Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Puritan Origins of Black Abolitionism in Massachusetts

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Puritan Origins of Black Abolitionism in Massachusetts

Article excerpt

Abstract: On the eve of the American Revolution in Massachusetts, African Americans formed the nation's first antislavery committee and helped put slavery on the road to extinction by 1783. This article argues that Puritan religious ideology significantly influenced Black activism and abolitionist rhetoric in Massachusetts. In doing so, the essay reinterprets and synthesizes two bodies of literature that most historians have treated separately: studies of Puritanism and works on Black abolitionists. This examination of Puritanism and Black abolitionists provides scholars with a new understanding of the foundations of African American intellectual history and the origins of the antislavery movement. Author Christopher Cameron is an Assistant Professor of Colonial/Revolutionary American History at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

Politically and intellectually, the years 1773 and 1774 were momentous ones for African Americans in Massachusetts. In these years, they were propelled into both the national spotlight and historical memory. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) published her book of poems in 1773 and wrote an important letter to Samson Occom (1723-1792), a Native American Presbyterian clergyman from Connecticut, the next year. Just months later Caesar Sarter, another former slave, initiated the tradition of the black jeremiad with his "Address, To Those Who are Advocates for Holding the Africans in Slavery." The Black jeremiad was a sermonic form Blacks adopted from white Puritans warning of God's impending judgment on a sinful nation. In 1775, Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833), the first ordained black Congregational minister in New England, built upon Wheatley and Sarter's work by similarly composing poems and an antislavery essay attacking slavery on religious grounds.

At the same time, groups of Blacks also began petitioning the General Court, which helped galvanize other white activists to publicly voice their opposition to slavery and spurred the legislature to pass a bill preventing Massachusetts citizens from participating in the Atlantic slave trade. While the bill failed because of opposition from the royal governor, this group of African American petitioners distinguished itself by forming the first organized antislavery committee in the country. This group never incorporated like other antislavery organizations and when speaking of Blacks in the colony referred to themselves simply as "their committee." However, their work laid the foundation for the success of similar groups in the future.

It is no coincidence that the earliest known Black abolitionists in the country hailed from Massachusetts. The lingering influence of Puritanism on New England culture influenced both the rhetoric that Black writers employed and their very ability to exercise rights that slaves elsewhere could not. Puritan thought informed the antislavery writings of Wheatley, Sarter, and Haynes, all of whom spoke to orthodox ideas of divine sovereignty and God's covenant with his new chosen people. Even more significant, however, was the enduring influence of Puritan religious beliefs on the legal system in Massachusetts, specifically laws regarding rights that the enslaved could exercise. By basing its legal system on the Old Testament and giving bondsmen the right to bring petitions for redress of grievances and to initiate court cases, seventeenth-century Puritanism laid the foundation for the rise of Black activism during the revolutionary period. This activism, including the aforementioned petitions and freedom suits, would seriously cripple the institution of slavery in the state and lead to the General Court's prohibition on slave trading by Massachusetts residents.

Along with its role in the burgeoning antislavery movement, Puritanism influenced many facets of Massachusetts history during the colonial and revolutionary periods. Puritans were those persecuted members of the Church of England who decided to come to the New World in 1630 to establish what they termed a "wilderness Zion," or a godly society that could serve as an example to their brethren back in England. …

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