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Puritan Spirits in the Abolitionist Imagination

Kenyon Gradert

Puritan Spirits in the Abolitionist Imagination

Kenyon Gradert

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

256 pages | 2 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020
Cloth $50.00 ISBN: 9780226694023 Published April 2020
E-book $10.00 to $50.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226694160 Published April 2020

The Puritans of popular memory are dour figures, characterized by humorless toil at best and witch trials at worst. “Puritan” is an insult reserved for prudes, prigs, or oppressors. Antebellum American abolitionists, however, would be shocked to hear this. They fervently embraced the idea that Puritans were in fact pioneers of revolutionary dissent and invoked their name and ideas as part of their antislavery crusade.

Puritan Spirits in the Abolitionist Imagination reveals how the leaders of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement—from landmark figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson to scores of lesser-known writers and orators—drew upon the Puritan tradition to shape their politics and personae. In a striking instance of selective memory, reimagined aspects of Puritan history proved to be potent catalysts for abolitionist minds. Black writers lauded slave rebels as new Puritan soldiers, female antislavery militias in Kansas were cast as modern Pilgrims, and a direct lineage of radical democracy was traced from these early New Englanders through the American and French Revolutions to the abolitionist movement, deemed a “Second Reformation” by some. Kenyon Gradert recovers a striking influence on abolitionism and recasts our understanding of puritanism, often seen as a strictly conservative ideology, averse to the worldly rebellion demanded by abolitionists.

Review Quotes
Philip F. Gura, University of North Carolina
“A wide-ranging investigation of the ways in which the history and memory of the American and English Puritans influenced the American abolitionist movement. Gradert’s range of sources is most impressive. Sermons, polemics, histories, poetry, journalism—he covers it all, while also showing how the Puritan rhetoric he so masterfully traces affected a remarkable range of figures, male and female, black and white. Moreover, Gradert writes with verve. This is a powerful, sophisticated book.”
James Livingston, Rutgers University
“The Puritans have endured bad press since they landed in these parts, eager to escape the atrocities on the other side of an ocean. Gradert amends these attitudes. He writes of the ‘revolutionary pleasure’ Puritanism gave us, and still provides us, if we’re willing to listen. Tune in, and you’ll be cured of the notion that Puritanism means abstention from your body and the world. You might even be seduced by the bodily thrumming that Gradert's argument summons.”
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