Puritan Spirits in the Abolitionist Imagination


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The Puritans of popular memory are dour figures, characterized by humorless toil at best and witch trials at worst. “Puritan” is an insult reserved for prudes, prigs, or oppressors. Antebellum American abolitionists, however, would be shocked to hear this. They fervently embraced the idea that Puritans were in fact pioneers of revolutionary dissent and invoked their name and ideas as part of their antislavery crusade.

Puritan Spirits in the Abolitionist Imagination reveals how the leaders of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement—from landmark figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson to scores of lesser-known writers and orators—drew upon the Puritan tradition to shape their politics and personae. In a striking instance of selective memory, reimagined aspects of Puritan history proved to be potent catalysts for abolitionist minds. Black writers lauded slave rebels as new Puritan soldiers, female antislavery militias in Kansas were cast as modern Pilgrims, and a direct lineage of radical democracy was traced from these early New Englanders through the American and French Revolutions to the abolitionist movement, deemed a “Second Reformation” by some. Kenyon Gradert recovers a striking influence on abolitionism and recasts our understanding of puritanism, often seen as a strictly conservative ideology, averse to the worldly rebellion demanded by abolitionists.