New Research

Abolition, Anti-Catholicism, and the Complexity of George Bourne

By Dr. Ryan C. McIlhenny

Historian James Brewer Stewart, author of Holy Warriors and founder of Historians Against Slavery, sent me an encouraging email about a review I did of a new anthology on Wendell Phillips for the Journal of the Early Republic. Knowing that Jim, a leading historian of American abolition, was editor emeritus of LSU’s reputable “Antislavery, Abolition, and Atlantic World” series, I asked if he would be willing to offer his thoughts on my manuscript. He enthusiastically agreed and read it. Jim’s encouragement and very constructive suggestions led to a structural revision of the project.

To Preach Deliverance is an intellectual biography, written in the mode of cultural history, of George Bourne (1780-1845), the pioneer of immediate anti-slavery as well as the pioneer of the anti-Catholic escaped-nun genre in American literature. Bourne was a highly influential polymathic figure engaged in a variety of nineteenth-century American issues: slavery, race, and citizenship; the role of women in abolition; Christianity and republicanism; the importance of the Bible; and the place of the church in civil society. The book provides a small window into the complexities of revolutionary liberalism, the place of the Bible in antislavery, and the centrality of religious tolerance to a free society. It peels back yet another layer of the complexities of religious reform in nineteenth-century America.

There are only two biographies on Bourne. One written by Bourne’s son Theodore in the late 1880s and another by John Christie and Dwight Dumond in the late 1960s. These biographies, however, focus on Bourne’s anti-slavery activities, ignoring for the most part his anti-Catholic sentiments. Contemporary historians have, for the most part, dismissed anti-Catholicism as either irrational or symptomatic of some paranoid style in American life. I find such explanations unconvincing. My work attempts to make sense of what may seem to be in the contemporary mind two conflicting issues: a battle against human chattel bondage with an equally virulent battle against Catholicism.

An important goal of the book—as I assume it is for most historical monographs—is to show the relevance of the past on the present. In one important sense, history has more to do with the present than the past. In the case of To Preach Deliverance, I want readers to consider the continued legacy (or perhaps the “unfinished” realities) not only of slavery, its existence in new forms, but also religious intolerance, especially anti-Catholicism, in American culture.

I also wanted to help readers gain a richer understanding of the human condition. Bourne, along with a host of anti-slavery advocates, are not easily categorized along what has become a very rigid American political spectrum. Bourne’s radicalism, his uncompromising opposition to slavery, shaped by a conservative Protestant outlook that became increasingly hostile to Catholicism, allowed him to formulate a unique concept of liberty that rested not on evangelical revivalism, which had a profound impact on reformist movements, but upon historic-confessional Protestantism. In short, he was radical in one important sense, but that radicalism was shaped by a kind of conservative traditionalism. And at first glance, this highlights what the contemporary mind may identify as contradictory. While celebrating Bourne’s courageous opposition to slavery, we may, at the same time, feel uncomfortable with his explicit religious bigotry.

Contradiction, irony, paradox—these will always follow humans in their own historical situation.  Historical figures, including those we consider our heroes, had their laudable attributes as well as their lamentable defects. It seems that the popular mind in the United States is currently unable to deal with faults, whether for the purposes of denouncing an historical figure for prejudicial beliefs or white-washing, that is, ignoring what our historical figures stood for (or against) (e.g., racism, sexism, classism, empire, etc.). This speaks most pointedly to us in the current social and political climate. Celebrating historical figures (e.g., Confederate Generals) without considering what they truly fought for—a white supremacist nation—puts them in a god-like status, which, in the end, functions not only to pervert history but also to dehumanize the very figures we seek to emulate. Those who want to wipe clean—ostensibly purify—the collective memory of society abandon history for a mythical or Platonic past, abandoning, thereby, the pursuit of truth. This is not an apology for things like Confederate monuments. Such commemorations have more to do with propaganda, ignorance, and power than with representing the truth of the past. It is important for us to learn about complex figures like George Bourne in order to examine our own selves.


Ryan C. McIlhenny is an independent scholar living and working in Shanghai, China. His new book, To Preach Deliverance to the Captives: Freedom and Slavery in the Protestant Mind of George Bourne, 1780-1845, was published by LSU Press in April 2020. You can visit his webpage here: