The history of abolition shows that sometimes excess leads to success.

Remember Barry Goldwater? Nominated for President by the Republican party in 1964, he probably lost the election in the five seconds it took to deliver these words: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

A teenager at the time, I couldn’t understand the fuss he caused. Gold-water’s assertion seemed perfectly logical to me. He had not said he would drop the atom bomb, only that he would go all out for what he believed.

Now, a little older, I understand what worried people. It was that word, extremism. Extremists are people who go looking for a fight. They see the world as a moral battlefield, with themselves as the last line of defense at Armageddon. Make them your leaders, and you can plan on being dragged into one quarrel after another.

Some friends of mine belonged to a church that had long displayed an American flag. Then, at a congregational meeting, a leading member made a passionate motion that the flag be removed. He saw it as a symbol declaring God an American, and the church an American institution.

As much as the congregation agreed that Christian faith was quite different from American patriotism, they were not anxious to remove the American flag. That would be understood as a symbol, too—a symbol of rejecting America. They would rather the issue had never been raised, but as my friend said, when someone makes such a motion, you’re forced to respond.

So a compromise was suggested: Why not add the “Christian” flag to the sanctuary’s decoration? No, countered the motion’s sponsor, that would simply suggest that Christianity and Americanism were parallel and equal loyalties. Could that be solved by putting the Christian flag higher than the American flag? For a moment the congregation breathed found a compromise. Then someone said it was illegal to display any flag higher than the American flag. Another suggestion: Why not put the two flags on the same level but place a piece of paper under the stand holding up the Christian flag? The debate, which led nowhere, consumed several meetings of the congregation. Some people left the church over it.

That’s how it is with extremists. Whether in doctrine, politics, or morality, they will force you to take sides on their issues the way they frame them. They won’t let you claim other priorities or allow gray areas to stay gray: Every effort must be made for purity. People who try to see other points of view end up looking like pusillanimous compromisers.

Article continues below

Operation Rescue is a contemporary example. It is undoubtedly an extreme organization that draws extreme reactions. OR’s leaders point out that the issue is extreme: Babies are being killed by the millions. Still, many who hate abortion feel leery of OR’s style of confrontation. They don’t think it’s necessary to break the law, or to block doors or to accuse women of murder, to oppose abortion. They think such tactics are counterproductive, letting abortion-rights advocates come off as the moderate and peaceful side, while ironically making prolifers seem harsh and condemnatory.

In short, OR is extreme. Extremism is no way to win the allegiance of those in the middle.

The Great Campaign

I shy away from extremists. I have seen too many churches and communities disrupted by their all-or-nothing campaigns and have heard too many discussions stopped cold by their yes-or-no alternatives. Lately I have had second thoughts, though, due to my readings in abolitionist history. The campaign to eradicate slavery was, I believe, the most important social movement in American history. That is because it tackled race, America’s most trenchant and tragic social problem. Yet the men and women who launched this altruistic social movement were almost universally hated. For 30 years, abolitionist was a curse word in most parts of America, and for one simple reason: abolitionists were extremists.

The problem was not that abolitionists opposed slavery, per se. Many Americans believed that slavery had to end—that it was finally incompatible with a nation built on freedom. Most wanted it to go away gradually, though, and painlessly (to whites, that is). They offered many schemes for buying out slaveholders and sending the freed African-Americans elsewhere—back to Africa, to Mexico, to the West. These schemes were hopelessly impractical, not to say racist, since blacks did not want to go. But plans to export blacks were resurrected many times.

Other Americans hoped that slavery would simply wither away, as an outmoded and inefficient way of organizing labor. They theorized that slavery only worked in large-scale tropical farming, so that if contained in the Deep South, it would eventually wear out the soil and die. Abraham Lincoln was a typical progressive American in these regards. He was still dreaming of colonization schemes during the Civil War. Never willing to propose eliminating slavery, he drew the line at extending slavery into new states. Most of all, he believed that preserving the Union was more important than doing away with slavery. He was, in short, no abolitionist—and no extremist.

Article continues below

Abolitionists, by contrast, demanded an immediate end to slavery. To them, slavery was not an unfortunate and outmoded institution: It was sin. To the gradualists they asked: Do your preachers ask drunkards and adulterers to gradually repent of their sins? Those entangled in the sin of slavery—even secondhand, through commerce or politics—were in league with hell, and would go to hell unless they repented.

The language of sin is extreme language. As William Lloyd Garrison put it famously in the first issue of his newspaper, The Liberator, “On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of a ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

That was Garrison in a good mood. He could be famously vituperative. Fellow abolitionists who disagreed with him were called traitors, liars, cheats. Garrison’s allies marched, shouting, into church services, demanding to be heard until they were forcibly removed. For one July Fourth celebration, Garrison burned a copy of the United States Constitution. Such tactics dismayed most abolitionists, but, as usual, extreme tactics made the headlines and labeled the whole movement.

There was great debate within abolitionism whether Garrison’s tactics did more harm than good. To those outside the movement, however, abolitionists were extremists with or without Garrison’s methods.

Southerners were terrified of slave rebellions. Northerners were worried about peace in their fast-growing, immigrant-filled cities. Abolitionists knew they would draw violent reactions, but they continued to call meetings and distribute tracts, glorying in the disturbances that inevitably followed. Theodore Weld, a leading abolitionist, was proudly known as “the most mobbed man in America.”

Uncounted Northern towns were disturbed and divided by abolitionist meetings and the stone-throwing and jeering mobs they provoked. In New York City, mobs trashed abolitionist Lewis Tappan’s house and destroyed homes and churches of African-Americans. In Illinois, one press after another belonging to Elijah Lovejoy was thrown into the river until he defended one and was shot and killed.

Article continues below
Losing The Moral Argument

Abolitionists never gained a majority. Their attempts to win the moral argument—to convince slaveholders to repent—ended in complete failure. In fact, the more abolitionists argued, the more intransigent Southerners became. When abolitionism began in 1830, plenty of Southerners would admit that slavery was wrong. The Virginia legislature even held an extended debate on the subject in 1832. A few years later someone opposing slavery was likely to be run out of the South, if not killed. Abolitionism destroyed dialogue.

Their agitation threatened more than domestic peace, it endangered the nation. The Constitution, just four decades old when abolition began, had steered a careful, compromising course around the issue of slavery. Without such compromise, the nation might never have been born. Americans began to fear that the abolitionists would push the nation to an early death. They would not compromise, yet without compromise, how could a nation built on compromise endure?

Finally, of course, their great fear came true: America split and fought a war. And yet—above all this turmoil, division, and death—one obdurate fact remains: 30 years after the abolitionists began their crusade as a tiny, hated, extremist minority, slavery ceased. Millions of men and women in bondage went free. The nation was redefined as one built on liberty and equality, not compromise. Was it worth the cost of war? Abolitionists, and many other Americans, believed so.

It is true that freedom came through a complicated series of events, largely military, in which abolitionists played little or no role. Some historians would even doubt that abolitionists deserve credit for abolition. To my mind, however, a simple mental experiment proves this incorrect. Mentally subtract abolitionists from American history. What happens? There is then no growing sense of urgency about slavery in the North, no cause for irascible and aggressive behavior by the South, no need for Northern politicians to take any stand on slavery (they resisted this strenuously), no antislavery aspect to the Republican party, no reason for secession and the Civil War, little or no popular support for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

A volcanic eruption may be caused by peculiar conditions in the site’s geological strata, but no volcano erupts unless there is first molten lava straining the surface of the earth. The abolitionists were that molten lava. They disturbed the peace so much and so often that their cause became the chief cause and tormentor of America. They would not let slavery be, and so, ultimately, our nation could not let it be.

Article continues below

Some suggest that slavery would have ended, inevitably, through the progress of liberal ideas. Without the abolitionists’ extremism, they say, slavery might have been eliminated without the Civil War, and a constructive solution to the troubles of race found. Perhaps so. That is always the hope of moderates, who choose against extremism: perhaps sense and good will can prevail.

Those who hope this, however, should ask whether such progress is at all sure. Might slavery have continued indefinitely, or grown even more inhuman and malignant, without radical opposition? There is nothing inevitable about progress. Comparing the history of the United States with that of South Africa or Germany should cure anyone of such an idea.

I have grown less quick to criticize extremists. Not every cause, surely, deserves the pure and uncompromising fervor they bring. Yet certainly some do. Without the irritation of extremism, many of these causes would be forgotten, because it is so much easier to forget them than to face them.

The Heart Of Fulton County Prison

If the Fulton County Prison in Atlanta were a human body, I had entered with a guard at its mouth, was squeezed through a maze of intestines, and now had emerged at what might be a kidney: a deep cavity holding men whom society often considers excrement.

I was gazing through thick glass into a holding tank, where about 25 men in blue scrub suits spend their day reading a paper or playing cards. As I enter, a lanky guy with a gaunt, pale face and curly, subshoulder hair walks toward me. “Hi, I’m Bryan,” he says. His scraggly beard seems to suggest: This is the best my 24-year-old hormones can do.

At the time of my visit, Bryan Long-worth has already served four months of a year sentence for “criminal trespassing” at an Atlanta abortion clinic. He is a member of Missionaries to the Preborn, which evolved from Operation Rescue.

Their philosophy is that the American church may not understand or savor civil disobedience, but it does understand missionary work, which they believe rescuing to be. And when they are not rescuing, they believe God has called them to another little-noticed group: convicts. They derive support—like other missionaries—from churches.

Article continues below

“We are looking for people who will be arrested, go to jail, get arrested again, go to jail,” Joseph Foreman, a prolife minister, said at a 1989 meeting Bryan attended. Bryan heeded the call in February of 1990 and as of last July had spent a total of six months in prison. “Because of the current distress,” as Bryan calls it, he has chosen not to marry. He will rescue or sit in jail until abortion is not legal. Then, he says, he wants to work helping mothers who choose to carry to full term.

We sit down at a steel picnic table. His eyes look straight on, brown and clear. I wonder if he knows that many evangelicals think he is absolutely tilted, that he is “taking this too far,” or that he is pacifying some inner guilt. He says he does. “Sometimes it’s disheartening that not many people understand what we are doing. This is basically historic, biblical Christianity.”

His yellow ID tag reads 9210278.

“Hey, Bryan!” Patrick, a shoplifter, approaches and sits down by us. “How have you been?” Bryan asks him. “You been reading your Bible?” Patrick says yes. Patrick roomed with Bryan once, during another of Bryan’s sentences. “He’s very well-known around the jail,” Patrick says. “I think he is doing a pretty righteous thing.”

To those who say of Bryan’s rescue efforts, “What a waste,” consider: “I’ve been able to disciple 35 guys.” Five to eight attend Bryan’s daily Bible study. He encourages them to read through the New Testament once a month.

Another guard unlocks the tank and takes Patrick away. This is no kidney; this tank is a heart chamber, with Bryan’s blood pumping fast through it.

Here Bryan is, giving up trips to Baskin Robbins, playing his electric bass, attending the charismatic church in Florida pastored by his father (who supports his efforts)—even dating.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth life,” he explains. Bryan lives in a concrete-and-glass tank; rises at 5:30 A.M. when his captors say rise; eats when and what they tell him to; bathes at their whim. And when he gets out, Bryan returns to the abortion clinic, and is thusly returned to the tank.

Two hours gone, I call for a guard to come lead me out. As I leave, Bryan says, “It’s pretty straightforward to me. There are babies that are dying. God tells me to save them. I’ve got to do that as long as it is possible.”

By Joe Maxwell.

Losing Faith

Our times tempt people to extremism. Many feel our country going wrong, and yet the traditional avenues of change—politics, community organization—seem paralyzed, immune to moral reasoning. So young families kneel to be arrested outside abortion clinics, and young professionals shout down government officials they think care too little about AIDS. Those attracted to extremism should, however, understand the costs.

Article continues below

Extremism disturbs the peace, destroys dialogue, polarizes the community, and scares off moderates who might make a compromise possible. All these costs are amply illustrated by the abolitionists. So is a subtler, more personal cost: the personal pain of grievous, faith-shaking failure.

Many if not most abolitionists were evangelical Christians applying the faith they had gained in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. The evangelist Charles Finney had a direct influence on several of the most prominent abolitionist leaders and upon scores, if not thousands, of abolitionist footsoldiers. So it is a sad fact, and a warning, that a good many abolitionists lost their evangelical faith. Theodore Weld, for example, who was a Finney convert, drifted to a vague faith in high-minded thought. Some, of course, like businessman Lewis Tappan, kept a persistent, evangelical faith to the end of their lives, and they may well have been the majority. Nevertheless, the losses of faith must give pause, for they were many, afflicting some of the most prominent leaders.

Abolitionists lost faith at least partly because of the church’s mealy-mouthed response to their cause. Churches, while admitting (in the North) that slavery was wrong, were not quick to adopt abolitionist measures. Some churches, to be sure, refused Communion to slaveholders, but most did not. Some churches broke relations with missionary organizations, like the American Tract Society, that refused to condemn slavery, but most churches did not. Some churches accepted blacks and whites equally, but most did not. (Even Charles Finney drew the line at that.) As institutions, churches were quite timid. This embittered the abolitionists. Even Tappan, arguing with Weld against giving up on churches, admitted, “The Gospel is either not understood by the generality of ministers and lay professors, or it is dreadfully disregarded.”

Related to this, many abolitionists became so caught up in the antislavery cause that subtly, gradually, they substituted the cause for Christ. They began by judging their fellow Christians for failing to support their cause, and they ended by judging Christianity.

Article continues below

They experienced nearly a lifetime of frustration. The young men and women of 1830 grew old. They saw few triumphs, and even their final victory over slavery came in the worst possible way—by war. Their great Christian idealism, fostered by Finney’s optimistic theology, was dealt hard blow after hard blow.

Faith linked too closely to a cause, and without an adequate respect for the gravity of sin, is vulnerable. It was for abolitionists, and it will be for other extremists. They will be able to prove to their own satisfaction that the church must join their cause, but the church will mainly remain on the sidelines. The church ought to be radical, but as an institution, it very rarely is. It will often frustrate extremists.

So will events. Extreme causes seldom succeed, and almost never do they succeed speedily or purely. The world stubbornly refuses to be improved. Extremists will suffer frustration, and the better and purer their cause, the more galling their frustration will be. If they build their lives and their faith too close to the success of their cause, they will end up embittered people, their lives and faith shattered by the obduracy of the world. Somehow faith in Christ must be held deeper and more precious than the cause.

Extremism Or Moderation?

I wonder sometimes whether I have the discernment to know what is worth dying for, and the courage to stick to it to the end. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” wrote Tertullian, and what is a martyr if not an extremist? Could I, like Bonhoeffer, have stood against the Nazis? Would I, like Luther, have said, “Here I stand”? Had I lived in the 1830s, would I have stood against slavery with other abolitionists?

Looking backwards, their course seems clear. At the time it was anything but. How do we make such choices—extremism or moderation?

Some people seem drawn to extremes by their own temperament. Others prefer caution. They see the risk of giving their lives to a futile cause, of dividing families and churches over a doctrinal tittle.

They are right to be careful. Before leading a church split, or shattering a school district, or insisting on a particular dividing line between truth and error, we do well to count the cost. As James says, “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving” (3:17, NIV). Purity and peace do sometimes conflict, but not so often as some people think.

Yet we also need another kind of care: not to become so disturbed by turmoil and division that we rule out extreme action. Our Lord, after all, proclaimed that he came not to bring peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, and the world does not change without turmoil. Extremists are often the irritant that drives change—the spur in the horse’s flank.

Article continues below

In church, in politics, in community life, we can appreciate the significance of extremists without necessarily joining them. They will never be popular. They can, however, do great good, by forcing us to see with their eyes the outrage that is going on.

You do not choose extremism because you admire its tactics; you choose extremism because you feel you have no choice. For each of us, a time and an issue may come that calls us to extremes. Haunted by the ambiguity of the situation, mindful of the costs, I pray that I will hear and heed that call.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.