garrisonian or a John Brown type of abolitionist, where the abolition of slavery is the only thing that matters. I believe Lincoln considered slavery to be a corrupting influence—it was bad obviously for the slave, but it was also bad for the white Southerner, it was bad for the white Northerner, it was bad for the politics of the nation.

BP: One historian in the documentary says that without the abolitionists, the Civil War would not have happened. Do you agree with that?

STOWELL: I would agree with it in the sense that Southern perceptions of Northern society were such that the election of a Republican president [Lincoln], by itself—with no actions by that president—led to several states seceding, before he is even inaugurated. Abolitionists frightened Southerners to the point that the mere election of a Republican president was cause for secession. On the other hand, one can be anti-slavery and anti-African American. It raises the question then of whether slavery, as distinct from racism, caused the Civil War, and I would argue that it did—slavery caused the Civil War. 

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