A Sermon by Jay Phelan, Intern for Holy Orders on December 3, 2021 for St. John’s the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN.
By the 1830s the fledgling American republic was a growing economic, political and military power. It had survived a war with Great Britain, experienced a spiritual awakening now called “The Second Great Awakening”, and had nearly doubled its territory. Its commercial success was built on the backs of some three million enslaved Africans, especially in the South. This was the era of “king cotton”, produced by the back-breaking labor of enslaved women, men, and children. Politically the country was divided over the expansion of slavery as territories became states and opponents and supporters of slavery fought to preserve a balance of slave and free states. In this volatile era a passionate young man named William Lloyd Garrison emerged as the fiercest opponent of slavery. His paper The Liborator became the most important mouthpiece for the anti-slavery movement in the United States and beyond.
Garrison’s views were rooted in a profound set of moral and spiritual convictions. He was raised by a pious and morally rigorous mother who instilled him with an activist spirit. He called slavery the “crimie of crimes” and was abolsutly uncompromising in opposing it. He excoriated the American constitution as a racist document. Although motivated by an profound Christian faith, he was scornful of much of organized religion which he saw as complicit with and profiting from slavery. He had no use for politics or politicians either. He encouraged his followers to boycott elections. In these views he was quite rigid and alienated as many friends as he did enemies!
He reveled in conflict and was absolutely fearless. He wrote, “if you would make progress, you must create opposition, if you would promote peace on earth, array the father against the son, the mother against the daughter; if you would save your reputation, lose it. It is a gospel paradox”, he concluded, “but nevertheless true–the more peaceable a man becomes, after the pattern of Christ, the more he is inclined to make a disturbance, to be aggressive, to turn the world upside down.” William Lloyd Garrison, in other words, was not afraid to get into “good trouble.” And he certainly did.
More than once lynch mobs tried to seize him. The South Carolina legislature put a price on his head–quite literally. They offered $5000 for his head and $10,000 for “the whole man” as they put it–a tidy sum in the early 19th century.
But Garrison was concerned with more than the cessation of slavery. He believed in the full inclusion of African American women and men in the fabric of American society. His vision was profoundly egalitarian. Wherever African Americans were excluded from public spaces or relegated to segregated accommodations, Garrison joined them and refused to join his “white” colleagues–much to their embarrassment. He stayed in the homes of African American supporters and they stayed in his busy household of six children. Here and elsewhere he differed from many of his abolitionist colleagues who were in favor of the abolition of slavery but not of the full equality of the formerly enslaved. Garrison even supported what came to be called “inter-racial marriage.”
Garrison was also an early feminist. As he insisted on the full equality of African Americans, he insisted on the full equality of women. African American and white women were placed in leadership positions in his movement and were published in The Liberator. Garrison fell out with British abolitionists when they chided him for the inclusion of women as equal partners in the movement. At a large international conference when the women were banished to the gallery, Garrison, once again to the embarrassment of his hosts, joined them in the gallery and refused to participate if they were not permitted to do so. Garrison has been called America’s greatest radical. And he would be a radical today. There is no doubt that Garrison would be on the streets with the Black Lives Matter protestors and excoriating the authorities for their failures. One scholar has written, “Garrison offered vital rhetorical and political support to female antislavery societies, cultivated women abolitionists, protested antislavery institutional discrimination by and against women, and championed freeborn, self-emancipated, formerly enslaved women.” The premier women’s rights advocate of the time, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was struck by what she called his “noble views’ ‘ of women. “Where there is a human being,’ Garrison wrote, “I see God-given rights inherent in their being, whatever may be the sex or complexion.”
One of the women who wrote for The Liberator and became a colleague of Garrison’s in his abolition and equality work was a young African American woman named Maria Stewart. Although many Americans have at least heard of William Llyod Garrison, I suspect that far fewer have heard of Maria Stewart. This should change. Stewart was the first African American woman known to speak to a mixed audience of women and men, black and white. She is also the first African American woman to make public lectures on women’s rights and abolition of slavery. Garrison printed her lectures and speeches in a series of pamphlets. She would go on to publish numerous works on political and religious topics during her lifetime. She was also a pioneer educator, starting schools for African American children in Boston and elsewhere and would later work as a nurse in an African American clinic in Baltimore. Like Garrison her writing and speaking were controversial, even within the African American community. For many she was too radical, too outspoken and, one supposes, too female!
Ironically both Garrison and Steward died in 1879, having seen their vision only partially realized. Slavery had been ended, but not by moral suasion, but by a brutal and bloody civil war that deeply saddened the pacifist Garrison. And women’s rights would languish with the right to vote only coming in the early 20th century. At his funeral the eulogy was given by Frederick Douglass and early admirer and colleague of Garrison’s. Douglass had heard him speak when he was only 21 and a year out of slavery. “What a countenance was there,” he recalled. “What firmness and benignity, what evenness of temper, what serenity of mind, what sweetness of spirit, what sublime intelligence were written as by the pen of an angel on that countenance.” He concluded, “In him I saw the resurrection and the life of the dead and buried hope of my long-enslaved people.”
The bitter irony of this moment is that as Douglass was eulogizing Garrison, the south was busying itself with creating new laws, now known as Jim Crow laws, to effectively re-enslave the African Americans so recently freed at such cost just over a decade earlier. Their efforts would not begin to be overcome, for the work goes on, until the middle years of the 20th century. And perhaps here is the warning and challenge of the work of William Lloyd Garrison and Maria Stewart. The work of liberation from oppression is never done. Evil is insidious and perennial; liberation and equality is always fragile and threatened by those who benefit from controlling others. That work has been handed on to us and we will in turn hand it on the next generation. In the Mishnah the third century collection of rabbinic opinions and lore, Rabbi Tarfon, at late first, early second century rabbinic master, is quoted as saying, “it is not required that you finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it.” Their work endures and has become our work.
But how are we to carry on that work? In the work of liberation we are always being counseled to moderation. We are always being told to move slowly, carefully so as to bring people along. We are warned not to offend and not to inflame the opposition. Garrison looked on such counsel with scorn. He knew very well that evil is happy with moderation, the powers are comfortable with caution. These things can be manipulated to serve their purposes. Today protesters are chided, as were Garrison and Stewart, for their strident tone and their insistence on action–now. Here the words of William Lloyd Garrison are as relevant and powerful now as when he first uttered them as a young man in his 20s at the beginning of his work. “Urge me not,” he declared, “to moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest–I will not equivocate–I will not excuse–I will not retreat and inch–and I will be heard.” Today we give thanks for these profound, holy, and flawed saints who call us again to take up the work of justice and love. Thanks be to God.