Kitchen items at an Underground Railroad site

Underground Railroad Site: Coffin Home, Fountain City, Ind.

The following essay was originally published--in slightly different form--in Human Life Review, Summer, 1999. Revised December, 2004. Copyright © 1999 & 2004 by Mary Meehan.

Lessons from the Anti-Slavery Movement

Mary Meehan

John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, was also a shrewd political organizer. While working for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1837, he spent much time on antislavery petitions to Congress. "How are you getting on in regard to petitions?" Whittier wrote a fellow abolitionist. "Are they in circulation--or are they lying in the drawers, or wearing out in the pockets, of the persons who have them!" Referring to William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, he suggested, "Thunder at them through the Liberator and scare them into the work."(1)

Instructions for petition-gatherers combined political thoroughness with literary grace: "Let petitions be circulated wherever signers can be got....Follow the farmer to his field, the wood-chopper to the forest. Hail the shop-keeper behind his counter; call the clerk from his desk; stop the waggoner with his team; forget not the matron, ask for her daughter."(2)

Today's right-to-life movement has no poet laureate; but it does resemble the abolitionist movement in many ways, including attention to political detail. Like the abolitionists, most right-to-lifers have deep religious convictions. Also like the abolitionists, they face a deeply-entrenched evil, one with strong support in the political and financial establishments. The late Cardinal John O'Connor once said that pro-lifers have "the loneliness of the long-distance runner."(3) They are in good historical company. Protest against slavery in the United States dates back at least to 1688. Quakers were active against it in the early 1700s, and the first national antislavery organization started in 1794. Yet abolitionists had to struggle on until 1865, when the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment finally abolished slavery.

Whittier and many other activists of the last antislavery phase lived to see it abolished, although not in the way they had hoped. Their victory was marred in three major respects: 1) Abolition was achieved by a horrific war, not by the peaceful means that the Quakers and so many other abolitionists advocated and practiced; 2) the ex-slaves did not win either political or economic equality in the South; 3) Northern racism, a sometime target of abolitionists, remained strong after emancipation. Some of this might have been avoided with a different and more comprehensive strategy. I stress the "might" because the pro-slavery forces were extremely powerful, often violent, and fiercely resistant to change. In any case, right-to-lifers can learn a great deal by studying both the successes and the failures of abolitionists.

Starting on a positive note, they might consider the brilliant organizing that abolitionists did in the 1830s. Theodore Dwight Weld, formerly a Protestant seminarian, organized an effort to "abolitionize" Ohio in 1834-36. Rev. Lyman Beecher, himself a famous preacher, described Weld as "logic on fire....As eloquent as an angel and powerful as thunder!" Weld trained other young men; he and they spoke all over Ohio, did tremendous educational work, and helped organize local antislavery societies. They did all of this despite having to face down mobs many times. According to Weld biographer Benjamin Thomas, they "came to consider a riot as part of their introduction."(4)

So effective was Weld that the American Anti-Slavery Society chose him to recruit and train "The Seventy," a group of abolitionist lecturers to be sent all over the North. Patterned after the seventy disciples of the New Testament, they did not actually reach quite that number in the field. Most were Protestant ministers or seminarians. The Seventy did for other states what Weld and his first colleagues had done for Ohio. They "abolitionized" entire states in one of the most successful organizing campaigns in American history.

Despite decades of educational work and protest, there are still states where the anti-abortion movement is weak, especially on the Northeast Coast and the West Coast. If the right-to-lifers were to organize a group like The Seventy, how would they go about it? Given land and population increase since the 1830s, one might imagine seventy lecturers/organizers for California alone and somewhat smaller numbers for other states that need thoroughgoing campaigns. Instead of being run from a national headquarters, though, such campaigns probably should be organized from within each state, taking account of its history and power structure and media markets. Where the antislavery agents had to rely on their voices and their pens alone, today's activists could use everything from public speaking to radio and television talk shows and the Internet. Recruits for such work might include young people who would need stipends to live on, as well as retirees who could donate their time. Besides educating the public, they could recruit many new volunteers, channeling them into existing groups or urging them to form new ones.

"The Seventy" campaign, successful as it was, suffered from one major defect. It was aimed almost entirely at the North, rather than at the South and the border states where most slaves actually lived and suffered. (There were still some slaves in the North in the 1830s, but relatively few, since most states there had required emancipation.) Where early antislavery workers had worked hard to convert individual Southern slaveholders, the later abolitionists essentially loaded the North like a great rhetorical cannon and fired it at the South.

Southerners knew that many Yankee sea captains had grown wealthy on the slave trade; that slavery had once flourished in Northern states; and that the New England textile industry depended on slave-grown cotton. No one should have been surprised to find that they resented Northern preaching on slavery. They needed preaching, but it would have been more effective had it come from Southerners. Had the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Liberator placed their headquarters in Baltimore or Washington--rather than in New York and Boston, respectively--and had they recruited more Southerners for their work, the North/South division might not have become so deep and rancorous.

Some brave antislavery Southerners tried to organize in the South; but they found the work very lonely, slow, discouraging, and sometimes dangerous. Some moved to the North or West because they found it painful to see the cruelties of slavery or did not want their children to be corrupted by it. Perhaps, though, small groups of single people, working together and supporting one another, could have made advances at least in the border states and the Upper South. Some evangelical missionaries did make progress in Kentucky and North Carolina until they were driven out after John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry.

Right-to-lifers, like the abolitionists, are tempted to preach to the choir instead of going out and making new converts. Where the abolitionists neglected Virginia and Arkansas, abortion opponents today often neglect liberals, radicals, Democrats, feminists, the Jewish community and the African-American community. The last-named neglect is especially ironic because the same kind of racial bigotry that sustained slavery also targets the black community for abortion.

Right-to-life liberals and radicals are in lonely territory, and they find agonizing choices in politics. To vote for candidates who are anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia, they often must accept ones who are pro-war and pro-death penalty. One of the radicals said years ago that most candidates looked like "a cross between Francis of Assisi and Attila the Hun."(5) It has not helped matters that right-to-life groups have shown little interest in organizing within the Democratic Party or among groups on the left.

There are, however, several pro-life groups on the liberal side: a coalition called Consistent Life; the small but extremely effective Feminists for Life; the even smaller Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (PLAGAL); and the tenacious (and growing) Democrats for Life. These are the equivalents of abolitionists who tried to organize in the South. Conservatives need not agree with these groups on anything except abortion and euthanasia. But conservatives should honor the courage of those who wade into difficult battles on the left--and should welcome their presence at right-to-life demonstrations, marches and conventions.

While support for legal abortion is widespread in the Jewish community, some of the most articulate and effective opponents of abortion are Jewish. Prof. Hadley Arkes, writer Chana bat-Shalom, columnist Mona Charen, Rabbi Marc Gellman, Doris Gordon of Libertarians for Life, editor and columnist Paul Greenberg, writer Nat Hentoff, Rabbi Yehuda Levin, Rabbi David Novak, author and television personality Benjamin Stein, and attorney Victor Rosenblum are some examples. There might be many more if the pro-life movement did not so often appear to be a Christian crusade. Certain gestures of sensitivity and courtesy would, I suspect, be much appreciated: use of the Psalms rather than specifically Christian prayers at interfaith pro-life meetings; sensitivity to Saturday as the Jewish Sabbath when planning events; perhaps use of the traditional Jewish toast, L'chaim ("To Life") for closing banquets of pro-life conventions.

Although many black Americans oppose abortion, the black political leadership generally supports it. There are many reasons for this, including Democratic Party politics and Margaret Sanger's targeting of black leadership for her "Negro Project" (which Planned Parenthood has continued in a general way, although not under the same name).

How can abortion foes reach out to the African-American community? Rev. Ronald O. Ross, Jr., who used to do outreach work for the American Life League, made helpful suggestions in a League publication. Stressing the importance of meetings such as the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus, Ross noted that "I have been attending the CBC conference for two years and have yet to see or talk with a white pro-lifer who was there just to make contacts in the African-American community." But Planned Parenthood, he reported, was out in force.

Ross suggested that outreach workers from pro-life groups should "attend a minority church at least once a month" and go to special events such as "anti-drug rallies, pastors' appreciations, and protest marches." He also proposed the study of black history. Reading about the abolitionist movement is very much to the point here, because studying the history of an oppressed group at their time of greatest suffering tends to produce deep understanding and sympathy.

Ross remarked that many white pro-lifers "are afraid to go to black churches or into inner-city neighborhoods," but noted that many blacks have similar fears about entering all-white communities because of "police brutality and harassment." He suggested that Christ's closest disciples, "all but one of whom were killed, would much rather have worked the nicer neighborhoods where there was no danger, but that's just not the way new recruits are won." (6)

Many activists also neglect the chance to persuade abortion-clinic staff to quit their work. Such activists may organize anti-abortion demonstrations and marches and the lobbying of a distant Congress, yet never think of talking quietly with staff of the local abortion clinic. Yet accounts by former clinic staff indicate that many experience terrible anguish about their work and are open to conversations with their critics.

Here again, the antislavery experience is instructive. Before the North-South split became so deep, some abolitionists were able to persuade individual slaveholders to free their slaves. Quakers worked first on their co-religionists, many of whom owned slaves before the Revolution. Eventually the Friends excluded from their community those who refused to free their slaves.

A great abolitionist's boyhood home

Boyhood Home of Quaker Poet John Greenleaf Whittier,
Haverhill, Mass.

In an early instance of "speaking truth to power," they started urging non-Quaker slaveholders to free their slaves. Others, including Methodist leaders in the late 1700s, urged the same; and the ideology of the American Revolution, with its stress on human rights, also pushed some slaveholders in the right direction.

Robert Carter III of Virginia was one of the South's largest slaveholders in 1791, when he decided to free his 500 slaves--some immediately and others over a period of twenty-one years. He had become "convinced that to retain them in slavery is contrary to the true principles of religion and justice." Some of the ex-slaves became his tenants; others worked as field hands for the tenants.(7)

Robert Pleasants, a Virginia Quaker who had freed his own slaves, wrote letters to state leaders urging them to free theirs. Patrick Henry responded to Pleasants with embarrassment and honesty: "Would anyone believe I am a master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, I cannot justify it."(8)

Pleasants also wrote to George Washington, who apparently did not respond. But Bishop Francis Asbury and another key Methodist leader approached Washington with an antislavery appeal; so did his good friend the Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought under him in the Revolution. According to biographer James Thomas Flexner, Washington developed a strong reluctance to buy or sell slaves, partly because he did not want to break up families. His last will provided that his slaves be freed after his death and his wife's and that those who were old and frail be "comfortably clothed and fed by my heirs." He directed that ex-slave children who needed aid be supported until they could be bound out as apprentices.(9)

Edward Coles, son of a wealthy Virginia family, inherited twenty slaves. In 1819, he took his slaves, except for two elderly women who wanted to stay in Virginia, on a trip to Illinois. As they boated down the Ohio River on a "lovely April day," Coles told the slaves that he was setting them free and giving 160 acres of Illinois land to each family head. At first stunned by news of their freedom, the slaves then laughed and wept and "implored the blessings of God on me," Coles recalled years later. As governor of Illinois in the 1820s, he led a successful effort to prevent legalization of slavery there. He had served as private secretary to President James Madison and tried to persuade his former employer to free his slaves through his will. While Madison leaned toward that path, he ultimately failed to follow it.(10)

Had most of the large slaveholders followed the lead of Carter, Pleasants, Washington or Coles, slavery might have been abolished without a civil war--and with a much better outcome for the ex-slaves.

Some Southerners followed Pleasants and Coles into activism. Kentuckian James Birney freed his slaves in 1834 and became a major antislavery activist, eventually running twice as the Liberty Party presidential candidate. Angelina and Sarah Grimké, daughters of a prominent slaveholding family in Charleston, S.C., converted to the Quaker faith and moved to the North, where they lectured against slavery. Angelina was a powerful speaker who drew huge crowds to her lectures, and both sisters were effective writers.

How do today's activists compare? A few abortion foes have been skillful in making conversions among abortion-clinic staff and encouraging those like Dr. Bernard Nathanson who more or less converted themselves. There is now a fairly long list of ex-clinic staff who are on the pro-life side. Dr. Nathanson, with his books and videos, has had an impact somewhat like that of James Birney and the Grimké sisters in the slavery era.

Norma McCorvey, the lead plaintiff in Roe v. Wade who later worked in abortion clinics, also made an impact with her conversion to Christianity and to the pro-life side. Her 1995 conversion followed long talks with Rev. Flip Benham, leader of Operation Rescue National, who befriended McCorvey while organizing against the clinic where she then worked. McCorvey gave her former clinic colleagues something to ponder when she recalled looking at empty swings on a playground and thinking that "the playgrounds are empty because there's no children, because they've all been aborted."(11)

Joseph Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League has done yeoman's work in publicizing the stories of ex-clinic staff through conferences and a series of audio and video tapes. Other groups, too, have used the testimony of ex-clinic workers to great advantage from time to time; but more could be done through literature, advertising and--especially--floor speeches in Congress and in the state legislatures. Many Americans ignore the words of people who have always opposed abortion. But when Dr. Anthony Levatino says that he stopped doing abortions after he "began to feel like a paid assassin," and Dr. Beverly McMillan says that "I got to where I just couldn't look at the little bodies anymore," people do pay attention.(12)

It is difficult to convert clinic staff, though, when some abortion foes are trying to shoot them. In the 1990s, efforts to convince the violence-prone that their actions were both wrong and counterproductive had little success. (Instead of being persuaded by their colleagues to turn against violence, the bombers and snipers were arrested by police, convicted, and imprisoned for long periods. One, Paul Hill, was executed.) Many critics failed to dissuade the bombers and snipers because the critics used pacifist arguments that they themselves did not accept in other areas. Advocates of violence against abortionists saw the inconsistency. They thought the non-pacifists did not really, for all their rhetoric, view unborn children as equal to the rest of us. Perhaps influenced by the spirit of the Old West, they felt that one proves sincerity and commitment by using a gun.

In most stages of the antislavery movement, a peaceful approach prevailed. The Quakers never thought it a good idea, before the various conversions, to shoot George Washington or bomb the many plantations of Robert Carter III or kidnap James Birney and the Grimké sisters. William Lloyd Garrison, of Baptist background, was a committed "non-resistant" or pacifist; so were many of his colleagues and followers. Weld and Birney and the brothers Lewis and Arthur Tappan (evangelical philanthropists who funded much antislavery work) strongly favored nonviolence.

In the 1850s, though, some abolitionist leaders became convinced that slavery could be ended only with bloodshed. Others stood firm in nonviolence, at least until the Civil War. In a meeting where Frederick Douglass was backsliding from his previous nonviolent position, Sojourner Truth reproved him with a blunt question: "Is God gone?"(13)

A leading antislavery donor, Gerrit Smith of New York, supported John Brown's raiders in the fight over "Bleeding Kansas." Peaceful voting there was supposed to decide whether the state would allow slavery, but both sides engaged in guerrilla warfare. Smith and several other abolitionist leaders, members of the "Secret Six," also supported Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, most abolitionists supported his war as one to end slavery. But some, while hoping the Union would win, could not in conscience take part in the war. A few brave souls, such as Elihu Burritt, Beriah Green and Parker Pillsbury, even spoke out against it.

It is worthwhile to think for a moment about what violence meant for the abolition cause and for the slaves it championed. John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, besides deepening the North/South Split and increasing pressures for war, made much trouble for brave antislavery missionaries whom Lewis Tappan and friends were funding in the Upper South. Rev. John Fee, and other ministers who had established interracial, antislavery churches and schools in Kentucky, were driven out of that state. Ministers who did similar work elsewhere were also driven out.(14)

The Civil War killed over 600,000 soldiers through wounds or disease--the greatest number of American soldiers killed in any war. The war left the South in ruins, and the freed slaves in dire poverty. While no longer under the overseer's lash, the ex-slaves enjoyed only a brief period of political rights and were soon subjected to "black codes," segregation and renewed violence. Writer Moncure Conway, thinking of fellow abolitionists who had died fighting on the Union side, believed they might have asked, "Was it well then to shed our blood in order that the Negro might be freely lynched?"(15)

Will major leaders of the right-to-life movement eventually support violence, as so many abolitionist leaders finally did? It seems unlikely, for there is deep and genuine opposition to violence among the leadership. In the 1990s, though, there was a major debate over violence among leaders of the once-powerful rescue (or sit-in) movement. That should have been the last place for such a debate, since the sit-ins of Operation Rescue and other groups were patterned after the work of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most rescue leaders held firm for nonviolence. A small but loud minority, however, defended loners such as Michael Griffin and Paul Hill, who killed abortion doctors.

Some rescue leaders thought the use of violence to stop abortion could be defended on ethical and theological grounds, yet cited prudential reasons to oppose it. But Marylander John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe, a pioneer of the early clinic sit-ins and a strong opponent of violence, insisted that prudence is part of morality--not an afterthought. And in a 1997 interview, he suggested that some rescue people had misinterpreted the federal government's crackdown on their movement. Noting that "a nonviolent movement becomes serious when it's getting hammered," Cavanaugh-O'Keefe added that "it was certainly foreseeable that something like that was gonna happen. And it's a tremendous step forward. It means that you've caught the attention of the other side and they see you as a very serious folk."

Rev. Michael Bray of Bowie, Md., who defended men who killed abortionists, claimed that he did not advocate such killing and that he was "pro-choice" about it--a stance many people found too clever by half. But Bray did remark, in a 1997 interview, that if someone wants to say that violence "is bad strategy; I don't go with this, and I think this is a bad technique," then "that'd be fine....I could swallow that."

Bray wanted to consider "the principle of godly force" first and then talk about what he called strategy or technique--but what Cavanaugh-O'Keefe, I believe rightly, considered part of the ethical question.(16) In any case, one might say that the prudential arguments against violence are so strong that there is no need even to reach the broader question.

People of violence fantasize that if they can kill enough abortionists, the rest will quit and young medical students will decide that there are safer ways to make lots of money. They tend to forget that the other side, backed by the federal government, has a monopoly on violence and on the courts. Thus, in the 1990s, we saw federal marshals' protecting abortionists; passage of a federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) law--a law that bars even peaceful sit-ins; the portrayal of slain abortion doctors as heroic martyrs; a proposal by President Clinton to subsidize clinic security costs; a siege mentality on the part of clinic staff, making it harder for sidewalk counselors to reach inbound abortion clients; and a perceived need of pro-life groups to keep disassociating themselves from snipers and bombers.

"Now the preamble to every law or injunction aimed at us, the argument of every prosecutor in every abortion protestor case," said Denver pro-life activist Terry Sullivan in 1994, "invokes the shootings and the arsons to justify anything they want to do to us." By giving national media interviews the previous year to defend the killing of abortionist David Gunn, he said, Michael Bray and others undid in two weeks' time the nonviolent reputation "that brave and dedicated people established with 20 years of patiently suffering attacks and long days in jail."

Sullivan noted that Michael Griffin, who killed Gunn, had thereby "stopped murders that the state would do nothing to stop" and had done so at great cost to himself, yet he disagreed with Griffin's means. (John Greenleaf Whittier said of John Brown: "We feel deeply...for the noble-hearted, self-sacrificing old man. But as friends of peace, as well as believers in the Sermon on the Mount, we dare not lend any countenance to such attempts as that at Harpers Ferry.") Sullivan added: "To reject the way Griffin did it, we must have some counter fact. We must present the evidence that we are as passionate about stopping abortion as he was. Because otherwise, for all our talk and busy work, we are his moral inferiors."(17)

Those who suffer most from thinking about the the victims of abortion--and there are many who suffer deeply, probably to the point of clinical depression--absolutely need the assurance of alternatives and rescue efforts. They must know that there is some hope for today's likely victims, not just for the ones ten years down the road. When all is said and done, such hope is probably the best antidote to violence.

The Rankin home in Ripley, Ohio

Slaves escaping from Kentucky crossed the Ohio River and climbed up
to the Rankin House, an Underground Railroad station in Ripley, Ohio.

The abolitionists found such hope in three ways: helping slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad; the open rescue of runaway slaves who were captured in the North under the Fugitive Slave Act in the 1850s; and efforts to help ex-slaves in education and in making a living. The first two efforts were the exciting, romantic ones. The Underground Railroad, in particular, saved many individuals and families from slavery. Most of its work was nonviolent, although one of its famous conductors, Harriet Tubman, carried a gun as she escorted slaves from Maryland to freedom. More typical, though, were the people who hid fugitives in their homes or barns and passed them on to the next stop on the "railroad" to Northern cities or to Canada. Many free blacks in the cities, North and South, also sheltered runaways for years in their communities.

Free black communities did a great deal to help themselves and those still in slavery. Many ex-slaves scrimped and saved until they could buy the freedom of their spouses and children. Self-help groups in the black community aided the poor and sponsored lectures and libraries and schools. The Quakers also established schools for black children. The Tappanites sponsored interracial institutions, including Oberlin College, which became a powerhouse of abolition. Through a black-led campaign, the Garrisonians were able to desegregate the Boston public schools.

The Parker home in Ripley, Ohio

Home of John Parker, Ripley, Ohio (undergoing restoration in 1999).
An ex-slave, Parker was active in the Underground Railroad.

The pro-life movement, with its extensive system of crisis pregnancy centers around the country, seems to be doing at least as well as the abolitionists in offering practical aid--in this case, to women and their unborn children. This is the quiet work of the movement, but also the "can-do" work: counseling scared teenagers and worried older women, making peace between pregnant teens and their parents, finding "shepherding homes" where needed, collecting maternity clothes and formula and baby toys for women who cannot afford them, offering congratulations and support when the baby is born.

Many women are sent to crisis pregnancy centers by sidewalk counselors, the volunteers who try to intercept women on their way into abortion clinics and persuade them not to have abortions. This is difficult and discouraging work, but the occasional rewards are great. Many sidewalk counselors have photos of babies they saved, and thanks from mothers who are happy that they took the time to listen.

Sit-ins, or rescues, at clinics are rare now. Federal penalties of long prison terms and severe financial punishment played a major role in squelching them. So did the lengthy internal debate on the issue of violence, which at times seemed to be a substitute for planning sit-ins and confronting the Feds. But some activists hope for a revival of rescues, at least on the local level.

Msgr. Philip Reilly, a Catholic priest in Brooklyn, N.Y., has devised a different form of witness that appears to be extremely effective. He believes that it actually produces more "turnarounds" than the old rescues did. His large groups (often hundreds of people at one event) start with Mass and then pray as they walk to an abortion clinic nearby. There they pray the rosary and sing hymns while sidewalk counselors talk to women going toward the clinic. There is no problem with the police; because Msgr. Reilly has a parade permit, and his group arrives at the clinic with police escort. Activists have used the Reilly method successfully in many parts of this country and also abroad. Many bishops, and several cardinals, have led the quiet vigils.(18) While the Reilly events feature the Mass and the rosary, his basic approach could be adapted to a Protestant or interfaith witness, or even a secular one.

Pro-lifers who worry about support for abortion within the churches might find consolation in knowing that abolitionists faced a similar problem. So divisive was the slavery struggle that it ultimately split Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians into Northern and Southern groups.

Generally speaking, the churches as regional or national institutions failed badly during the antislavery struggle--supporting slavery, tolerating it, opposing it in word but not deed, or splitting hopelessly on the issue. Many individual church members and ministers, though, were courageous and tireless in their work for abolition, which was a profoundly religious cause. Evangelicals (especially Presbyterians and Congregationalists) were the backbone of the movement in many areas. The evangelical Tappan brothers provided much money for the cause, while Weld, Garrison and other evangelicals agitated and organized.

The institutional failures of the churches were a major frustration for all of the activists and also for writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. In The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, the non-fiction defense of her famous novel, Stowe dealt with criticisms that the abolition movement was strident and fanatic. "If the Church of Christ had begun it right," she said, "these so-called fanatics would not have begun it wrong."(19) Lewis Tappan kept pressing church institutions he funded to be active against slavery. Meeting with little success in that effort, he and some colleagues established the antislavery American Missionary Association. William Lloyd Garrison became openly anticlerical. Some radical abolitionists attended services in many Northern churches and, without invitation, stood up and spoke against slavery; angry churchgoers often ejected them. "Come-Outers" left, and urged others to leave, churches that refused to oppose slavery. Leaving such churches undoubtedly brought peace to Come-Outers; unfortunately, though, it sometimes brought peace to churches that needed to be confronted on the issue.

The Stowe home in Cincinnati

Home of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Her Husband,
Rev. Calvin Stowe, Cincinnati, Ohio

Quakers, early and late, were effective and heroic abolitionists, active in every area from writing to politics to the Underground Railroad. Their institutional record was not perfect, though. Some Quaker meetinghouses in the North, like many mainstream churches, had separate "Negro pews" or benches; and some meetings discouraged cooperation with non-Quaker abolitionists because they worried about stridency and confrontation. But the overall Friends' record in the antislavery movement was so splendid that no other denomination could touch it.

Their tightening of discipline against slaveholding could be copied by today's pro-life churches, especially with respect to doctors who do abortions and public officials who promote abortion through legislation and funding. Many church people fear that any discipline applied to politicians will be interpreted as a violation of church/state separation. Yet it could be explained, instead, as simply requiring politicians to make a choice between their devotion to their faith and their devotion to abortion (or to their careers). They are free to go; perhaps they should be obliged to go if they cannot accept their churches' teaching on this crucial life-or-death issue.

There are also methods of discipline less drastic than excommunication that still send a clear message. Some Catholic bishops, for example, have decided that abortion-supporting Catholic politicians may not speak in Church buildings, may not be honored by Church groups, and may not be lectors or Eucharistic ministers. Bishops seem more careful about being photographed with such politicians than they used to be, lest the photos wind up in campaign brochures. Some bishops now say that politicians who support abortion should not receive Communion. There would not have been an uproar over this issue in the 2004 election if those bishops' predecessors had taken the same position--as they should have--35 years ago.

On the positive side, many churches promote the traditional view of children as a gift from God, both in word and deed. Some do excellent educational work and also mobilize volunteers for pro-life efforts--just as many abolitionists organized through their churches. Congregations involved in the Gabriel Project post at their churches large, outside signs promising "immediate and practical help" to pregnant women who need it. Some churches run huge baby showers for crisis pregnancy centers or specific women in need.

Yet many other local churches, even some belonging to national denominations that are strongly pro-life, do little or nothing to protect the unborn. Jean Garton of Lutherans for Life once recalled how she spoke to a church women's group about abortion and appealed for their help in working against it. The group's president responded that "we don't get involved in anything controversial." Then, Garton recalled:

I sat down, and they went into the business meeting. And the main topic of business was the purchase of a new coffee pot. And you never heard such controversy in your life, between the drippers and the perkers. And I sat there thinking: "The women of God, arguing over a coffee pot!"(20)

As today's activists struggle to move their churches and their country beyond coffee-pot disputes, they can take comfort and inspiration from abolitionists who faced the same problems. The antislavery activists were a talented group, and brave and persevering as well. Several suffered greatly, or even lost their lives, from physical attacks or ill treatment in prison. Some lived in poverty and wore themselves out in the struggle. Many had little hope of seeing the promised land in their lifetime. Still they kept on. Maria Waring, an Irishwoman who saw some in action in 1840, said it well: "Long life to these American abolitionists. They are a glorious crew."(21)


1.   John Greenleaf Whittier to Amos Augustus Phelps, [June, 1837], in John B. Pickard, ed., The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), vol. I, 239.

2.   Quoted in Merton L. Dillon, The Abolitionists (De Kalb, Ill., 1974), 102.

3.   Cardinal John O'Connor, address at conference in Washington, D.C., 3 March 1999, tape recording by author.

4.   Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Weld (New York, 1973, reprint), 101-103.

5.   Juli Loesch, "Politics Is War," Erie Christian Witness, July-Aug. 1979, 3.

6.   Rev. Ronald O. Ross, "Racial Unity for Life," ALL About Issues, Jan.-Feb. 1992, 12-13.

7.   Louis Morton, Robert Carter of Nomini Hall (Williamsburg, Va., 1941), 251-269; and Ken Ringle, "The Day Slavery Bowed to Conscience," Washington Post, 21 July 1991, F-1 & F-4.

8.   Patrick Henry to Robert Pleasants, 18 Jan.1773, in George F. Willison, Patrick Henry and His World (Garden City, N.Y., 1969), 485-486.

9.   Robert Pleasants to George Washington, 11 Dec. 1785, in Roger Bruns, ed., Am I Not a Man and a Brother (New York, 1977), 508-509; and James Thomas Flexner, George Washington: Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799), (Boston, 1972), 112-125 & 432-448.

10. Ralph L. Ketcham, "The Dictates of Conscience: Edward Coles and Slavery," Virginia Quarterly Review 36, no. 1 (Winter 1960), 46-62; and Ralph Ketcham, James Madison (New York, 1971), 623-630.

11. Washington Post, 11 Aug.1995, F-5.

12. Ibid., 1 April 1988, A-21.

13. Carleton Mabee and Susan Mabee Newhouse, Sojourner Truth (New York, 1993), 85.

14. Carleton Mabee, Black Freedom: The Nonviolent Abolitionists from 1830 through the Civil War ([New York], 1970), 234-242. Mabee offers a wealth of information about abolitionists' views on violence; antislavery tactics (including sit-ins and boycotts); and conflicts over slavery within the churches.

15. Ibid., 372.

16. John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 31 Jan. 1997; Michael Bray, A Time to Kill: A Study Concerning the Use of Force and Abortion (Portland, Ore., 1994), 174 & 172; and Michael Bray, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 30 Jan. 1997.

17. Terry Sullivan to John Witte, 5 June 1994, 2; Terry Sullivan, "John Brown's Shadow" (Denver, n.d.), 4; and John Greenleaf Whittier to Lydia Maria Child, 21 Oct. 1859, in Pickard, op. cit. (n. 1), vol. II, 435-436.

18. Msgr. Philip Reilly, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 18 Jan. 1999.

19. Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (New York, 1968, reprint), 436.

20. Jean Garton, remarks in workshop at National Right to Life Convention, Arlington, Va., 12 June 1992, tape recording by author.

21. Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists (Edinburgh, 1974), 97.

* * *

In addition to the books cited above, I have found the following especially helpful: Whitman Bennett, Whittier: Bard of Freedom (Port Washington, N.Y., 1941); Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York, 1974); Dwight Lowell Dumond, Antislavery (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1961); Louis Filler, The Crusade Against Slavery (New York, 1960); Betty Fladeland, James Gillespie Birney (New York, 1955); Aileen S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism (New York, 1969); Katharine du pre Lumpkin, The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1974); Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York, 1998); Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (New York, 1969); Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (New York, 1971, reprint); and Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago, 1967).