Unitarians, Universalists, & Slavery (Conrad Wright Lecture)

Unitarians, Universalists, & Slavery

Conrad Wright Lecture • 2014

• Dr. Christopher Cameron, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte
• Tuesday, May 6, 2014 at 7:00 p.m.
• Sperry Room at the Harvard Divinity School
• 45 Francis Ave., Cambridge, Massachusetts

Unitarians, Universalists and Slavery

Much of the scholarship on religion and American abolitionism focuses on evangelicals, however religious liberals played a key role in the movement from its inception. This talk will explore the disparate ways that liberal ministers engaged with the institution of slavery, whether as proslavery thinkers, colonizationists, or radical abolitionists. It will examine the theological underpinnings of liberals’ views on slavery, as well as the differences between Unitarians and Universalists’ engagement with the institution.

Christopher Cameron is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He received his MA and PhD in American History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a BA in History from Keene State College. His research and teaching interests include early American history, the history of slavery and abolition, and American religious and intellectual history.    Cameron’s first book, entitled “To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement,” will be published by Kent State University Press in June 2014, and he is currently working on two monographs: one exploring liberal religion and slavery in America, and the other examining African American freethinkers from the 19th century to the present. Cameron has received fellowships from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Peabody Essex Museum, the U.S. Department of Education, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This event was co-sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society, and HUUMS, the Harvard Divinity School UU student group.

Chris Cameron’s blog post on Channing and abolitionism: William Ellery Channing and Abolitionist Historiography

In her essay “Coming of Age: The Historiography of Black Abolitionism,” Manisha Sinha notes that abolitionists have generally been viewed as little more than “bourgeois reformers saddled with racial paternalism and economic conservatism.”1 This view of abolitionists changed with the work of scholars such as Patrick Rael, Julie Roy Jeffrey, W. Caleb McDaniel, John Stauffer, and Shirley J. Yee, to name just a few. While the reputations of “radical” abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith, William Cooper Nell, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lydia Maria Child has undergone a drastic transformation in the scholarship on abolitionism over the past 40 years or so, much less attention has been given to “moderate” abolitionists such as William Ellery Channing. This situation is understandable, especially since Channing and many others like him often protested the tactics and rhetoric of their more outspoken counterparts. An analysis of Channing’s works, however, shows that he was actually fairly close ideologically to the Garrisonians, even while he deplored their sharp denunciations of slaveholders.

Channing first encountered plantation slavery while he was a tutor in the family of David Meade Randolph of Richmond, Virginia between 1798 and 1800. While he noted in a 1799 letter that the existence of slavery “is one object here which always depresses me” and would keep him from ever permanently living down South, he did not become an ardent opponent of slavery until the 1830s. In the fall of 1830, poor health compelled Channing to travel to Santa Cruz, where he once again encountered slavery. Upon his return, he preached a sermon in his Federal Street Church (Boston) where he explained that “the most striking features in the state of society which I have been called to observe is the existence of slavery. This drew my thoughts more than all that was peculiar in the natural world, and though I saw this evil in its mildest form, my conviction of its magnitude grew stronger and more painful.”2 The agitation of abolitionists in Boston such as David Walker, Garrison, and Maria Stewart likely also drew his thoughts ever more to slavery, and he would begin to write his book Slavery in 1831, although he delayed publication until 1835.

One reason for this delay was that Channing did not want to be associated with a group of cranks such as the abolitionists, as most people viewed them in the antebellum era (many historians likewise did so up until the 1960s.) He believed strongly that abolitionists “have fallen into the common error of enthusiasts, that of exaggerating their object, of feeling as if no evil existed but that which they opposed, and as if no guilt could be compared with that of countenancing or upholding it.”3 He believed that the tone and manners of antislavery activists was often unchristian and he disagreed with the notion that all slaveholders were evil. Lastly, and this is what has likely pushed him into the category of moderate reformers, he thought that the immediate abolition of slavery, which the Garrisonians championed, was “inconsistent with the well-being of the slave and the order of the state.”4

Channing came around to more active participation in the antislavery cause after a conversation with Samuel Joseph May, a fellow Unitarian minister and a Garrisonian abolitionist in his own right. They met at Channing’s home in the fall of 1834 and, after Channing seemed to dwell at length on the severity of the Garrisonians’ denunciations of slaveholders, May replied “I am tired of these complaints. The cause of suffering humanity, the cause of our oppressed, crushed colored countrymen, has called as loudly upon others as upon us, who are known as the Abolitionists. It was just as incumbent upon others, as upon us, to espouse it. We are not to blame that wiser and better men did not espouse it long ago. The cry of millions in bondage had been heard throughout our land for half a century, and disregarded. The wise and prudent saw the wrong, but thought it not wise and prudent to lift a finger for its correction.”5 This line of critique continued for a few minutes, after which Channing responded “Brother May, I acknowledge the justice of your reproof; I have been silent too long.”6

Channing would end his silence and finally publish Slavery the following year. Over the next decade he would speak on abolitionism at Faneuil Hall, head up a petition drive, publish books such as Emancipation (1840) and The Duty of the Free States, or Remarks Suggested by the Case of the Creole (1842), and help influence the abolitionist thought of key reformers. His own ideology was very similar to the Garrisonians. He argued that slavery was inconsistent with God’s moral law, degraded both the master and slave, was sinful, and constituted the chief stain on American republicanism. He also believed strongly in the necessity of non-violent means in ending slavery, arguing that “an enterprize of Christian philanthropy is not to be carried on by force; that it is time for philanthropy to stop, when it can only advance by wading through blood.”7 While William Lloyd Garrison could be at times a strong critic of Channing, he wholeheartedly agreed with Channing’s latter point, noting in his comments to the letter that his “homily to abolitionists upon the Christian obligation not to resort to carnal weapons in self-defence, or to aid in the cause of liberty, finds a sincere response in our own bosom.”8

Where William Lloyd Garrison would strongly diverge from Channing was in his belief that slavery ought to be immediately abolished. This question of immediatism has been at the heart of abolitionist historiography, with proponents of gradual emancipation or colonization often being portrayed as less ardent reformers than those calling for the immediate end to slavery. Yet as David Brion Davis argued of immediatism more than 50 years ago, “to some reformers the phrase seemed mainly to imply a direct, intuitive consciousness of the sinfulness of slavery, and a sincere personal commitment to work for its abolition. In this subjective sense the word ‘immediate’ was charged with religious overtones and referred more to the moral disposition of the reformer than to a particular plan for emancipation.”9 Channing, no less than the Garrisonians, possessed this “intuitive consciousness of the sinfulness of slavery.” He wrote in Slavery: “God gave us intellectual power, that it should be cultivated; and a system which degrades it, and can only be upheld by its depression, opposes one of his most benevolent designs. Reason is God’s image in man, and the capacity of acquiring truth is among his best inspirations.”10 While Channing was skeptical that denouncing slaveholders and immediately liberating the slaves without any preparation for freedom may not be the wisest course of action, he was nevertheless an important proponent of abolitionism, one whose voice helped lend the movement an air of legitimacy that was lacking from the dominance of “babes, sucklings, obscure men, silly women, publicans, [and] sinners,” in the words of Samuel Joseph May.11

Christopher Cameron is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, June 2014). Cameron is currently working on a book about liberal religion and slavery in early America, as well as a history of African American freethinkers from the early 19th century to the present.


1 Manisha Sinha, “Coming of Age: The Historiography of Black Abolitionism,” in Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer, eds. (New York: The New Press, 2006).

2 Memoir of William Ellery Channing, with Extracts from his Correspondence and Manuscripts Vol. 3 (Boston: Wm. Crosby and H. P. Nichols, 1848), 148.

3 William E. Channing, Slavery (Boston: James Munroe & Co., 1835), 134.

4 Ibid, 135.

5 Memoir of William Ellery Channing, with Extracts from his Correspondence and Manuscripts Vol. 3, 156.

6 Ibid, 158.

7 William Ellery Channing, A Letter to the Abolitionists, with Comments (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1837), 5-6.

8 Ibid, 22.

9 David Brion Davis, “The Emergence of Immediatism in British and American Antislavery Thought” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 49(1962): 209-210.

10 Channing, Slavery, 74.

11 Memoir of William Ellery Channing, with Extracts from his Correspondence and Manuscripts Vol. 3, 157.