Bonds of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism by Ben Wright. Louisiana State University Press, 2020. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0-8071-7389-3. $45.00.
Bonds of Salvation is the result of Ben Wright’s deeply personal “attempts to reconcile the inspiring piety and moral blind spots of the evangelical Christian community in which I was raised” (ix). The book speaks to modern social upheavals while illuminating with clarity how Christians in the past responded to slavery and abolitionism.
In this tightly and persuasively argued history, Wright argues that a tension between conversionism and purificationism animated American abolitionism. Conversionists believed that slavery would be eradicated through the gradual conversion of American society. In contrast, other abolitionists advocated purification; they believed that the evil of slavery must be ruthlessly and immediately eliminated (3). The conversionist impulse appealed to a majority of white Americans North and South. Around this principle, national denominations were built; they became powerful institutions that fostered nationalism during America’s early and most vulnerable period (201). Wright calls this nationalism the “bonds of salvation” (14).
During the nineteenth century, however, American theology shifted from Calvinism, with its belief that the world was fully ordained and controlled by God, to Armininianism, which emphasized human agency in conjunction with God (140-41). Abolitionists drew on this theology to assert that the American nation must be purified of slavery; the more radical, Garrisonian abolitionists of the 1830s went so far as to assert that slaveholders were sinners and could not participate in the work of salvation. Battle lines were thus drawn along this issue. Abolitionists within denominations advocated for purity and the expulsion of slaveholders; meanwhile, slaveholders claiming the mantle of conversionism demanded the expulsion of abolitionists (172-3). Pro-slavery ideology drew on the conversionist impulse, claiming that slavery afforded slaveholders the opportunity to extend salvation to their slaves. While most histories present Southerners as the true disunionists, Wright’s narrative challenges readers to realize that all Americans contributed to disunion. “Abolitionists took aim not only against slavery, but also against all that protected it. And that included the American union” (181). With denominations unable to mediate between abolitionists and slaveholders, they split along sectional lines, greatly damaging “one of the most powerful sources of American nationalism.” When denominations shattered, more pressure was put on other national bodies, especially political parties. Eventually, these bonds would fray and tear resulting in Civil War (199).
More than any other recent historian, Ben Wright has convincingly demonstrated the importance of denominations to the lives of early Americans and the nation as a whole. His strong and engaging history illuminates the tension between piety and social activism that continues to provoke debate within American society and Christian denominations. Future historians will not be able to write about American Christianity, abolitionism, or secession without incorporating Wright’s scholarship. Bonds of Salvationchallenges its readers to answer the question: “How can we find salvation from the inequalities and injustices that continue to haunt of communities, our nation, and our world?” (x) Indeed, the experience of nineteenth-century American Christians offers wisdom and warnings for the road ahead that we cannot afford to ignore.
Caleb W. Southern is a graduate student in the Department of History at Sam Houston State University.