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June 26, 2002

Religion and Slavery

Is it an accident that many who are fighting slavery around the world are Christians, including activists working in such countries as the Sudan where buying back slaves has become a contentious issue?

Calvin history professor James Bratt (left) says it's not just happenstance that brings Christians to the forefront in the fight against slavery.

Indeed for U.S. Christians ending slavery traces its roots to the American abolitionist movement which was fueled by evangelicals and Quakers. Although the two groups, says Bratt, "did not regard each other as very close company," some of them could agree on this one hot issue.

Bratt's area of expertise is American religion prior to the Civil War and that ties his work closely to the era of U.S. slavery and abolitionism. Indeed, he says that "without evangelical Protestants there would have been no abolition movement." He is quick to add, however, that religion also provided some of the strongest arguments to justify slavery.

Those opposing perspectives, and the ultimate success of the abolition movement, were just some of the reasons Bratt, also director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, was excited to have been chosen recently to take part in a week-long seminar on slavery, sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, held at Columbia University in New York.

The seminar was led by David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale and director of Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. Davis, who has just published "In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery," had been a professor of Bratt's when Bratt was a graduate student at Yale in the 1970s.

Says Bratt simply: "He's still brilliant."

Also brilliant was the company Bratt kept for the week. His 31 colleagues (who had been selected from a pool of 125 nominees) represented a wide variety of colleges and universities across the U.S., but all had significant expertise in the history of slavery and abolitionism. Bratt says the experience of being a student for a week, learning from both the seminar leaders (Davis, Harvard professor Orlando Patterson and University of Houston historian Steven Mintz) and fellow students was exhilarating.

"It was great to be a student again," he says. "Between the morning lectures, afternoon discussions and things at night like movies about slavery we didn't have much free time. But the atmosphere was so terrific the days flew by."

One of the things the seminar did was help participants think about teaching slavery.

"This," says Bratt, "is a tough topic. There's some pretty horrific themes. And so in the afternoons we talked about pedagogy - how do you teach this stuff."

In addition to the discussions about teaching, seminar participants also were given a CD-Rom filled with teaching tools and educational resources to assist them. Bratt says that both the CD and the discussions will enhance his undergraduate teaching at Calvin and his own scholarly research and writing.

He plans already to incorporate slavery studies into the introductory history core course on the west and the world, noting that "slavery was a major way that the west interacted with the world; in fact, it dominated America's international trade." At one point, he says, slave labor accounted for 80 percent of all American exports and "helped fuel the American industrial and commercial revolution."

He's also thinking about making slavery part of a January DCM (Discovering the Christian Mind) course, exploring the Christian arguments for and against slavery and looking at how Christians were foremost in making both arguments. He notes that Christianity, Islam and Judaism all arose in the context of slavery and while none insisted that slavery was wrong they all did try to ameliorate it. Then, during a time of religious revival in the U.S. (the first Great Awakening in the mid 1700s) slavery was deemed to be a sin, something that, Bratt says, "in and of itself was very unusual."

And he wants to make slavery part of a senior research seminar, centered on the paradox of a nation where the notion of liberty and the reality of slavery grew together at the same time. "There's interesting relationships," he says, "between religion, capitalism and slavery. The Quakers were powers in international trade and evangelicals were strong in the emerging commercial economies of New England and upstate New York. And that's where the abolitionist movement first grew and gathered momentum. So what was the relationship between all of these beliefs? Those are questions to explore (in a senior seminar)."

Says Bratt: "I see teaching ramifications from this seminar at all levels of our history department offerings."

Bratt plans to wrap up a biography of reformer Abraham Kuyper this coming school year and then turn his attention to writing and research on the intersections of religion, American history, slavery and abolitionism.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)