Early Freethinkers, Abolitionists, and Unitarians

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I was sitting with Sister Sojourner Truth, a colleague, in the Anti-slavery movement. We were discussing the difficulties that lay in our paths in our abolitionist struggle and how the forces of Slavery had made large strides toward successful continuation.

(1) When we considered the arbitrary and continuing enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, we became despondent; and
(2) When we saw freedom losing in the struggle between freedom and slavery in Kansas, we wept; and
(3) Upon hearing the outcome of the Dred Scott decision that favored slavery, we began to fear for our own freedom; and
(4) When we saw the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, We trembled with fear for the future of our country, and
(5) After the failure of John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry, many of us had to go to Canada to ensure our own safety.
(6) When we witnessed the 1855 assault on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Congress, our leading Anti-slavery United States Senator, we questioned God about these setbacks.

I remember how Sister Sojourner turned to me. “Frederick,” she asked, “Is God Dead?” I thought for a moment and then I responded to her and to the heavens. “No God is not dead”, and I knew then that slavery must end in blood. And you know what Davies-Memorial, my belated friend, John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame had already made that prediction.

Public and political Legacy of Freethinker and Unitarians
I want to take time to mention several Freethinkers or Unitarians whom I shall commend to you for further study regarding their contributions to slavery abolition.

The leading and most prominent abolitionist of my time was Mr. William Lloyd Garrison. Mr. Garrison recruited me into the movement in the early 1840’s. Mr. Garrison was the editor and publisher of the Liberator, an antislavery newspaper. And he was a White man who fervently believed that all men should be free. In fact, (chuckle) Mr. Garrison even believed in the social, intellectual, and political equality of men and women. (chuckle again). And after a few conversations, he convinced me to this unique outlook on women and I agreed. Mr. Garrison introduced me to the writings of Mr. Thomas Paine.

Mr. Thomas Paine, was a Freethinker who came over to America from England. Mr. Paine was a slave abolitionist too. In his time, Mr. Paine startled the American church with his pamphlet: “Age of Reason” (1794) in which he rejected miracles and supernaturalism. Paine established the 1st Anti-Slavery Society in America. Thomas Paine was far ahead of his times.

I began working with Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony as well as Elizabeth Stanton to assist them in organizing for woman’s suffrage. Many of the first women who became abolitionist were either Quakers, Unitarians, or atheists. But they worked ceaselessly for the abolition of Slavery, and later they worked for Women Suffrage and Women’s Rights. These women worked so diligently that eventually liberal-minded, religious women and even Christian-women came aboard the Woman’s rights movement.

Other abolitionists:
Angelina and Sarah Grimke, (Quakers) who insisted on the right of women to full participation against slavery and went from city to city speaking on the subject.

Reverend John Brown: I can’t say enough about the courage and efforts of Reverend Brown of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

Harriate Beecher Stowe (Unitarian) wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Reverend Theodore Parker: Rev Parker was a Unitarian Minister and adamant abolitionist. And you should remember that Rev Parker was the first to utter the famous phrasing that, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” You should also know that President Lincoln borrowed Reverend Parker’s phrasing when Lincoln used the phrase of “Government for the people, of the people, and by the people.”

Now a word about President Abraham Lincoln the Great Liberator. I knew President Lincoln, and from my observation of him, regarding matters of abolition, it was clear to me that he was not the Great Emancipator or the Great Liberator that many in history and perhaps in this very auditorium have come to believe. Consider the following:

Mr. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and made it known that he signed it as a “war-time document” based on “military necessity”, and he acknowledged to several cabinet members that it might be successfully challenged in court at the end of the war.

Further the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free one slave and Mr. Lincoln knew it when he signed it. The Emancipation Proclamation gave freedom to “those slaves in those states and territories of the United States that were in rebellion against the federal government.” Well, if such areas were in rebellion, than the force and power of the federal government could not be brought to bear in those locations to provide for the slaves’ release from their bondage.

Further, Mr. Lincoln didn’t free the slaves in those territories that were not in rebellion against the Federal government, which he had the political and military power to do. This meant that the Proclamation didn’t free slaves in Delaware or Maryland or in several other border states or federally occupied territories.

My long range view of the situation is that the Emancipation Proclamation was a moral message to the world and it verbalized poignantly the better side of human nature, and allowed the north to assume a high moral ground in the war between the states..

We should remember that Mr. Lincoln, as President of the United States, also resisted the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The above actions are not the actions of a Great Liberator, but a great politician. However, I leave it for you in the privacy of your own conscious to put a label on Mr. President Lincoln, now that you are aware of the aforementioned facts.

Now be Advised, that the Slaves were freed by the Thirteenth Amendment (which was ratified on December 18, 1865) and not by the Emancipation Proclamation.

The 37th Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and the influential leaders of that Congress that shepherded the amendment to its ratification were Unitarians and Freethinkers. Such people included:

Rep Thaddeus Steven of Penn, leader for the 13th Amendment

Sen. Charles Sumner of Mass, who led the Congressional fight for the 13th Amendment

Sen. Lyman Trumbull of Ill, who co-authored the 13th Amendment which was ratified December 18, 1865

Rep. James Ashley of Ohio

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