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(RNS) As the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, PBS premieres "The Abolitionists," a three-part series, today.

Documentarian Rob Rapley, the writer and director of the series, talked with Religion News Service about the role religion played in the lives of the abolitionists.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you sum up the role of faith in the work of American abolitionists?

It was a time in which religion played a central role in American life with the Second Great Awakening. Every one of the abolitionists was shaped very much by their faith. In fact, they would have defined themselves first by their faith before any other category.

Many of the abolitionists were driven by the notion that slaveholding was sinful. How did their opponents respond?

One of the most difficult things to comprehend about this story is the degree to which slavery was an accepted part of American life. It was sanctioned in the Bible, certainly all over the place in the Old Testament, so slaveholders used that as justification.

Some abolitionists talked about "moral suasion." How did that affect their arguments against slavery?

They really resorted to this idea of converting people. Since that was a central part of the evangelical movement that was sweeping the country at the time, they thought, "Well why not? If people can be converted to faith then why can they not be converted to anti-slavery?"

How would you describe some of the religious views of abolitionists such as John Brown?

As John Brown saw it, God had a plan for him, that life was predestined and, especially, that you had to make sense of your afflictions. As John Brown's ...

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PBS Series Depicts American Abolitionists as Fired by Faith
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