Historians have noted that slavery, although practiced for thousands of years by many peoples and civilizations, suddenly became anathema in 18th century America. The late historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese observed, “Perception of slavery as morally unacceptable — as sinful — did not become widespread until the second half of the eighteenth century.”
Among those who turned against slavery in the 18th century were America’s founders. The brilliant scholar, Dr. Thomas Sowell, who happens to be black, has confirmed this, saying,
Slavery was just not an issue, not even among intellectuals, much less among political leaders, until the 18th century–and then it was an issue only in Western civilization. Among those who turned against slavery in the 18th century were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other American leaders. You could research all of 18th century Africa or Asia or the Middle East without finding any comparable rejection of slavery there (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 90).
Dr. Walter Williams, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, has said that the unique characteristic of slavery in America was not only the brevity of its existence, but also the “moral outrage” against it. This “moral outrage” had far-reaching effects and impacted America’s Founding Fathers. But what was the source of this sudden moral outrage against slavery?
The Source of the Moral Outrage Against Slavery
The source of this sudden moral outrage against slavery is to be found in what became known as the Great Awakening. In this Christian revival that ebbed and flowed from 1726 to 1770, it seemed that entire towns repented and turned to God. In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin described the amazing transformation of his hometown of Philadelphia in 1739. He wrote,
It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 79).
Out of this revival there emerged a deep concern for the those who did not know Christ. As a result, many evangelists began taking the message of salvation to the marginalized of society, including blacks, both slave and free. Their ministries breached racial and cultural barriers and they saw many come to Christ. Black preachers and churches emerged out of this Awakening, as well as the moral outrage against slavery, which the historians above have noted.
From Evangelism to Social Transformation
At the beginning of the Great Awakening in 1726, outreach to the black populace was evangelistic in nature and not characterized by opposition to slavery. Those early preachers, such as George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennant, and Jonathan Edwards, saw their primary purpose to be in getting people ready for the next world, not necessarily improving their lot in this one. In their thinking, a slave on his way to heaven was far better off than a king on his way to hell.
Nonetheless, their insistence on sharing the Gospel with all people and their willingness to share Christian fellowship with blacks, both slave and free, breached racial and cultural barriers in Colonial America. Also, the inclusive Gospel message they preached, and their compassionate treatment of blacks, created a climate conducive to the anti-slavery sentiments that would burst forth through those who would come after them.
Second Generation Awakening Preachers Attack Slavery
Indeed, the revivalists who came after Edwards and Whitefield carried the message of their predecessors to its logical conclusion. If we are all creatures of the same Creator and if Christ died that all might be saved, then how can slavery ever be justified?
They, therefore, began a vicious attack on the institution of slavery. This is what historian, Benjamin Hart, was referring to when he wrote, “Among the most ardent opponents of slavery were ministers, particularly the Puritan and revivalist preachers (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 92).
These "ardent opponents of slavery" included the followers of Jonathan Edwards who expanded on his idea of the essential dignity of all created beings and applied it to the blacks of Colonial America. They included Levi Hart in Connecticut, Edwards’ son, Jonathan Jr., also in Connecticut, Jacob Green in New Jersey, and Samuel Hopkins in Rhode Island.
The Hypocrisy of Demanding Liberty and Tolerating Slavery
Samuel Hopkins (1721–1803), who had been personally tutored by Edwards, pastored for a time in Newport, Rhode Island, an important hub in the transatlantic slave trade. Like Paul, whose spirit was “provoked” observing the idols in Athens, Hopkins was outraged by what he observed in Newport. He, therefore, began to passionately speak out against this "violation of God’s will” and declared, “This whole country have their hands full of blood this day" (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 92).
After the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, Hopkins sent a pamphlet to every member of the Congress, asking how they could complain about “enslavement” to Great Britain and overlook the “enslavement” of so many blacks in the colonies.
Indeed, as “liberty” became a watchword throughout the colonies, these second-generation Awakening preachers began applying it to the enslaved blacks in America. Like Hopkins, they pointed out the hypocrisy of demanding freedom from Great Britain while enslaving black Africans. One of the most vocal was the Baptist preacher, John Allen, who thundered,
Blush ye pretended votaries of freedom! ye trifling Patriots! who are making a vain parade of being advocates for the liberties of mankind, who are thus making a mockery of your profession by trampling on the sacred natural rights and privileges of Africans (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 156).
The opposition to slavery thus mounted as other ministers of the Awakening began to speak out. For example, in a sermon preached and published in 1770, Samuel Cooke declared that by tolerating the evil of slavery, “We, the patrons of liberty, have dishonored the Christian name, and degraded human nature nearly to a level with the beasts that perish” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 93).
God Speaks to Freeborn Garrettson
Freeborn Garrettson (1752-1827), a revivalist from Maryland, freed his slaves after hearing God speak to him supernaturally. According to Garrettson, he heard the Lord say, “It is not right for you to keep your fellow creatures in bondage; you must let the oppressed go free.” Garrettson immediately informed his slaves that they did not belong to him and that he did not desire their services without giving them proper compensation.
Garrettson began preaching against slavery and advocating for freedom, which provoked intense opposition, especially in the South. One enraged slave-owner came to the house where Garrettson was lodging and swore at him, threatened him, and punched him in the face. Garrettson did not retaliate but sought to reason with the man who finally gave up and left.
Garrettson took his message to North Carolina where he preached to black audiences and sought to “inculcate the doctrine of freedom in them.” His opposition to slavery was firmly rooted in the Gospel and he described a typical meeting with slaves in which,
Many of their sable faces were bedewed with tears, their withered hands of faith were stretched out, and their precious souls made white in the blood of the Lamb (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 95).
Garrettson also preached to southern white audiences and sought to convince them of the evils of slavery and that God’s will was liberty for all His creatures. In Delaware, Garrettson visited the Stokeley Sturgis Plantation and preached to both the slaves and the Sturgis family. He was able to convince Sturgis that slavery is a sin and Sturgis began making arrangements for his slaves to obtain freedom.
Richard Allen Founds the AME
One of the slaves who obtained his freedom from the Sturgis Plantation was Richard Allen. Allen, who had been converted under the ministry of a Methodist preacher, became a very successful evangelist to both black and white audiences. In 1784, he preached for weeks in Radnor, Pennsylvania, to mostly white audiences and recalled hearing them say, “This man must be a man of God; I have never heard such preaching before” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 95-96).
Allen became close friends with Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence. As the Awakening waned, the Methodist Church in Philadelphia, of which Allen was a member, decided to segregate congregational seating according to race. When Allen and other blacks walked out, Rush came to their aid and assisted them in obtaining property and establishing their own congregation. They established Bethel Methodist Church out which came the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination. Concerning this Founding Father, Allen wrote,
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).
In recognition of his leadership and preaching, Allen was ordained as the first black Methodist minister by Francis Asbury in 1799. Because of his pervasive influence in early America, Paul Strand, senior Washington D.C. correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, has called Allen, “America’s Black Founding Father.”
America’s Founders Are Impacted
As a result of the Great Awakening, founders such as John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and others from the North became passionate abolitionists. In fact, opposition to slavery was so strong in the North that, when the separation from England came in 1776, several states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York immediately took steps to abolish slavery—something they could not do under George III.
Because of the power of the Awakening, and the “moral outrage” it produced against slavery, virtually every founder, even if he did not live up to it, would agree with John Adams who wrote,
Every measure of prudence . . . ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States. I have throughout my whole life held the practice of slavery in abhorrence (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 101).
Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician who signed the Declaration of Independence, was a passionate abolitionist and helped found in Philadelphia the first Abolition Society in America. In his advocacy for Abolition, he challenged the ministers of America to take a strong 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 (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 101).
Benjamin Franklin was obviously impacted by the Great Awakening and his friendship with George Whitefield, the most famous preacher of the Great Awakening. Influenced also, no doubt, by his fellow Philadelphian, Benjamin Rush, Franklin released his two slaves in 1785 and began to advocate for Abolition. He joined the Abolition Society in Philadelphia and later served as its president.
George Washington was born in the South and inherited a large plantation with numerous slaves. No doubt influenced by the Great Awakening and its embrace of black America, Washington, while serving as commander-in-chief of the Colonial Army, welcomed free blacks into the ranks. This resulted in one in every six soldiers being of African descent. Blacks and whites fought together for freedom from Great Britain.
Confronted with the inconsistency of a Christian testimony with owning slaves, Washington, set up a compassionate program to completely disentangle Mt. Vernon from the institution of slavery. Those slaves who wanted to leave were free to do so. Those who chose to remain were paid wages, and he began a program to educate and prepare the children of slaves for freedom. He declared,
I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 103).
So pervasive was the influence of the Awakening that even those founders in the South who were slave-owners had to admit that it was wrong and sinful. Patrick Henry (1736-1799), for example, spoke out passionately against slavery in a letter to the Virginia Quaker, Robert Pleasants, who had sent him an anti-slavery tract. In his response, Henry agreed with Pleasants and said that slavery is “as repugnant to humanity, as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive of liberty.”
He then, however, admitted his own sin, saying, “Would anyone believe I am the master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 101-02).
The founders, in general, believed that since nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next life, they must be in this one. It was in the context of this understanding, and the fact that the southern states had been allowed into the Union while keeping their slaves, that Thomas Jefferson expressed the following deep and solemn concern. He wrote,
God who gave us life, gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that His justice cannot sleep forever (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 125).
Constitutional Concessions and Accomplishments
During the debates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, concessions were made to the southern, slave-holding states in order to bring them into the Union. There was concern that if they were not included, they would form alliances with Great Britain or other European powers and be a thorn in the of side of the new nation.
There was also concern with what would happen if millions of slaves were suddenly freed who were unprepared for freedom. Commenting on the decision to allow the southern, slave-holding states into the Union, Thomas Sowell says,
But don’t pretend that it was an easy answer—or that those who grappled with the dilemma in the 18th century were some special villains when most leaders and most people around the world saw nothing wrong with slavery. Deciding that slavery was wrong was much easier than deciding what to do with millions of people from another continent, of another race, and without any historical preparation for living as free citizens in a society like that of the United States, where they were 20 percent of the population. It is clear from the private correspondence of Washington, Jefferson, and many others that their moral rejection of slavery was unambiguous, but the practical question of what to do now had them baffled. That would remain so for more than half a century (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 102)..
One area the abolitionist founders would not concede was in the language of the Constitution, which would become the nation’s primary legal document. They insisted there should be no mention of slavery and no classifications based on race or skin color. Instead of classifications based on race or skin color, the Constitution speaks of “people,” “citizens,” and “other people.”
There is nothing to suggest that the liberties guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution do not apply to every American citizen. This is why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I Have a Dream” speech, would say,
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
As the primary legal instrument for the new nation, the Constitution laid the foundation for the ending of slavery on the American continent. Although it would take a Second Great Awakening (ca. 1800- 1830), a Great Prayer Awakening (1857-58), and a Civil War (1861-1865) to bring final closure, slavery’s end was sealed in that First Great Awakening that swept Colonial America.
There is no question that it was the influence of the Great Awakening that turned America’s Founding Fathers against slavery.
We Must Have Another Great Awakening
America is in desperate need of another Great Awakening. The tragic killing of Floyd George has opened old wounds that were only “slightly healed.” The nation is reeling, and no political party can save us. The Democrats cannot save us. The Republicans cannot save us. Neither Trump nor Biden can save us. Only Jesus can save us.
Although America’s founding was not perfect, there are vital lessons we can learn from that generation. For example, in times of crises, the founding generation turned to prayer. That is why, during the Revolutionary War, at least 15 separate calls for days of prayer and repentance were issued by the Continental Congresses.
Samuel Adams (1722–1803), known as The Father of the American Revolution, issued such a call for prayer and fasting while serving as governor of Massachusetts. Adams, who was a passionate abolitionist, proclaimed April 2, 1795 to be a Day of Fasting and Prayer for both Massachusetts and America. The words of that Proclamation reveal the profound depth of faith in America’s founding generation and shows how they saw their civil liberty tied to their faith in God. It reads in part:
Calling upon the Ministers of the Gospel, of every Denomination, with their respective Congregations, to assemble on that Day, and devoutly implore the Divine forgiveness of our Sins, To pray that the Light of the Gospel, and the rights of Conscience, may be continued to the people of United America; and that his Holy Word may be improved by them, so that the name of God may be exalted, and their own Liberty and Happiness secured (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 104).
This article is derived from Dr. Eddie Hyatt's latest book, 1726, available from Amazon and his website at www.eddiehyatt.com. He is also the founder of the "1726 Project" whose goal is to spread the message of America's unique birth out of the First Great Awakening and call on believers everywhere to pray for another Great Awakening across the land.