Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:50 PM
Room 101 (Hynes Convention Center)
When New York City house carpenter, William Hamilton, wrote statesman John Jay asking him whether God had intended Africans to be enslaved to Americans, Hamilton
supplied the response himself, “I answer No.” By rejecting slavery as unchristian, Hamilton
built on an already established black intellectual tradition. This paper examines how spiritual ideals shaped black political strategy in New England
and the Mid-Atlantic states in the post-Revolutionary era. While historians have considered black institution-building in the context of community development and racial uplift, they have paid insufficient attention to the theological premises behind black reform efforts. Activists’ understanding of the divine governed their strivings for autonomy and for civil equality. Drawing on decades of evangelical pietism, they positioned themselves to advance their vision of a godly society, a vision that brought together African ideas about community, a belief in Christ’s Golden Rule, and republican injunctions to civic virtue.
I pay particular attention to how free blacks transformed their ideas into social reality, centering my study around the activities of four institutions. Specifically, I focus on reformers’ cultivation of relationships with notable whites and with other black activists, many of whom sustained a strong Christian witness. Through a regional and sometimes transatlantic network, black community leaders pursued a political agenda in accordance with their spiritual beliefs. I scrutinize Newport’s Free African Union Society, New York’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Philadelphia’s African Presbyterian and African Episcopal churches, arguing that their work lay the foundations for more radical black abolitionism in the nineteenth century.
For black reformers, the sacred was political and the political was sacred.