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Ask an Americanist: Dr. Ben Wright

What led you to/sparked your interest in this area of research? 

My life project—the question that wakes me up in the middle of the night and that I plan to address with all of my future work—is studying how religion inspires people of faith to confront, or sadly too-often perpetuate, white supremacy. Exploring the abolitionist movement was an obvious starting point.

Could you give us a brief overview of your monograph Bonds of Salvation

The book explores how Christianity inspired and limited American abolitionism from the American Revolution through secession. It argues that the pursuit of salvation bound American Protestants together, forging nationalisms and laying the groundwork for the age of reform, including the rise of nationally-focused abolitionism. That abolitionism eventually destroyed the very same bonds of salvation, sundering the national Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist denominations and accelerating the divisions that led to secession, war, and ultimately emancipation.

It begins by unfolding ideologies of conversionism and purificationism in the late eighteenth century before chronicling how conversionists, in pursuit of salvation, built their national denominations. It then charts how those denominations launched the benevolent empire of reform, including the American Colonization Society. The ACS and its quixotic scheme depended on globalized conversionist logic and therefore the war over colonization became a battle over understandings of international salvation. By the early 1830s, a new generation of white abolitionists, inspired by black activists and buoyed by new theologies of causation, took aim at the logic of conversionism. The result split the national Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist denominations in 1837, 1844, and 1845 respectively. Once unmoored from one another, northern and southern Christians turned the pursuit of salvation into sectionalist aims, culminating in secession, war, and the end of chattel slavery. 

Bonds of Salvation covers a lot of ground, stretching from the Revolutionary-era up until the eve of the Civil War. What was the reasoning behind your chosen time frame? 

This book began in the eighteenth century and only later marched toward the Civil War. I wrote a MA thesis on the passage of the 1786 Virginia State for Religious Freedom and was really fascinated by the Baptists involved in that process. My original plan was to track their evolution on the issue of slavery. In 1789 many of those same Baptists signed a petition that lambasted slavery as “a violent deprivation of the rights of nature” and called on Virginians “to make use of every legal measure to extirpate this horrid evil from the land.” I was interested in understanding this process and the quick decline of antislavery among southern evangelicals. But I started my PhD work in 2008, and an explosion of great books on that very subject came out that year.[1]

I draw heavily on that work but I tried to tell a bigger story, a national story, about the ideas that made antislavery actions possible (and rare). I kept finding white Christians who privately attacked slavery yet never took any organized antislavery action. Understanding these men and women led me to the ideology of conversionism, and tracking conversionism pulled me deeper and deeper into the nineteenth century. My dissertation cut off in the 1830s, but for the book, I added a few chapters to track how abolitionist attacks on the conversionist consensus eventually undercut the colonizationist movement, tore apart the nation’s churches, and sent the nation on the path toward Civil War. Fortunately, the tenure clock saved me from myself and I had to stop writing. Without it, I would have been very tempted to carry the story into the postbellum era.

You note the benefit of re-adjusting our traditional anti-slavery categorizations of gradualism/immediatism to also consider purificationism/conversionism. Do you see these two dichotomies as existing alongside each other, or exclusive of one another?

In the late eighteenth century American Christians believed they were on the cusp of radical, transformative change, and that change would be brought most quickly and assuredly through expanding salvation. I call this ideology conversionism. The conversionist emphasis on salvation, however, led them to oppose coercive abolitionists in the early years of the nineteenth century, seeing their divisive agitation as distracting from the missions of salvation that would free everyone in this world and the next. A rival ideology, what I call purificationism led a small few to dissent and demand the removal of the sin of slaving prior to, or at least alongside, the work of extending salvation.

So to answer your question, most Christians valued both conversion and purification. In that way they certainly did exist alongside one another. However, each ideology led to different understandings of causation and nurtured rival strategies in responding to social injustice, including and especially the sin of slavery. Most white Christians chose to prioritize conversion over purification and as a result, most white Christians saw abolitionism as hindering the conversions that would bring salvation from both sin and slavery. By the later antebellum era, however, conversionist antislavery became consumed by conversionist anti-abolitionism. In this way, antislavery conversionists provided the most powerful weapon in the proslavery arsenal: the argument that abolitionism endangered the spread of salvation.

If you could choose a different time period or place to study, what would it be? (fun question) 

I am in the early stages of lining up my next monograph. I’d like to build on the work I’ve done on the colonization movement and delve more deeply into how British and American missionaries crafted visions for empire that led to colonization in West Africa.

I tend to stay pretty busy maintaining (and hopefully soon extending) my textbook project, The American Yawp. I really enjoy the collaborative process we’ve created, and the necessity of thinking synthetically keeps things fresh. I’m also really interested in both the intellectual implications and practical applications of the digital humanities. Joe Locke (my American Yawp co-editor) and I have a piece that underwent an open review from the AHR about those issues (see ahropenreview.com).

But since you intended this as a fun question, I’ll admit that I spend a lot of time thinking through imaginary essays about the music of Bruce Springsteen. One of these days, those imaginary essays might turn into a manuscript…

Ben Wright is assistant professor of historical studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. His new book Bonds of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism is available now from Louisiana State University Press: https://lsupress.org/books/detail/bonds-of-salvation/


[1]  Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Janet Moore Lindman, Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Randolph Ferguson Scully, Religion and the Making of Nat Turner’s Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740–1840 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008); Jewel Spangler, Anglican Monopoly, Evangelical Dissent, and the Rise of the Baptists in the Late Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008); Monica Najar, Evangelizing the South: A Social History of Church and State in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).