William Lloyd Garrison once asked, “Are we then fanatics, because we cry, Do not rob! Do not murder!?”
The 19th century abolitionists, many of them standing on Christian principles, called for the immediate emancipation of slaves in America. They abhorred the practice of kidnapping and enslaving humans (a practice that was contra biblical law – see Exodus 21:16). In 1835, abolitionist Amos A. Phelps wrote that it was better to die “as the negro’s plighted friend” than to “sit in silken security, the consenter to and abettor of the manstealer’s sin.” And historian James Brewer Stewart wrote that the abolitionists’ “opposition to slavery certainly constituted a dramatic affirmation of one’s Christian identity and commitment to a life of Protestant purity.”
Nevertheless, many of the churchgoing Americans of the day rejected the abolitionists, labeling them as fanatics and idealists.
Thus, in 1831, Garrison described America as a land “full of the blood of innocent men, women, and babies – full of adultery and concupiscence – full of blasphemy, darkness and woeful rebellion against God – full of wounds and bruises and putrefying sores.”
As those today who call for the application of God’s Law in society are often likewise labelled “fanatics,” there is a lot we can learn from the abolitionists of the 1800s. One lesson the church is in desperate need of is that a clear vision for a Christian future, coupled with an uncompromising commitment to justice in the present, can go a long way.
The abolitionists wanted what seemed impossible. Not only did they want to end slavery immediately, but they wanted to eliminate “race” prejudice – something that Alexis de Tocqueville said was most prevalent “in those states where [slavery] has never been known.”
Did they accomplish all their goals? No. But they accomplished far more than the vanilla gradualists who came before them. This is a lesson for us all: while dogged, uncompromising determination can seem futile in the moment, hindsight proves it to be the most effective approach.
The “fanatical” abolitionists knew their immediatism would face snags due to sinful hearts, but they rejected a middle-of-the-road approach. They understood that even full-strength medicine takes time to work, and that watering down the elixir would be far worse.
For their noble efforts, abolitionists were maligned, threatened, and beaten. At least one (Elijah Lovejoy) was murdered by a pro-slavery mob.
And for their noble efforts, the God of history has been pleased to honor them as the true heroes of their day – men and women of all “races” who were frowned upon and even hated while they lived.
Stewart writes that these abolitionists were “anxious for the millennium” – idealists seeking a golden era of Christendom in which justice would roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (see Amos 5:24). They had a “romantic faith that God would put all things right.” Stewart goes on to explain that without this optimistic faith in the future of Christendom, the “abolitionists would have lacked the incentive and creative stamina necessary for sustained assaults against slavery.”
In other words, the abolitionists’ vision of a Christian future motivated them to act in the present. While everyone else seemed to accept societal evils as inevitable and did little to change them, the abolitionists believed in a brighter future and acted accordingly.
In our day, those laboring for the immediate end of abortion or the application of God’s Law in society (a modern-day Garrison-like “Do not rob! Do not murder!” appeal), are often viewed as romantic idealists with a rose-colored vision of the future of Christendom. And, like the abolitionists of the past, they often find the stiffest opposition from within the church. They also often find themselves alone in confronting the sins of the culture.
No doubt there are differences between the abolitionists of the past (some, like Garrison, eventually adopted unbiblical views we ought to wholeheartedly reject) and those of today, but certain similarities are striking, and modern-day abolitionists ought to take heart from the example of the abolitionists of the past – and everyone else ought to think twice before dismissing their vision.
The postmillennial vision for the future – one in which, through great toil, hardship, and pain, the gospel of Jesus Christ proves more powerful than the forces of darkness – is at best dismissed and at worse maligned by most church leaders. And with its denigration goes a powerful motivational outlook that not only inspired the abolitionists of America, but also many great missionary movements within church history (e.g., William Carey, David Livingstone).
It’s true that people can oppose slavery or abortion, or work to extend the gospel to the darkest places in the world (including in America) without a postmillennial vision, but it is also true that the postmillennial vision has accompanied some of the most effective Christian efforts in history. Furthermore, it is undeniable that a negative outlook on the success of Christendom has been used (intentionally or not) as a deterrent for attempting seemingly impossible tasks for Christ.
Postmillennialists may indeed be “fanatics” to the world, but that might be just what is needed. During a day in which the church at large sits in silken security, perhaps the fanatics with the “Puritan hope” are the ones who will be used of God to stir the faithful to action.
Or maybe the postmillennialists are too fanatical. After all, what grounds do we have to believe that the Christian church can prevail against the gates of hell? Maybe we should all just give up.