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The Blessings of Abolition


An 1860 sermon by Philadelphia minister and antislavery speaker William Henry Furness (Philadelphia: C. Sherman and Sons). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.


William Henry Furness (1802-1896) was a nationally-recognized religious opponent of slavery. He graduated from Harvard in 1820, obtained his divinity degree from there in 1823, and later received honorary degrees from Harvard and Columbia. He served as pastor at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia from 1825 until 1875.

 Furness was associated with a liberal approach to Christianity that synthesized a transcendentalist emphasis on nature with readings of the Gospels. He argued for understanding biblical scripture as a manifestation of nature; indeed, nature represented revelation. See R. Joseph Hoffman, “William Henry Furness: The Transcendentalist Defense of the Gospels,” The New England Quarterly 56 (January 1983) 2: 238-260. For Furness and other Transcendentalist abolitionists, slavery represented an illegitimate attempt at imprisonment of an Emersonian ‘oversoul’ that constituted the principle of human freedom within nature.

His major works include Remarks on the Four Gospels (Philadelphia: Carey, Lee, and Blanchard, 1836); Jesus and His Biographers (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1838); A History of Jesus (Boston: W. Crosby and H.P. Nicols, 1850); Discourses (Philadelphia: G. Collins, 1855); Thoughts on the Life and Character of Jesus of Nazareth (Boston: Phillips, Samson, and Co.,1859); The Veil Partly Lifted and Jesus Becoming Visible (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864); The Unconscious Truth of the Four Gospels (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Co., 1868); Jesus (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1871); The Power of Spirit Manifest in Jesus of Nazareth (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1877); The Story of the Resurrection Told Once More (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1885); and Verses: Translations from the German and Hymns (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1886).

The Blessings of Abolition, a sermon delivered on July 1, 1860, begins by invoking both the Book of Isaiah and the forthcoming July 4th Independence Day. The American nation has not met the injunctions of Isaiah for justice, Furness warns. He addresses the prospect of civil war by arguing “I know that darkness and disunion come, and can only come, not from righting the wronged, but from wronging the weak; not from obeying, but from disobeying the law of equal justice.” (4) Furness calls for a general recognition of this as truth rather than government intervention against slavery. In a series of points outlining the ‘blessings’ of eliminating slavery, he argues that the exercise of reason and religious sentiment will lead to the realization of “a bond of union…so strong that no geographical divisions, no diversity of their lesser interests, will be able to break it.” (9) Second, the abolition of slavery will lead to vast economic improvement because “Slavery is only another name for an enormous restriction upon Trade; that it is keeping in chains some four millions of their customers, disabling them from buying and selling.” (12) Third, the end of slavery would result in a large wave of immigration to the Southern states, one that would bring new prosperity to the region. (18) Finally, if slavery disappeared, the nation would witness a religious revival: “Were Slavery abolished, not only would the Reign of Terror cease, but the Religion of the land, so long suppressed, or wasting away on husks, would receive a new life.” (20)

- Joe Lockard