The role of religions
The part played by religion and by churches in abolitionist movements in the United States and in Brazil was very different from one another.
North-American and British abolitionism’s strongest component was precisely religious conviction. The Quakers were pioneers in the struggle against slavery in Great-Britain. This puritan religious group, known as Society of Friends, got involved in the struggle from the end of the 17th century. Despite the fact that there is no condemnation of slavery in the Bible, they decided such practice was incompatible with the principle of equality of all men before God. Allied with other religious groups, they got organized into abolitionist societies, mobilized the public opinion and pressured the Parliament to pass measures against slavery. In 1807, these militants got their first great victory when the Parliament decreed the end of slave trade.
The Quakers activity was extended to the United States, where the struggle was much harder, once there slavery was inside the country. Even though, in the 1830’s there were already several abolitionist societies in operation, all motivated by puritan values and organized by Quakers, Methodists and Baptists. The most important one was the American Anti-Slavery Society, created in 1833.
In Brazil, abolitionist thinking was neither based on religion, nor did the Catholic Church get involved in the cause. On the contrary, priests and religious orders were accessary and accomplices to slavery. The Bible, they argued, did not prohibit slavery and, after all, what mattered was the freedom of the soul free from sin, and not civil freedom. Besides, priests were employees of the State, whose interests they had difficulty in challenging. Our abolitionism was rather based on political and humanitarian reasons.
This contrast helps us understand why, in the United States, abolition was followed by strong actions in favor of former slaves, especially in the fields of education, political rights and access to land ownership. Among us, nothing was done, either by the State, or by the Church, or by individuals.
José Murilo de Carvalho is a titular professor at UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) and author of Dom Pedro II: Ser ou não ser (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2007).
(RHBN. No. 32. May 2008. P. 16)