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America's Past and Future


An 1868 sermon by abolitionist and 'amalgamationist' Bishop Gilbert Haven. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.


The son of a Methodist Episcopal Church minister, Gilbert Haven (1821-1880) gained renown for his work as a minister, bishop, abolitionist, and advocate of racial and gender equality. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Haven served as a Chaplain with the Eighth Massachusetts Regiment between 1861 and 1862. Retiring from the field for the sake of his health in 1862, Haven traveled to England to recuperate, where he published widely on the justness of the Union cause. In the wake of the war, Haven became a staunch public supporter of equal rights for African Americans in both the North and the South, and a fierce opponent of the Ku Klux Klan. After being appointed as a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872, Haven made visits to both Mexico and Africa. He continued to advocate for equal rights for African Americans and women until his death in 1880.

Perhaps Haven’s most notable sermon was his “America’s Past and Future,” which he delivered in the wake of Ulysses S. Grant’s election to the presidency. When the Methodist Quarterly Review (New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1869, vol. 51 – 4th series, vol. 21, 632) discussed Haven’s National Sermons, it pointed to this as the most important sermon in the volume. According to the reviewer, in a characteristic argument of this era, Haven’s predictions on race relations were valueless because blacks were a disappearing race. Haven faced intense public scorn for his support of ‘amalgamationism,’ or interracial marriage leading to a fusion of races. A less restrained and more characteristic comment on “America’s Past and Future” pronounced it as “the teachings of an ass – a libidinous satyr” (The Statesman-Baltimore, January 23, 1869, vol. 50, no. 17, 236).

As the title of his sermon indicates, Haven looked back to history and forward to a utopian, post-racial future. In seeking to explain the existence of slavery and racial prejudice in the world, Haven -- perhaps not unexpectedly given his profession -- turned to ideas about sin and faith for explanations. Both racial prejudice and slavery were direct results of human beings’ sinful natures, Haven maintained. If all nations had adopted Christian principles after the birth of the faith, than slavery would not have ever been permitted to flourish.

Just as Haven laid blame for slavery on all unredeemed humankind, so too did he distribute blame among white Americans for the continued oppression of African Americans within US society. White Northerners were just as culpable as white Southerners, Haven insisted, for the “murky mist of prejudice over society.” (608) And white Northerners needed to play just as large of a role as white Southerners in eradicating racial discrimination from their nation. This would be no easy task, he warned, because “[i]t dwells in our churches, in our souls, in our education, in our society.” (622)

A new day was dawning in the United States in 1868, Haven affirmed. The Civil War, horrific as it had been, was a portent of wondrous events yet to come. Americans needed to recognize that the Civil War was unique in human history, according to Haven, because it was the first truly just war ever fought. When the new President won battles, Haven stressed, “[h]e won not a victory merely, but liberty.” (617) No previous American war heroes could claim as much. Even George Washington’s reputation was tainted because the Revolution in which he fought had secured rights for white men only. By contrast the Civil War, Haven hoped, represented the beginnings of a new era of racial justice and equality.

Ulysses S. Grant, Haven assured his audience, was just the man to make this vision a reality. Stressing Grant’s modesty and humility, Haven nonetheless made great claims for him, asserting that Grant would play a vital role in crippling the ever-strengthening Ku Klux Klan, and ensuring that African Americans got to enjoy the liberty for which they had fought so hard. That anyone would dare to deny African-American men the right to vote after their valiant service as soldiers during the Civil War, Haven asserted, was contemptible and absurd. Grant and his administration needed to take steps to secure full citizenship and voting rights for African-American men, and for all women thereafter. Once women had access to the vote, Haven argued, many social evils, such as intemperance, would surely be eradicated through their purifying influence.

This utopian future of complete racial and gender equality would not be confined to mere political equality, Haven argued. In the new America that Grant would help to usher in, equality between the races would be social and personal, as well as political, in nature. Whites would finally be able to honorably admit and act upon their romantic and sexual attraction to African Americans, and to enter into marriages with them. Extolling the natural beauty of African American women and men, Haven foresaw a day in which interracial marriage was commonplace, and when African Americans and whites were able to notice racial differences without attaching any hierarchies to them. “Amalgamation,” Haven affirmed boldly, “is God’s word.” (626)

In the years which followed, Haven’s faith in Grant’s presidency and Reconstruction would be cruelly tested. However, his dreams of a future in which all Americans were equally politically empowered, and in which recognition of racial difference did not translate into social hierarchies, lived on long after both he and Grant perished.

-Holly M. Kent


Gravely, William. Gilbert Haven, Methodist Abolitionist: A Study in Race, Religion, and Reform, 1850-1880. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1973.

Haven, Gilbert, ed. National Sermons. Sermons, Speeches and Letters on Slavery and its War: From the Passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill to the Election of President Grant. New York: Arno Press, 1969 reprint.

Thomas, John L., ed. Slavery Attacked: The Abolitionist Crusade. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1965.