A summary of John R. McKivigan's The War against Pro-Slavery Religion

Principal author:
John L. Clark

The development and strengthening of abolitionism in the North prior to the US war of 1861 portrays an intensifying moral commitment there. Even given the church schisms over slavery in the 1830s and 1840s, however, Northern churches remained ambivalent about antislavery activism, as John R. McKivigan shows in The War against Pro-Slavery Religion. Many abolitionists believed that slavery could only be successfully conquered by means of the church; they worked fervently in their churches to shift them to a position of radical antislavery, but the Northern churches resisted taking such a stand until the coming of the war.

This book carefully follows the various threads of the abolitionist campaign after it flared to life in the 1830s, focusing on their strategy of working within the churches to achieve antislavery ideals. McKivigan uses the principles of abolitionists associated with William Lloyd Garrison as a tool for evaluating other abolitionist efforts, largely because the Garrisonians scrutinized and criticized Northern churches intensely. Garrisonians were often seen as working outside of established churches; other abolitionists who remained committed to church membership became known as Christian abolitionists. Both groups used a large variety of strategies to try to leverage the moral influence of the churches to work towards the goal of immediate emancipation.

Instead of successfully recruiting the churches to their side, abolitionist agitation served primarily to polarize the issue and drive Southern churches to secede from the formerly national organizations. McKivigan argues that the antebellum church schisms did not actually represent a strong moral stance on slavery within the Northern churches; their leadership largely prioritized maintaining the broadest membership possible, up to the beginning and even well into the war. The rapid loss of commitment to Reconstruction goals further demonstrates that the churches were rocky soil for abolitionism, indeed.


John R. McKivigan. The War against Pro-Slavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830-1865. Cornell University Press, 1984.

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