Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) was a member of the Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a passionate abolitionist. He was influential in turning America’s founding generation against slavery and in America’s founding documents being colorblind, containing no mention of slavery nor any classifications based on race or skin color.
Rush was a Scot who earned his M.D. at the University of Edinburgh. After immigrating to the Thirteen Colonies, he served as Surgeon General for the Revolutionary Army. Not only was he one of Philadelphia’s leading citizens, he also served as Professor of Chemistry and Medical Theory at the University of Pennsylvania.
His Christian Faith
Rush was a devout Christian and his Christian worldview was the basis of his impassioned opposition to slavery. This worldview was based in creation and redemption—that all people were created equal by God and that Christ died to redeem all people to Himself.
Rush was also convinced that the American Republic could not survive apart from Christian values and morality. He once proposed inscribing John 3:17 above the doors of courthouses and other public buildings. The passage reads, The Son of Man Came into the World, Not To Destroy Men's Lives, But To Save Them.
Although he recognized the blight of slavery that continued in the South, Rush was convinced that America’s founding documents were a work of God. Careful not to put them on the same level as Scripture, he, nonetheless, said,
I do not believe that the Constitution was the offspring of inspiration, but I am as perfectly satisfied that the Union of the United States in its form and adoption is as much the work of a Divine Providence as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 155).
His Impassioned Fight Against Slavery
As a passionate abolitionist, Rush helped found in Philadelphia the first Abolition society in America. Rush’s influence is seen in the fact that Benjamin Franklin, one of the best known of America’s founders, joined this society and later served as its president.
In his crusade for abolition, Rush challenged the ministers of America to take a bold stand against slavery, which he called a “hydra sin.” He wrote,
But chiefly—ye ministers of the gospel, whose dominion over the principles and actions of men is so universally acknowledged and felt, - Ye who estimate the worth of your fellow creatures by their immortality, and therefore must look upon all mankind as equal; - let your zeal keep pace with your opportunities to put a stop to slavery. While you enforce the duties of “tithe and cumin,” neglect not the weightier laws of justice and humanity. Slavery is a Hydra sin and includes in it every violation of the precepts of the Laws and the Gospels. In vain will you command your flocks to offer up the incense of faith and charity, while they continue to mingle the sweat and blood of Negro slaves with their sacrifices. Remember, that national crimes require national punishments, and without declaring what punishment awaits this evil, you may venture to assure them, that it cannot pass with impunity, unless God shall cease to be just or merciful (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 100-01).
Rush came to the aid of the well-known black preacher and former slave, Richard Allen, when he and others walked out of the Methodist Church in Philadelphia when its white leaders decided to institute segregated seating.
Rush encouraged them, not just with words, but used his influence and his money to help them obtain property and put up a building. This was the beginning of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America. Allen later wrote,
We had waited on Dr. Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston, and told them of our distressing situation. We considered it a blessing that the Lord had put it into our hearts to wait upon those gentlemen. They pitied our situation, and subscribed largely towards the church, and were very friendly towards us and advised us how to go on . . . Dr. Rush did much for us in public by his influence. I hope the name of Dr. Benjamin Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston will never be forgotten among us. They were the two first gentlemen who espoused the cause of the oppressed and aided us in building the house of the Lord for the poor Africans to worship in. Here was the beginning and rise of the first African church in America (Hyatt, 1726:The Year that Defined America, 156).
His Christian Death
Rush once said, “I have alternately been called an Aristocrat and a Democrat. I am neither. I am a Christocrat.” His deep, Christ-centered faith is obvious in a letter he wrote to his wife during his final illness. He first addressed her personally, saying, “My excellent wife, I must leave you, but God will take care of you.” He then continued in what could be called a eulogy of praise to God, saying,
In the mystery of Thy holy incarnation, by Thy holy nativity; by Thy baptism, fasting, and temptation; by Thy agony and bloody sweat; by Thy cross and passion; by Thy precious death and burial; by Thy glorious resurrection and ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Spirit, blessed Jesus, wash away all my impurities, and receive me into Thy everlasting kingdom (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that DefinedAmerica, 156-57).
His Lasting Legacy
Yes, there were strong anti-slavery sentiments at the time of America’s founding, and no one expressed those sentiments more passionately than Benjamin Rush. He died in 1813 but his legacy lived on in the nineteenth century abolition movement and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. His legacy continues today in the nation’s ongoing march toward racial equity.
In his Autobiography, Rush attributed the development of his thinking and ideals to the preachers of the Great Awakening. This makes perfect sense, for in my book, 1726, I document the anti-slavery movement that arose out of the Awakening and how it was driven by the preachers of that Awakening.
Let us, therefore, pray for another Great Awakening across our land for such would do more than anything to bring racial justice, healing, and reconciliation. If he could speak, Dr. Benjamin Rush, America’s Abolitionist Founding Father, would certainly approve.
This article is derived from Dr. Eddie Hyatt’s book, 1726: The Year that Defined America, available from Amazon and his website at www.eddiehyatt.com.