Academic journal article Civil War History

Denouncing the Brotherhood of Thieves: Stephen Symonds Foster's Critique of the Anti-Abolitionist Clergy

Academic journal article Civil War History

Denouncing the Brotherhood of Thieves: Stephen Symonds Foster's Critique of the Anti-Abolitionist Clergy

Article excerpt

Stephen Symonds Foster's abolitionist colleagues were startled when he appeared before the 1844 New England Antislavery Convention holding in one hand an iron collar and in the other a set of manacles. Describing the performance, the Reverend Adin Ballou recounted that as Foster waved the two objects before his audience he cried out, "Behold here a specimen of the religion of this land, the handy work of the American church and clergy."(1) Foster's audience should perhaps not have been surprised by his actions in 1844, for dramatic gestures had been part of his antislavery repertoire since the late 1830s, when he established himself as one of abolitionism's most feisty and resolute proponents. Apparently contemptuous of the conventions of polite society, his notoriety grew principally from his practice of interrupting church services for the purpose of exposing the clergy's involvement in the evil of slavery, a situation he believed rendered them as morally culpable as those who owned slaves. Realizing, too, the power of the written word, Foster forcefully restated his charges in his 1843 publication The Brotherhood of Thieves, or A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy, which proved to be one of the most influential tracts issued by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS).(2)

Among the diverse group of reformers who constituted the often-factious "anti-slavery family" in pre-Civil War America, Foster was a controversial figure but not an unadmired one.(3) Noting that the "instrument he uses is in time and tune with the music of the antislavery band," the abolitionist Liberator observed in 1843 that it "is neither his blame nor praise that the instrument is the trombone and not the flute." As Wendell Phillips, abolitionism's most famous orator, recalled, Foster's aggressive style was required during the 1840s to "shake New England and stun it into listening" to the abolitionist message.(4) Moreover, while Foster never occupied a leading position within the hierarchy of any antislavery organization, and notwithstanding some attempts to dismiss his antics as those of a crank, his coworkers acknowledged his contribution to abolitionism. Indeed, far from being on the "periphery" of the AASS, as historians Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease have contended, Foster was frequently at the center of its deliberations, helping to formulate its doctrines and defend them as appropriate responses to slavery.(5) Foster took part in almost every important debate within the AASS. He was among the first to endorse Garrison's doctrine of disunionism, and his vigorous advocacy of the idea helped reconcile the society to this controversial principle.(6) Foster's contributions to antislavery discussions were frequently praised for their sharpness and clarity. Abolitionist and author Thomas Wentworth Higginson, no easy critic, lauded Foster as an "unequalled intellectual gladiator on any platform." As a field lecturer for the AASS, Foster took the message of Garrisonian abolitionism well beyond his native New Hampshire, establishing for himself in the process a national profile. At his death in 1881, Foster was recalled as one of the "ablest and most powerful coadjutors of Garrison." He also won praise from opponents of slavery abroad. A British antislavery periodical suggested in 1855 that when "the history of the antislavery enterprise shall be written no man will be more nobly distinguished for the moral courage and devotedness of life and talents to the cause than Stephen S. Foster."(7)

Notwithstanding the respect accorded Foster by his antislavery peers, however, he long remained an enigmatic and frequently misunderstood figure in the history of American abolitionism. Many scholars perhaps took too literally the words of the nineteenth-century poet and abolitionist, James Russell Lowell, who characterized Foster as a "kind of maddened John the Baptist/To whom the harshest words come aptest." As one early biographer remarked, Foster "seems to have suffered from an overdeveloped logical sense and a complete lack of humor. …

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