By Dr. Christopher Bell
February 5, 2005
Frederick Douglass as
portrayed by Dr. Christopher Bell
Speech to Davies Memorial UU Church
Early Freethinkers, Abolitionists, and Unitarians and how the
three did meet.
Today, I shall speak to you on the subject of Early Freethinkers,
Abolitionists, and Unitarians, and how the three did meet.
As you perhaps know, I was born a slave, a slave for life, right
here in Maryland. I was born in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore
about 100 miles due east from Prince George’s county. I don’t
rightly know the year, but my best estimate is that it was in the
winter of 1817. You ought to also know that when I was twenty years
old, I ran away from my Master, and that much later my friends
bought my freedom.
So you see I am a graduate of the American Institution of Chattel
Negro Slavery, and my certificate of graduation is written on the
flesh of my back by the carvings and scars placed there from the
What I have to say to you this morning is premised on most of you,
having an understanding of the basic rudimentary characteristics of
“Chattel Negro Slavery.” But for fear that many of you may not have
a basic understanding of the rudimentary characteristics of Chattel
Negro Slavery, I will quickly review just three basic
characteristics with you. Please bear in mind that I do not intend
to talk to you about the details of the institution of slavery
1. You should know that by law and custom, the slave was considered
to be property, the same as a swine, or a wagon or a horse. You
should know that such property could be sold, traded, hired out or
disposed of at the whim of the slaveholder and in certain instances
the slave may be killed with impunity.
But today, we shall not discuss the details of the selling and
buying of slaves and the accompanying inhumanity, horrors, and
harshness of the frequent public slave auctions were slaves were
placed on an auction block, inspected like cattle, and sold to the
highest bidder. No, no we’re not going there today.
2. You should know that slavery was a big multi-million dollar
business back in the 1800s. Slavery formed the backbone of the
plantation economy of the southern states and as such, it was
imperative that slaveholders develop “slave-controlling strategies”
to motivate slaves to produce (work), and to ensure slavery’s
profitability, reliability, and predictability.
However, today, we shall not describe the details of these slave
controlling strategies which included: “before sun up to after sun
down” work requirements, and the use of certain obedience tools such
as: the bloody whip, the gag, the thumbscrew, the cat-o-nine tails,
the dungeon, the bloodhounds, and of course chains and branding
irons. But we’re not going to discuss these strategies today.
3.You should also know that the “field slave” was fed, clothed, and
housed only to the extent necessary to keep him or her alive so that
the slave-holder might realize a profit, a pleasure, or a privilege.
4. You should also know that anything that the slave acquired that
would allow the slave to begin to feel or think that he was a
something other than “property” had to be diligently and
systematically wrestled away from him by what I call mind
I am not here to describe these mind impoverishing practices, some
of which consisted consisted of: living in unsanitary, dilapidated,
dirt-floor, shacks; a subsistence level of rations, less than
sufficient clothing for warmth in the winter months, being
forbidden, on the punishment of death, to learn to read or write;
granting no recognition of the, legitimacy of slave marriages or
families, and the establishment of slave-breeding farms. But we will
not discuss these things today, no, not today.
Now that I have reminded you or in some instances informed you of
some of these rudimentary characteristics of “Negro Chattel
slavery”, I may now proceed with my intended message. However, I ask
your forgiveness if I evince no elaborate grace in preparing an
ostentatious introduction. And I trust your indulgences and patience
as I speak bluntly and plainly and lay my thoughts before you.
The Idea of the Abolition of Slavery:
Where did the idea of “slave abolition” come from? Just the thought
of the “abolition of slavery”, in the early 1700s and 1800s in
America was a contrary and wayward idea. This was because such an
idea differed radically from the social ethos and the acceptable
acculturation of the young American nation.
In addition, the fact that from time immemorial up through the
1700s, and 1800s, “slavery” had been an acceptable means by which
civilized nations managed their labor resources. And generally such
labor management practices had been blessed and approved by the
religious and educational authorities in the societies in question.
In other words, in the early 1800s slavery was a “normal” thread in
the social fabric of most civilized nations and especially so in
So the idea of “slavery abolition” (the idea that all men (including
slaves) should be free) was a foreign concept to most societies in
the early 1800s. (Chuckle) Now I am certain that the slaves
themselves might have always had this idea in mind.
The idea of Slavery abolition (of freeing slaves) began in Europe
during the so-called Age of Enlightenment or the Age or Reason. The
historians date this period from the early 1600s to the early 1800s.
This Age of Enlightenment was a time:
Wherein men became involved in societal class warfare and social
revolutions leading to the overthrow the feudal system and thus
allowed the average man greater freedom of physical movement and
freedom to enter discourse about the world and the reasons for
living, and man’s relationship with God;
Wherein men acquired new scientific information about the physical
world and such information clashed and challenged the old ideas
about the physical world and about the nature of man;
Wherein new teachings about reasoning and logic challenged orthodox
religious faith and superstitions, and where the idea of human
rights, including the notion that all men should be free sprang
It was an age wherein the common man began to feel and think that he
was a worthwhile being and that he had a right to the fruits of his
own labors; and men became suspicious of their churches and
governments, as these institutions effected his personal freedom.
Enter the Free-thinkers
So out of the Enlightenment Age there sprang forth here and there,
persons who referred to themselves as Freethinkers. Others referred
to themselves as Secularists or humanists.
Most Freethinkers believed that “morality” (Right and Wrong or Good
and Evil) should be based solely on regard to the wellbeing of
mankind in the present life.
Most Freethinkers had theological beliefs that differed from the
dogma espoused by the orthodox, conventional Christian Churches.
Freethinker ranged from those persons who were truly anti-religious
to persons who may have adhered to a private, unconventional faith
revering some form of God, but at odds with the orthodox religious
Most Freethinkers were convinced that the affairs of human beings
should not be governed by faith in the supernatural, but by a
reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world.
Many Freethinkers were secularist and believed that the church and
the civil government should be kept separate.
Enter the Unitarians:
Out of these various groups of Freethinkers arose a
religious/spiritual community who called themselves “Unitarians.”
These Unitarians were a religious/spiritual community that emerged
in Europe during the Enlightenment Age and many of the proponents of
this new way of believing found their way to America. Beginning in
the late 1700s many New England Puritan-founded Congregationalist
churches began transforming into much more liberal and rationalist
These Unitarians shared the general philosophy of the other
freethinkers and as a spiritual community, they rejected a wide
variety of orthodox Christian tenets, including the doctrine of the
In my day and time: Unitarian congregations expressed a spirituality
of Freedom and Liberty; a spirituality which refused to accept
authoritarian “revelations” or “dogmas” which contradicted the
revelations they found in their own experience.
In my day and time: Unitarians opposed the reliance of superstition
in arriving at spiritual truths and purport that their religion or
spirituality lay in a deep reverence for the power of the human
mind, and the value of human doubt.
In my day and time: Unitarian espoused the notion that their
spirituality did not accept “authoritarian” revelations or dogmas
which contradicted the revelation they found in their own
In my day and time, Unitarians as a group believed in freedom of the
mind in the continuing search for truth.
It is my unconfirmed opinion that Unitarians today think similarly
to the Unitarians of my day and time.
The Response of the Christian Orthodox Church to Freethinkers and
In the early 1840’s the main orthodox churches of the country were
indifferent to the institution of slavery and slavery was an
acceptable social practice. The church actually took the side of the
slaveholders when the issue of slavery became a matter of public
The orthodox Christian church with its various congregations made
itself the bulwark of American slavery and the shield of American
slaveholders. And may I say as an aside, the churches were generally
opposed to women having the same rights and privileges as men.
In my day, (1840 – 1860) Doctors of Divinities in the leading
congregations taught that man may properly be a slave, and that the
relation of master and slave is ordained of God.
Further these Doctors of Divinities insisted that to send back an
escaped slave to his master, as required by the Fugitive Slave Act
was clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In my day, Doctors of Divinities taught that the woman should be
silent in the church, and should yield or be submissive to the will
of her husband, or she should temper her behavior as one who is
subservient, when she is in the presence of men.
And thus in my day, both the Freethinkers and the Unitarians
expressed opinions that challenged the moral authority of the
established church in matters pertaining to Slavery and later on, in
matters related to Woman’s rights.
Therefore, during my time, it is not surprising that the orthodox or
conservative churches considered the Freethinkers and the Unitarians
as just another species of infidelity.
For my part, I would say if the Freethinkers and the Unitarians were
just another species of infidels, then “Welcome Infidelity. Welcome
anything in preference to the teachings being preached by those
Doctors of Divinity. You see, in my time, Christianity had become a
religion for oppressors, tyrants, man stealers, thugs, and Indian
Dispossesors. And very quickly I learned to reject teachings that
favored the rich against the poor.
I stepped away from a doctrine that exalted the proud above the
I ran from a philosophy that divided mankind into two classes:
tyrants and slaves, and said to the man in chains, stay there; and
said to the oppressor, oppress on!
So I say Thank God for the Freethinkers and thank God for those
outspoken Unitarians, and atheist, and agnostics and Deists and
other Infidels who worked to help abolitionists like me.
What did abolitionists do?
Abolitionists gave of their time, their wealth and their energies to
seek means and methods to abolish America’s chattel Negro Slavery.
You see, for me and for other abolitionists, slavery was a human
plague that had been conceived in greed, born in sin, cradled in
shame, and worthy of utter and relentless condemnation.
However to attack slavery in my time was as unpopular as to attack
private property in your time.
We abolitionists argued, exhorted, and tried to convince the general
public in many public forums and discussion groups that slavery was
Yes, often we wiped bad eggs off our clothes and dodged bricks, and
sometimes ran for our lives from mob violence. But we stirred up
men’s minds and thoughts so that never again could they rest in
their old ways of thinking about slavery. We flooded the country
with thousands of pamphlets and newsletter containing penetrating
arguments and stories designed to gather a freedman’s sympathy to
We knew that the cause of freedom had to be imprinted as “Holy” on
men’s minds. It was our task to fire men souls with the cause of
freedom. We communicated with men so that they could lift their
hearts toward freedom. We converted the general public to the cause
of freedom for everyone and not just for themselves.
We had to show that those Doctors of Divinity were wrong in what
they taught and that slavery was not ordained of God.
Several abolitionists lost their lives and livelihood as they
pressed to change the conscious of the nation. And the majority of
these abolitionists were White people.
Never was the Anti-slavery struggle a sure win. There were many
bleak moments when we thought the successes of the Slavery forces
would overwhelm us. I remember that from 1853 to 1860 the forces of
the Slave power seemed to be divinely inspired.
I was sitting with Sister Sojourner Truth, a colleague, in the
Anti-slavery movement. We were discussing the difficulties that lay
in our paths in our abolitionist struggle and how the forces of
Slavery had made large strides toward successful continuation.
(1) When we considered the arbitrary and continuing enforcement of
the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, we became despondent; and
(2) When we saw freedom losing in the struggle between freedom and
slavery in Kansas, we wept; and
(3) Upon hearing the outcome of the Dred Scott decision that favored
slavery, we began to fear for our own freedom; and
(4) When we saw the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, We trembled
with fear for the future of our country, and
(5) After the failure of John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry, many
of us had to go to Canada to ensure our own safety.
(6) When we witnessed the 1855 assault on Senator Charles Sumner of
Massachusetts on the floor of the Congress, our leading Anti-slavery
United States Senator, we questioned God about these setbacks.
I remember how Sister Sojourner turned to me. “Frederick,” she
asked, “Is God Dead?” I thought for a moment and then I responded to
her and to the heavens. “No God is not dead”, and I knew then that
slavery must end in blood. And you know what Davies-Memorial, my
belated friend, John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame had already made
Public and political Legacy of Freethinker and Unitarians
I want to take time to mention several Freethinkers or Unitarians
whom I shall commend to you for further study regarding their
contributions to slavery abolition.
The leading and most prominent abolitionist of my time was Mr.
William Lloyd Garrison. Mr. Garrison recruited me into the movement
in the early 1840’s. Mr. Garrison was the editor and publisher of
the Liberator, an antislavery newspaper. And he was a White man who
fervently believed that all men should be free. In fact, (chuckle)
Mr. Garrison even believed in the social, intellectual, and
political equality of men and women. (chuckle again). And after a
few conversations, he convinced me to this unique outlook on women
and I agreed. Mr. Garrison introduced me to the writings of Mr.
Mr. Thomas Paine, was a Freethinker who came over to America from
England. Mr. Paine was a slave abolitionist too. In his time, Mr.
Paine startled the American church with his pamphlet: “Age of
Reason” (1794) in which he rejected miracles and supernaturalism.
Paine established the 1st Anti-Slavery Society in America. Thomas
Paine was far ahead of his times.
I began working with Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony as well as
Elizabeth Stanton to assist them in organizing for woman’s suffrage.
Many of the first women who became abolitionist were either Quakers,
Unitarians, or atheists. But they worked ceaselessly for the
abolition of Slavery, and later they worked for Women Suffrage and
Women’s Rights. These women worked so diligently that eventually
liberal-minded, religious women and even Christian-women came aboard
the Woman’s rights movement.
Angelina and Sarah Grimke, (Quakers) who insisted on the right of
women to full participation against slavery and went from city to
city speaking on the subject.
Reverend John Brown: I can’t say enough about the courage and
efforts of Reverend Brown of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia
Harriet Beecher Stowe (Unitarian) wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Reverend Theodore Parker: Rev Parker was a Unitarian Minister and
adamant abolitionist. And you should remember that Rev Parker was
the first to utter the famous phrasing that, “the arc of the
universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” You should also know
that President Lincoln borrowed Reverend Parker’s phrasing when
Lincoln used the phrase of “Government for the people, of the
people, and by the people.”
Now a word about President Abraham Lincoln the Great Liberator. I
knew President Lincoln, and from my observation of him, regarding
matters of abolition, it was clear to me that he was not the Great
Emancipator or the Great Liberator that many in history and perhaps
in this very auditorium have come to believe. Consider the
Mr. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and made it known
that he signed it as a “war-time document” based on “military
necessity”, and he acknowledged to several cabinet members that it
might be successfully challenged in court at the end of the war.
Further the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free one slave and Mr.
Lincoln knew it when he signed it. The Emancipation Proclamation
gave freedom to “those slaves in those states and territories of the
United States that were in rebellion against the federal
government.” Well, if such areas were in rebellion, than the force
and power of the federal government could not be brought to bear in
those locations to provide for the slaves’ release from their
Further, Mr. Lincoln didn’t free the slaves in those territories
that were not in rebellion against the Federal government, which he
had the political and military power to do. This meant that the
Proclamation didn’t free slaves in Delaware or Maryland or in
several other border states or federally occupied territories.
My long range view of the situation is that the Emancipation
Proclamation was a moral message to the world and it verbalized
poignantly the better side of human nature, and allowed the north to
assume a high moral ground in the war between the states..
We should remember that Mr. Lincoln, as President of the United
States, also resisted the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act.
The above actions are not the actions of a Great Liberator, but a
great politician. However, I leave it for you in the privacy of your
own conscious to put a label on Mr. President Lincoln, now that you
are aware of the aforementioned facts.
Now be Advised, that the Slaves were freed by the Thirteenth
Amendment (which was ratified on December 18, 1865) and not by the
The 37th Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and the
influential leaders of that Congress that shepherded the amendment
to its ratification were Unitarians and Freethinkers. Such people
Rep Thaddeus Steven of Penn, leader for the 13th Amendment
Sen. Charles Sumner of Mass, who led the Congressional fight for the
Sen. Lyman Trumbull of Ill, who co-authored the 13th Amendment which
was ratified December 18, 1865
Rep. James Ashley of Ohio
Governor John Albion Andrews of Mass (Congressional leader)
Behind the front-line abolitionists
There were many influential Unitarians, who by their utterances and
writings helped to change people’s minds about slavery. Their
writings and utterances gnawed and pricked at the conscious of the
average non-slaver-holder and in time helped to turn the abolition
of slavery into a people’s movement. A few of these influential
Unitarians who were just behind the front line abolitionists in this
anti-slavery effort were: Wendell Phillips, Henry Longfellow,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, Henry Thoreau, Oliver
Wendell Holmes, William Ellery Channing, Horace Mann, and Ralph
Emerson. Most of these persons were Unitarians.
Preparing to Close
What does this information have to do with Today’s Unitarians? I’ll
answer you in this fashion:
Now that you know that Unitarians, agnostics, atheists, and infidels
contributed much to the abolition movement when most of the other
churches, the established orthodox churches, were attempting to
Now that you know that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and
not the Emancipation Proclamation gave freedom to the slave and that
the amendment was ushered along by a group of committed Unitarians
in the Congress.
Now that you know that a small group of dedicated female infidels
and female Unitarians initiated the Woman’s suffrage movement and
the early feminist movement in America.
Now that you know these things, you know that you as Unitarians have
inherited several noble and awesome legacies.
In addition, you must remember that as Unitarians, you are
a spirituality of Freedom and Liberty;
a spirituality that stands for the unhindered use of the free mind
in arriving at convictions
a spirituality which refuses to accept authoritarian “revelations or
dogmas” which contradict the revelations you’ve found in your own
Further, you must remember that historically Unitarians have
espoused the notion that “morality need not be based in religious
dogma, or detailed tenets in order for life to be meaningful, or for
the individual to live an inspiring and worthwhile life, or for a
people to build a vibrant, caring and sharing, spiritual community.”
Church, knowing what you now know about your history regarding
slavery abolition and Women rights, and given your espoused
Unitarian principles, I charge you, with a “Must Do” list. This
“Must Do” list is a series of tasks (struggles) that will ensure a
continuance of your noble and awesome heritage:
1. You must as a spiritual community CONTINUE to be a haven to which
all people who seek spiritual growth and wholeness, including
religious skeptics, may come and continue their spiritual seeking
without ignoring their own intellect and reasoning; and
2. You must as a spiritual community ESTABLISH yourself as a beacon
light that signals to all men and women that they may come to you:
to express in their own way their thankfulness for the unearned gift
of life; or to receive and give the warmth of fellowship, or enjoy
the freedom to seek out and meditate on their versions of those
Ultimate Mysteries of the Creation which surround them, that some
men revere in silence, and others name as God.
3. You MUST individually and as a community PREPARE yourselves to
face the “slings and arrows” that will be flung at you from the
majority of non-Unitarians churches, who may still view you as
infidels. But at the same time, you must continue to speak your
truths without rancor, but with vigor, reasoning, and courtesy,
while maintaining your reverence for the love of justice, and
continuing toward your goal of brotherhood and peace on this earth.
4. You MUST REMEMBER that individually your greatest challenges will
come from Inside of you. Your greatest struggle will be to commit
yourselves to your seven stated principles, as you show on the back
of your church’s order of service.
This “must do” list will require struggle. But these struggles you
can handle. Your community may be small in numbers, but it is still
in your hands and in the hands of others who are of like minds as
you. You can in time literally change the world if you continue
speaking your truths whenever and wherever the occasion arises.
Church, expect the going to be rough because there WILL be a
struggle. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be both moral
and physical, but it must be a struggle.
You see, those who profess to favor freedom of body and freedom of
mind and yet do not want to cause agitation among the general
population are like people who want crops without plowing up the
ground; and they are like people who want rain without thunder and
Church, do not be like people who want the nearness of the ocean
without the occasional awful roar of its waters.
Struggles will come and if you are true to your principles you will
not only survive, but you will flourish. And I wish you good luck.
Christopher Bell is author of "The Belief Factor: And the White
Superiority Syndrome" and "Soldiers Do Reason Why..."