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  • Phil Hannum

Enter the race, cross the line!

American Christians learned much about the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, in 2006, when many viewed the movie Amazing Grace. The movie’s subject was about the life of British-born, William Wilberforce (1759-1883), and his successful effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Wilberforce died three days after the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act 1883.

American Christians may be less familiar with the efforts of three American-born men whose lives span the years 1720 through 1965. In America, though slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on 12/6/1865, the slow progression of total blind justice and truly balanced scales continues to this day.

During his life, John Woolman (1720-1772) a New Jersey Quaker, became an abolitionist and argued for manumission of slaves to Quakers in the colonies as well as in England.

"Woolman decided to minister to Friends and others in remote areas on the frontier. In 1746, he went on his first ministry trip with Isaac Andrews. They traveled about 1,500 miles round-trip in three months, going as far south as North Carolina. He preached on many topics, including slavery, during this and other such trips.

In his lifetime, Woolman did not succeed in eradicating slavery even within the Society of Friends in colonial America. However, his personal efforts helped change Quaker viewpoints during the period of the Great Awakening. In 1790, after the American Revolutionary War, the Pennsylvania Society of Friends petitioned the United States Congress for the abolition of slavery. While unsuccessful at the national level, Quakers contributed to Pennsylvania's abolition of slavery. In addition, in the first two decades after the war, they were active together with Methodist and Baptist preachers in the Upper South in persuading many slaveholders to manumit their slaves. The percentage of free people of color rose markedly during those decades, for instance, from less than one to nearly ten percent in Virginia".[1]

During his life, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) a Massachusetts abolitionist, served as a cog in the Underground Railroad and actively transported runaway slaves in a “leg” of their effort to escape to Canada. Thoreau, a member of the Lyceum in Concord, Mass., briefly agreed with a motion to have Massachusetts secede from the Union in opposition to slavery…until someone pointed out that such an action would permit the institution of slavery to continue; unopposed. In his essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau wrote: "I cannot for an instant recognize the political organization as my government which is the slave's government also."

Thoreau’s biographer, Joseph Wood Krutch, evaluated Thoreau’s approach to Slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (repealed in 1864) and he concluded that Thoreau – at best – was a “Reluctant Crusader.” Like Woolman, Henry Thoreau did not live to see the abolition of slavery in America.

During his life, Jonathan Daniels (1939-1965) a New Hampshire raised graduate of VMI (1961), was becoming an Episcopal Priest and he was a Civil Rights Activist. While Daniels knew that Slavery was abolished in 1864, he was keenly aware that that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was only a starting point for resolving matters of obstruction arising during the 100 years since the passage of the 13th Amendment. Unlike Thoreau, Daniels’ level of commitment –as a Christian and Civil Rights Activist- could be referred to as a full-bore Crusader.

In 1965, while still a Seminarian, Daniels received permission from Seminary to join the Freedom Movement in Alabama and went there to support the recently passed Voting Rights Act. Daniels was jailed along with 28 others, for picketing a “whites only” store and ultimately released in Hayneville, Alabama. On August 20, 1965, the group was released, Daniels, a Catholic Priest and two African-American teens walked to a store to purchase sodas. A Deputy Sheriff was guarding the entrance with a shotgun and attempted to shoot 17 year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales aside and took the full load of shot, dying immediately. The Priest was also shot, but survived. Today, Ruby Sales continues to travel the Country and speak of her experiences while describing how Jonathan Daniels followed the teachings of Jesus; even unto death.

There are many more champions of the cause to erase the marks of slavery in America than the three men described here. These three took varying degrees of action and each participated in the greatest objective of the American Experiment: In order to form a more perfect union. None have crossed the goal, all have run the race.

Like Wilberforce in his country, the three referenced Americans did not see the full fruit of their efforts. This should be an encouragement for the members of the Evangelical Fellowship of Virginia. The ultimate outcome of God’s plan has been written “in His script.” Like the four persons described here, each of us can find our journey and with the help of the Holy Spirit we can take and complete our journey with the hope of crossing the finish line.

[1] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1877, Hill and Wang, 1993

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