They were the most hated men and women in America. All across the South, rewards were posted for their lives. Southern postmasters routinely collected their pamphlets from the mail and burned them. In the North, these radicals were mobbed, shouted down, beaten up. Their houses were burned, and their printing presses were destroyed. For thirty years, to the very eve of the Civil War, the word “abolitionist” was an insult.

Why Are They Forgotten?

After the Civil War, abolitionists were lionized. Then, soon, they were forgotten. They still are.

Schoolchildren learn about Lincoln and how he freed the slaves, but the men and women who carried the slaves’ cause for thirty years (and who viewed Lincoln through most of his first term as an amoral politician) go nearly unremembered. People know mainly of the abolitionists’ underground railroad, which they regarded as a sideshow. Helping escaping slaves did nothing, they felt, to get to the root of the problem. Abolitionists wanted to destroy slavery root and branch, not pick up its fallen leaves.

One reason abolitionists are forgotten is that they were inescapably Christian in their motives, means, and vocabulary. Not that all abolitionists were orthodox Christians, though a large proportion were. But even those who had left the church drew on unmistakably Christian premises, especially on one crucial point: slavery was sin. Sin could not be solved by political compromise or sociological reform, abolitionists maintained. It required repentance; otherwise America would be punished by God. This unpopular message rankled an America that was pushing west, full of self-important virtue as God’s darling.

It remains an unpopular message today. Popular American history finds it much easier to ...

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