Popular understanding often associates abolitionism (the campaign to end slavery) with the churches. In fact, mid–nineteenth-century preachers and their churches were almost evenly divided between attackers and defenders of slavery. (Defenders could note that Jesus condoned slavery in the New Testament.) Prior to about 1840, the ministers and other religious activists who embraced abolitionism tended to be radicals within liberal denominations, notably the Unitarians and Quakers.
The earliest critics of slavery were anything but religious; most were eighteenth-century rationalists in the Enlightenment tradition who had come to view slavery as contrary to the recently articulated "rights of man." Somewhat later, pioneer Quaker abolitionists branded slavery "un-Christian." Slavery was outlawed in Britain in 1772, and in the United States, states north of Maryland between 1777 and 1804. These reforms were generally the work of political, not religious, activists.
The American abolition movement arose in response to the recognition that slavery south of the Mason-Dixon line would not dissolve under the pressure of moral suasion. Early activists included William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), a journalist and activist who personally inspired most of the other principal abolitionist leaders. Among these was the nondenominational minister Beriah Green (1795–1874); at this time, declining to align with any established denomination was a radical stance. Green preached America’s first abolitionist sermons in Ohio in 1832; from 1833 to 1844, he led Oneida College, a labor college that pioneered integration of black and white students. (Oneida was located in the ironically named Whitesboro, near Syracuse.) Speaking of irony, Beriah Green was a friend of the Rev. John Ingersoll, who gave his youngest son the middle name Green in Beriah’s honor. This child was Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899), the best-known and most influential agnostic orator in the nation’s history. (Ingersoll’s birthplace is an attraction on the Freethought Trail.) Other early activists included the radical Unitarian cleric Theodore Parker (1810–1860) and the freethinking author Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880).
With its social ferment, its friendliness toward radical reformers, and its proximity to the Canadian border, west-central New York State was home to many notable abolitionists. From his estate at Peterboro, millionaire activist-philanthropist Gerrit Smith not only inspired but personally funded abolitionist and Underground Railroad activities. The first complete public abolition meeting took place in Peterboro at Smith’s behest; the site now houses the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum.
Other notable area activists included C. D. B. Mills of Syracuse, Susan B. Anthony of Rochester, and Matilda Joslyn Gage of Fayetteville.
Rochester was a special hotbed of abolitionist sentiment. The Quaker activists Isaac and Amy Post (1798–1872 and 1802–1889, respectively), former slave Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), and Susan B. Anthony frequently collaborated on abolitionist matters. They also exemplified the cross-fertilization between reform traditions so characteristic of the Freethought Trail: Amy Post attended the 1878 conference of the New York State Freethinkers Association held at Watkins, now Watkins Glen. Susan B. Anthony is of course better known for her woman’s suffrage (nineteenth-century practice was to use the singular, woman's; later practice was to use the plural, women's) activism than for her significant abolitionist work. Douglass was an outspoken freethinker, a friend of Robert Ingersoll, and an attendee at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention that launched the woman’s rights movements and the reform career of freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902). All the activists named in this paragraph participated in the Underground Railroad and at various times harbored escaped slaves in their homes.
By most metrics, west-central New York State was the nation's number-two center of abolition activism, trailing New England. But when it came to abolitionist politics, New York clearly took the lead. The first antislavery political party, the Liberty Party, was founded in Albany, New York, in 1840. Among its founders was the indefatigable Gerrit Smith. The party ran presidential tickets in 1840, 1844, and 1848. While the party had branches in other states, the great majority of its interest and support came from New York. By 1848 internal divisions had weakened the Liberty Party; only one of its splinters, the National Liberty Party, fielded a presidential slate in 1852. (Its presidential candidate was Gerrit Smith.) During its twelve-year run, the Liberty Party and its offshoots never elected a candidate. But they galvanized liberal opinion in the North in favor of abolition. They put antislavery politics in the spotlight and paved the way for the rise of the Free Soil movement (1848) and the Republican Party (1854), a major party whose antislavery stance resembled that of the "marginal" Liberty Party just a decade previously.
Perhaps no quotation better captures the power of the freethinkers’ case against slavery than this fiery passage delivered by Frederick Douglass at Rochester’s long-lost Corinthian Hall: "I would say welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel as preached by those divines [i.e. clergy who defend slavery]! They convert the very name of religion into a barbarous cruelty."