Evangelicalism and the Politics of Reform in Northern Black Thought, 1776-1863

Article excerpt

Evangelicalism and the Politics of Reform in Northern Black Thought, 1776-1863. By Rita Roberts. Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Pp. [xii], 261. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8071-3708-6.)

The volume under review traces almost a century of black social thought, mostly from northern sources but also from African Americans born in the South as well as some Californians. Rita Roberts asks how evangelical Protestantism both fostered a sense of American identity among blacks and carried them through changes in ideology between the Revolution and the Civil War. The first part of the question needs answering because alienation from Americanism might seem to have been the appropriate response to the slave trade, slavery, and racism. Indeed, there have been separatists in African American history. The second part of the question needs answering because scholars of African American literature, history, and religion do not often cross the divide between the republican and Calvinist era and the liberal and Arminian era. Scholars drawing on African American sources before the Civil War focus on an early period (1770-1829) or on later decades (1830-1860), but rarely both.

Roberts begins in familiar territory. Eighteenth-century evangelicalism, Calvinist at its core, led African Americans to mingle biblical religion and natural rights theory, to hold the new nation to an antislavery standard, and to try to enact benevolence (the moral touchstone of both republicanism and Calvinism) in black social institutions like churches. Yet Roberts surprises readers because she is able to move adeptly from the Revolution through the early republic to the antebellum decades. The activism of the early preachers was a prelude, she argues, to that of abolitionists like David Walker, a freewill thinker if there ever was one. …