Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Ben Wright's "Bonds of Salvation"

Ben Wright is an assistant professor of historical studies at the University of Texas at Dallas who specializes in the history of race and religion. His research explores how people of faith understood and responded to social injustice, particularly around issues of race.

Wright applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Bonds of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism, and reported the following:
The 99th page of Bonds of Salvation discusses how the federal government supported the American Colonization Society in their scheme of colonizing Black Americans in the colony that became Liberia. Formed in 1815, the American Colonization Society held together a fractious coalition of enslavers and antislavery activists by promising that by relocating Black Americans to West Africa, the United States could help expand Christianity on the continent that had been victimized by the transatlantic slave trade and by so doing redeem the sins of the nation incurred through its role in that traffic. Nearly all Americans, including the supposedly secular House of Representatives, lauded this mission.

My book explores how Christianity inspired and limited the fight against slavery in the United States, and the colonizationist movement is, in fact, a narrative hinge to that story. This page touches on several of the key themes of the book, including the relationship between ideas regarding religious conversion and debates about American slavery. However, focusing on only these trees would obscure the forest. Like most works of academic history, I am most explicit in laying out the argument, method, and narrative of the book in the introduction, and I’m inclined to think that the old-fashioned tactic of browsing an introduction remains the best way to quickly understand a book like mine.

Chronological sweep is really important to a work of history, and this page does not indicate that my book moves from the American Revolution to the Civil War. Moreover, the key analytical categories of my study—ideologies that I call conversionism and purificationism—are not explained or even entirely present on this page. While purificationists sought to make the world a better place by purging sin from their communities, conversionists believed that prioritizing the expansion of conversions would most assuredly eliminate the sins of the world. Page 99 drops you right into the middle of conversionist logic without explaining it or situating it in the wider ideological world of the era. My hope is that my book will offer readers an origin story for the fraught relationship between American Christianity and white supremacy. American Christianity aided in the process of entrenching racism in the nation and provided the most powerful discourse to root out that same racism. I’m sorry to say that if readers want to understand that story, they will have to read a bit more than this single page.
Visit Ben Wright's website.

--Marshal Zeringue