It’s pretty commonly understood that religion had a rather schizophrenic relationship with slavery. Some denominations and clerics endorsed it, citing Biblical exhortations for slaves to “obey their masters.” Others were abolitionist pioneers. One finds, with almost everything, that religion’s role was contingent upon many other factors: location and economics, to name just two. The first in what will likely be multiple entries centering on religion.
Many scholars have pointed to New England’s Puritan legacy as a reason for the milder treatment of Northern slaves. Lorenzo Greene refers to the institution as a “stewardship” and the relationship between Bay State masters and their chattel as “patriarchal.” At first glance this might seem true; black New Englanders had the right to life and property, police protection, legal counsel, and the ability to inherit from their masters.
On the other hand New England slaves could also be sold on a whim. Furthermore, by the end of the 17th century, increasingly stringent laws were being passed that greatly curtailed the freedom of blacks living in New England. As we’ve seen in previous entries Puritans were no more enlightened on the subject of race as their counterparts elsewhere in the colonies. Besides, a recurrant theme in slave narratives — Douglass, Jacobs and Equiano, among others — is an indictment of religion as one of the notable frauds of the slave system. “Christianity is made a cloak to fill their coffers and screen their villainy,” wrote one slave to the editor of the Massachusetts Spy.
As time went on the Puritan influence in New England would decline further and further, its primary vestige being what Weber might call an emphasis on the “ever increasing balance sheet.” Wealth and commercial success would become the prime indicator of prestige. Isaac Royall certainly exemplified that attitude in his far-reaching trading ventures and projected it by erecting his Georgian manse by the shores of the Mystic.
Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Roger Williams’ (whose name you may remember from Family Guy) experiment in religious tolerance had given rise to diverse and powerful religious communities. America’s first Baptist Church was founded in Providence and the Quakers, rather than being persecuted as they were in Massachusetts, emerged as a powerful political and social force. John Brown’s wife’s family was likely Quaker; that might even have been an incentive to marry her.
An “intermarriage” between a Baptist man and a Quaker woman would likely not have caused all that much of a fuss in tolerant Providence. Besides, the two faiths were not all that different back then. Neither one was yet officially abolitionist, and both had their roots in 17th century English dissention (Baptism being the more Calvinist of the two). Besides, in the colonial era, one wasn’t a Baptist until one actually experienced “grace;” a direct moment of epiphany due to contact with the divine and therefore a guarantor of one’s preordained salvation. Calvinist, remember?
Considering the fluidity that did occur among various religious sects in Providence, and between the then very similar Baptist and Quaker faiths, Moses Brown’s conversion was likely not all that earth-shaking. It’s quite likely he grew up around Quakers and had received a Quaker-ish education. What was more striking was his devotion to abolitionism, which he would embrace along with his fellow Friends.
Meanwhile John Brown would embrace the Enlightenment idea of a divine clockmaker along with his fellow patriots as well as their devotion to thinkers such as Rousseau. Religious concerns would have been a non-issue for him, particularly with regard to anti-slavery sentiments. Hell — the Baptist Church’s eventual embrace of abolitionism was the reason for his departure from it.
So why did the Quakers, the Baptists, et al catch the abolition fever? Well, like so many other things it was likely the sordid topic of coin. Unlike the Southern US New England never developed a plantation economy. You just can’t plant large scale crops in rocky soil. New England agriculture never really went beyond grocery colonies. Even Rhode Island, which had actual plantations, never went too far beyond an indirect involvement with the Triangle Trade.
So we’re back to economics. There’s no doubt that many abolitionists were deeply motivated and moved by their spiritual and moral convictions, and were all the more heroic because of it. Institutions as a whole, however, tend to strike strong ethical positions only when it’s economically feasible to do so. At least from where I’m sitting.