“We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society

The 1857 meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Convention leveled a number of critiques, including the Dred Scott decision, the Republican Party, and the local newspaper. But the topic that took up the largest amount of discussion was the American Tract Society. William Lloyd Garrison introduced several resolutions condemning the ATS, as well as a full length speech on the floor, which contain a profound critique of American Christianity. Unfortunately, it appears that this material has been resting silent in the archived pages of The Liberator, so in an effort to let Garrison “be heard!” again, I’ve transcribed and formatted them here:

New England Anti-Slavery Convention meeting minutes:

Speech of William Lloyd Garrison

Background and Significance

The controversy surrounding the American Tract Society (ATS) was of such prominence that Abraham Lincoln referenced it in the Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858: “What has jarred and shaken the great American Tract Society recently, not yet splitting it but sure to divide it in the end?” (The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, 479). The ATS was formed in 1814 in Boston, and another branch was formed in New York in 1825 (A Brief History of the American Tract Society). The two organizations then partnered together, and was known generally as a single organization that published tens of thousands of tracts each year and distributed them through a network of colporters in every part of the country.

The ATS was interdenominational, including Baptists like Francis Wayland and Presbyterians like Charles Hodge. Thus, they avoided publishing on denominational questions (like baptism) instead focusing on the doctrinal issues that “all evangelical Christians” could agree on. The organization was also national in its scope–its leadership, financial support, and fields of service–and thus also avoided any political questions that “all evangelical Christians” could not agree on, including slavery.

In the minds of abolitionists, the ATS was one of the most prominent examples of the compromise and complicity of the American church with the evil of chattel slavery. Abolitionists intensely critiqued the ATS for years for editing out any reference to slavery from the material they printed, while publishing on an array of “sins” that didn’t enjoy unanimous support from “all evangelical Christians,” including dancing, card-playing, alcohol, and tobacco.

The pressure on the ATS built throughout the 1850s, and in 1856 they appointed a “Special Committee” to investigate the Publishing Committee’s position on slavery. The Special Committee was a compromise group including some moderate anti-slavery figures like Francis Wayland and some pro-slavery figures. They quickly reached a resolution, which they proposed at the May 13, 1857 annual meeting (Thirty-Second Annual Report of the American Tract Society). Just two weeks later, the New England Anti-Slavery Society met at the Melodeon in Boston, and William Lloyd Garrison had a few things to say.

I find this material significant for several reasons.

  • It sheds fresh light on one of the most prominent anti-slavery struggles of the day, the controversy in the ATS. These speeches are not referenced in the standard treatments of the controversy, including John McKivigan’s The War Against Proslavery Religion, Clifford Griffin, “The Abolitionists and the Benevolent Societies, 1831-1861” (JStor), or even Henry Mayer’s full length biography of Garrison.
  • It gives evidence of a more complex view of Garrison’s engagement with Christianity. It is clear from reading his speeches that he very much favors what he sees as the religion of Jesus, but he abhors the compromised “orthodox” Christianity he sees all around him. Mark Noll has popularized the notion that Garrison abandoned an orthodox view of the Bible (in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, and America’s God), but there is much more to the picture than that, and this material helps fill out the picture with more nuance.
  • Garrison issued a prophetic critique of compromised Christianity, and his critiques are worth wrestling with, especially for those of us who hold tightly to “theological orthodoxy.”

Some Garrison Quotes from the Meeting and His Speech


We have much theology, but what does it amount to? In the light of it, slavery lives and thrives, as all evil must under a system of religion that is purely theoretical, and which overlooks the practical. We must not look to it to regenerate the country. 

We are all too callous to the sufferings and claims of the slave. We have sympathy enough for a single case that comes to our notice; but while our hearts bleed for the individual, we forget the millions of equal sufferers, and do not realize their sufferings. Four millions are in an enforced Sodom and Gomorrah, and four millions of Church members consent to their enslavement. What is such a Church, such a religion ? It is spuri­ous, it is satanic. And if for this denunciation they brand me as infidel, I will bind their epithets as the choicest laurels about my brow. 

Let me ask you, Where do you stand in this mat­ter ? I care not what is your theology, whether you believe in the unity or the trinity, or whatever shade of theological opinion, but how do you stand to the slave ? You are a member of a church, are you ? Is it a pro-slavery church ? Does it keep silence in the presence of this gigantic crime? Then it is your duty to flee out of it as did Lot out of Sodom, Do you support the Bible, the Tract, or the Missionary Society ? Do you dare support them while they are in league with the vilest oppressors ?

Mr. Garrison, as it was near the hour of adjourn­ment, said he would make but a single remark in re­lation to one word which fell from the lips of our friend, Rev. Mr. Stetson, viz., that ‘he would as soon sell into slavery Christ himself, were he here on earth, as to sell the humblest black man.’ That remark was worth, holding a New England Convention for. To be sure, it was but another statement of the old declara­tion of Jesus, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’ Yet it is a bold and fresh form of that old saying, and is deserving all commendation. It is true, and we should all feel its force, that it is no more criminal to sell Jesus himself, than to sell one of his disciples.

Speaking generally and popularly, we have no other religion in Ameri­ca but an orthodox religion. What is called hetero­doxy is purely exceptional, feeble, insignificant, and more or less proscribed, in all parts of the land. In the slave States there is scarcely any thing else than orthodoxy of the most stringent type, the whole body of slaveholders and slave-traders pluming themselves on being thoroughly evangelical, and giving no quarter to heresy, in any direction. The religion of our country is evangelical; and we have been exper­imenting with it, in connection with slavery, for more than two centuries. And what has been the result ? We have been growing steadily in favor of slavery, multiplying the number of its victims, extending our slave territory, and endeavoring to subjugate this continent to the dominion of the Slave Power.

Orthodoxy will not save us. I do not think any par­ticular form of theology will save us. It is not theology that we want—we want honesty. 

We are ortho­dox to the backbone. We do believe in everlasting punishment, in the atonement according to John Cal­vin, in total-depravity—and well nigh demonstrate the truth of that doctrine as a people. (Applause.) We believe in all these things, and at the same time, we believe in slavery as an institution to be guarded, extended and protected, and in perpetuating a worse than heathenish caste against those whose skins are not colored like our own !

Our land has al­ways accepted this faith as essential to salvation, and the more it thrives, the worse we are off as a nation.

In conclusion, let me say, I am for a religion which emancipates man from all bondage, both within and without. I am for a religion which holds to the sanctity of marriage throughout the world. I am for giving the Bible to every human being on the face of the earth, to be made use of as far as possible, to promote his own highest and everlasting interests. I am for a church which has no stain of blood upon its garments. I am for a Christ whose every testimony is to the value of man to a child of God, and whose mission it is to de­stroy all the works of the devil, to emancipate those who are in bondage, and to set every captive free. I understand this to be the religion of the Anti-Slavery enterprise, and the religion of this Convention ; but a religion unfashionable, proscribed and outlawed even to this day, while that which is falsely called the Christian religion bears sway every where, and the consequence of that sway is the enslavement of every seventh person in our land, to be owned, and bought, and sold, and treated as a beast of burden ! Let that religion be accursed, and the religion of freedom pre­vail ! (Loud applause.)  

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