Let Justice Occur: Writings of American Abolitionists
A review of
Let Justice Happen: Writings of American Abolitionists, 1688-1865
Kerry Walters, ed.
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2020.
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Reviewed by Lynn Domina
Let Justice Be Done: Writings by American Abolitionists, 1688-1865, edited by Kerry Walters, contain editorial, speeches, poems, lyrics, and other types of writing by nearly three dozen individuals and groups, all based on Christian values to theirs Values to realize arguments. The authors range from well-known names such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass to those easily recognized by historians like William Lloyd Garrison and Lucretia Mott, to those like George Bourne and Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, which will be new to many readers. Some of the earlier writings contained here are particularly useful because so much discussion of abolitionism pays little attention to material written before 1830. The collection is compact yet thorough, and the introduction of the book and the introductory paragraphs for each entry provide sufficient contextual guidance for readers who are just beginning to study American abolitionism, and for those who have not recently Have dealt with the subject.
Walters reminds readers that abolitionist arguments were primarily religious, with Friends' Religious Society making the earliest and most sustainable arguments against slavery. Members of other Protestant denominations, individually and ultimately in the company, also raised their voices, often quoting the scriptures and relying on Orthodox Christian theology. (Of course, slave-friendly voices easily found support for their arguments in the Bible.) While this book focuses on Christian abolitionist writing and is published by a well-known Christian publisher, any collection of abolitionist scriptures would be hard to find ignoring religious perspectives.
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Partly because of the writers' trust in Christian tradition, many of the pieces are more abstract and philosophical than concrete and narrative. Some of them require more biblical or theological knowledge than the average American reader of the 21st century to be fully appreciated, but even in these cases Walters positions the entry professionally enough that contemporary readers can understand its meaning. For example, John Rankin's "Letters on American Slavery" is very exegetical and analyzes the use of words like "servant" or "slave" and "yoke" in the Bible to refute a slave-friendly biblical argument. Walters anticipates the readers' impatience with Rankin's level of detail and explains his decision to include this letter, referring to 19th century beliefs: “For a casual reader, Rankin's answer seems to be an exercise in philological nitpicking. But because the Bible was used so often to justify slavery, Rankin felt obliged to carefully examine the meaning of the words that Cameron (Rankin's letter recipient) had chosen. For a generation looking for moral guidance in Scripture, this clarity was critical ”(47).
Writing like Rankin's is balanced by the much more accessible texts "I plead for my people", the texts written by Sojourner Truth and the children's poem "The Anti-Slavery Alphabet" by Hannah and Mary Townsend. "F is for the heart-sick refugee," begins a verse and continues: "The slave who runs away and travels through the bleak night, but hides during the day" (109). By today's standards, this poem is surprisingly explicit for children's literature, rejects euphemisms for violence, and also refuses to apologize to children for complicity:
S is the sugar that is the slave
It's hard to make
To put in your cake and tea,
Your sweets and your cake. (111)
While many abolitionists, especially at the start of the movement, preferred a non-violent solution based on moral persuasion rather than violence, Walter's includes representative examples of proponents of violence, particularly John Brown, whose speech concluded his process with both biblical quotations and contains a language that suggests this The blood of the slaves is redeemed by the blood of the slave owners.
My only wish for this collection is that it include a greater variety of rhetoric. When it comes to persuasion, storytelling is at least as effective as analysis. Short extracts from John Woolman's diary or Frederick Douglass’s narrative could have complemented the more philosophical writing. Aside from this limitation, Let Justice Be Done offers a very good introduction to primary sources that influence the abolitionist movement.