It’s not entirely surprising that a group would oppose slavery for its own members. Throughout history people have opposed slavery for themselves but have been perfectly happy to enslave others. Indeed there were several thousand black slaveowners in the American South. What is remarkable is for a group to oppose slavery in principle. TheQuakers were the first people in America to oppose slavery, and the evangelical Christians soon followed. These groups gave a political interpretation to the biblical notion that all are equal in the eyes of God. From this spiritual truth they derived a political proposition: because human beings are equal in God’s sight, no man has the right to rule another without his consent. This doctrine is the moral root of both abolitionism and democracy.

The great sweep of American history can be understood as a struggle to realize this Christian principle. For those who think of American history in largely secular terms, it may come as news that the greatest events of our history were preceded by massive religious revivals. The First Great Awakening, a Christian revival that swept the country in the mid-eighteenth century, created the moral foundation of the American Revolution. The revival emphasized that people should not merely know about Christ, but that they should also develop a personal relationship with him. The leading figures here were George Whitefield, the Oxford-educated clergyman who led the newly founded Methodist movement, and Jonathan Edwards, the Yale-educated Congregationalist minister who was president of Princeton University. Historian Paul Johnson writes that the American Revolution is “inconceivable … without this religious background.”