From Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Anti-Slavery Thought

Lewis Perry (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993 [1973]), 117-128


This is the material that first got me [CS] on to Rogers. Perry's book is wonderful, and as will be evident, heroically researched. One quibble: I don't read Rogers at the end as an atheist, though I wouldn't mind at all if he were! In my view, he is intensely religious in a completely anti-authoritarian way; I think of him as a thorough antinomian. Notice that to take Garrison's word on this, in the middle of their conflict and estrangement, is problematic, though I would never doubt Garrison's sincerity.


[In New Hampshire] antislavery and no-organizationism were synonymous, and Nathaniel P. Rogers, at the forefront of this anarchistic movement, rhapsodized on free meeting.[i] Rogers was a widely respected reformer. Descended from the Smithfield martyr John Rogers and from American puritan divines, he was the "pet and darling" of abolitionism, at one time editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard and a delegate to the world convention in 1840 when he was in his forty-sixth year. According to the political abolitionist William Goodell, Rogers was second only to Garrison, and perhaps surpassed him, in energy and talent. Together they might easily have dominated the antislavery societies if Rogers' nonresistance had not been total.[ii] From opponents of nonresistance came further testimony: Higginson, who knew about such things, recalled that Rogers' journalism had "a spice and zest which would now command a market on merely professional grounds. But he was a "Non-resistant of non-resistants" and "out-Garrisoned Garrison."[iii]

    As editor of the Herald of Freedom, Rogers came close to making no-organizationism a coherent theory touching on every aspect of culture and society. Though his style had zest, this American romantic nonetheless did not believe in formalities of style. Nature and speech were key words he used. He was led to distinctions resembling those favored by [Bronson] Alcott: "Argument," he said, meant less for reform than "STATEMENT"; or action is necessary only for unjust causes which will not bear earnest speech.[iv] Probably no other reformer has placed higher value on free speech. Rogers literally expected to talk slavery out of existence.

    Although Rogers started out with faith in speech, his destination was always the end of slavery. His earliest rejection of the ballot was based exclusively on the proslavery character of the available parties.[v] In April 1839 Orange Scott still thought that Rogers might be enlisted in opposition to Garrison's nonresistance, but Rogers explained that he respected both Scott and Garrison and did not worry about the extraneous opinions of dedicated abolitionists. As a budding no-organizationist, he denied that any leader spoke for him.[vi] As he became increasingly committed to nonresistance, he confessed that his mind had changed. He was now "convinced that all legislation was force and that as anti-slavery, in our opinion, was a strictly moral and relgious movement, a work of repentence and reformation, we could not resort to physical force."[vii] The basis of his radical career, then, was evangelicalism."

    Ten months after writing Scott that nonresistance was a matter for private judgment, of little concern to antislavery, Rogers was prepared to argue that legislation could create only "free niggers," that laws could never eradicate prejudice and racial domination.[viii]Thereafter his antislavery position was fixed: emancipation was as wrong as legislated abolition was futile, for it presumed an "act of mastery" to give up slaves.[ix] The real problem was to transform a national character in which men were willing to hold slaves and think of themselves as masters. That problem seemed obviously religious.

    There was a great excitement in Rogers' successive conversions. His ecstasy for come-outerism went to the limit of calling the "leap" of Thomas Parnell Beach from being a minister to joining his laymen "one of the most decisive steps, that has been taken - and one involving a good deal more of consequences, than any thing ever done by Martin Luther." The comparison was prolonged in Beach's favor by reference to Luther's use of "military government."[x] While Rogers had once hoped the churches would rally to the antislavery cause, his hatred of them now carried him to exaggerate their power over communicants; inevitably, he said, they enslaved the men and women of the North.[xi] In fact the "priests" deepened his suspicion of politics because of their apparent preference for political action so long as the issue of slavery had to be confronted at all. They knew that politics "generates a superficial and fictitious animation, like the stimulus of alcohol - but torpor and lethargy follow, and become the permanent condition of community." At the same timethey preferred pestilence "(among the laity)" and famine "(not extending to the parsonage)" to the threat of moral agitation in the community. An attack on the church, he insisted, was the only method "to annoy slavery out of the community."[xii]

    Sweet-tempered on most subjects, Rogers became nasty at the thought of the clergy, whom he characterized "Popery, only Protestantized."[xiii] As he relinquished the hope of obtaining denominationalaid for abolitionism, he provided an interesting case study in the ways in which the religious principles of abolitionists could undergo fundamental change. It would provide no satisfaction if Northern churches occasionally refused fellowship to slaveowners. He actually opposed schisms in the churches on the grounds that they were caused by pressures of antislavery agitation and not by differences in religious outlook; what was needed was the disintegration of formal religious institutions.[xiv] It was no longer a matter of opposing the churches for dereliction to their duty of whipping up antislavery opinion. There was a larger battle between the principle of authority and the principle of liberty, and the churches [by definition were] on the wrong side.

    This shift in viewpoint had far-reaching implications. As Rogers switched from attacking the extended metaphor of slavery, as all abolitionists did, to attacking the principle of authority, as any abolitionists might have, he became a thoroughgoing revolutionary, quite different from the stereotype of the antebellum reformer expecting by the removal of one institution to set the social machine on an easy course to the millennium. Authority was everywhere. For examaple, Rogers' attention was directed toward the white slaves of the North. If the Northern conscience tolerated institutions by which "Capital" buys labor "at auction," as he though it did, then it could hardly be effective against Southern slavery.[xv]

     The idea of property certainly seemed to need revision; everyone ought to have as a birthright the means of living.[xvi] While Rogers was vague about the remedy, he felt certain that the factory system was so evil that it could scarcely be reformed: "it is vain to go over a dunghill and crop or pull up weeds. . . . The heap must be demolished." After visiting the Northampton Community for a week he concluded that, despite the admirable piety and fraternity there, it would not suffice to "retreat" into such a venture. "I think it is my duty rather to stay amid the great community, destitute of communion as it is, and go for the communityzing the whole."[xvii]

    His assault on authority undermined his respect for church, state, and capitalism and resulted in a confrontation with the greatest autocrat of all - that same God in whose service Rogers had begun his errand. It was implicit in his come-outerism that clergymen falsely claimed to speak in God's name; on the contrary, true Christian ministers should be "unpretending men and women, claiming to speak as human beings, merely, and asking to be heard and regarded for the truths they tell, and not from any authority."[xviii] He denied that the Bible commanded obedience, "however Anti-Slavery and however true and glorious its contents may be." It was "useful" only insofar as it appealed to "human understanding." The great question of the age, in the opinion of this foe of all authority, was "how man discovers what is right." It was a contradiction to call for freedom of the slave on the grounds of Scriptural authority.[xix]

    John Pierpont, his friend and eulogist, thought Rogers relied on a revelation older than the Bible to learn - "for he was a lover of music - that slavery was a discord, that could never be brought into union with the harmonies of the universe." We might better say that Rogers' antislavery played hob with the autocratic government of God and helped produce and antiauthoritarian religion of humanity. In any case, Pierpont gave the example of a debate in which Rogers was told that Christ had never preached abolitionism. He said he had two answers: first, the charge was false, for the application of the Golden Rule alone would end slavery in twenty-four hours; and second, admitting - what I deny - that Jesus Christ did not preach the abolition of slavery, then I say, he didn't do his duty.[xx]Another associate remembered a peace gathering where it was generally agreed that human life could be taken by divine command. The presiding officer marshaled evidence for this position. Rogers finally asked:


'Does our brother yonder say that if God commanded him, he would take a sword and use ity in slaying human beings, and innocent, helpless human beings?' [Perry's note: It was a problem, of course, that the government of God could readily inspire a John Brown, as well as a non-resistant.] 'Yes, if God commanded,' was the answer. 'Well, I wouldn't,' responded Rogers.[xxi]


Eventually, Rogers admitted that he worried very little about God. Before vexing himself with duties in the realm of the supernatural, man should perform every natural duty toward his fellows. Probably the duties were identical, but in any case Rogers scorned those with no time for humanity because of their fixation on God.[xxii]

    He had come far from the otherworldly attitudes of much of come-outerism. He was well on his way to a situational ethics: a good position, as distinct from a political position, was of the moment and defied definition, yet it would compel opponents to define themselves.[xxiii] Perhaps only such a theory could reconcile his use of moral suasion to abolish slavery with his insistence that any kind of threatening, such as was evident in religious schisms and political disunionism, clashed with the principles of anti-slavery.[xxiv] Slavery was "a vicious habit," nothing more, to be eliminated by persistent statements of the truth, not by resolutions or laws or coercion.[xxv] Whatever the merits of his theory, it is plain that Rogers felt less changeable in following his own understanding to undefined positions than he would have in serving the codes of law of any authority. He insistently appealed to "universal human convictions." One could not say, for instance, that capital punishment was wrong because it was a sin, for that was to invoke the threat of capital punishment by God. Better simply to say that everyone understands it is wrong.[xxvi] By the same token, antislavery should not address man as a slave of God.


    Rogers is an abolitionist remembered by historians neither for his unusually thorough radicalism nor for his alienation from divine authority. Instead he is portrayed as a kind of left-wing deviationist who was badly treated. He may not really hold the sympathy of historians, but he is a useful foil for attacks on Garrison.

    It is hard to uncover what really happened in the dispute among abolitionists. For several years Rogers, with a touch of chauvinism not uncommon among abolitionists, praised reform activities in New Hampshire to the detriment of those in Massachusetts.[xxvii] New Hampshire symbolized the freedom of speech and impulse that abolitionists must accord [with] each other if their pleading for the slave was to have the ring of conviction. In 1844 the New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society voted that The Herald of Freedom would no longer be their official organ. Rogers wanted it that way. No one had actually interfered with his editorial divisions, but he wanted the paper separate from he society because editing, like speech, out to be "unshackled."[xxviii] In a subsequent disagreement over the finances and ownership of the paper, a committee of Boston abolitionists intervened and determined that it really belonged to the New Hampshire society and should be supervised by a special board. His worst fears thus materialized, Rogers refused further editorship.

     In a "new series" of the Herald of Freedom and in the Lynn Pioneer, Rogers traced the cause of his bitterness. He said that so few persons had ever bothered to vote in New Hampshire meetings that the Boston committee could not have generalized about majority sentiment. Also, three of the new supervisory board were not even members of the society, and one was a schismatic political abolitionist.[xxix] But if a sense of the vulnerability of free meeting against outside attack colored his animosity, he was more directly enraged at the insistence of the Bostonians that they were concerned only with tidying up an organizational dispute and were in no way punishing him for his theories of no-organizationism.

    Before the fracas Rogers had appealed for funds to build a house for Parker Pillsbury (who ironically succeeded him as editor of the Herald of Freedom). In the course of this appeal, he declared his belief in subscriptions only for specific individuals. The national antislavery societies, he claimed, had previously wasted money on political action, he claimed, had previously wasted money on political action; there was an implication that organizations were likely to spend money irresponsibly. At this point Edmund Quincy had privately warned Rogers not to impugn the financial reliability of all reform organizations. He called Rogers "a little intolerant and bigotted on your NO ORGANIZATION theory." Probably the issue could not be dodged much longer, for Quincy had threatened that if Rogers continued  to undermine the antislavery effort, "I WILL PITCH INTO YOU WITH ALL MY MIGHT." And there were hints of situations which might in turn undermine Rogers' position of strength in New Hampshire.[xxx] It was understandably galling to be told that Quincy and the Massachusetts visitors were disinterested neutrals.

    However, John Pierpont, a dear friend who was not a Garrisonian, refused to take sides in his introduction to a collection of Rogers' writings published in the heat of the dispute. He knew his friends in Massachusetts had also meant well.[xxxi] Probably no one had suspected how deep a hatred could be generated in Rogers by his yearning for freedom/ There is no reason to ignore Quincy's claim that abolitionists had always handled Rogers "like a cracked tea-cup" on account of his inability to argue with friends. "His No-Organizationism," Quincy admitted ironically, "was the original cause of all this trouble, but originating from himself and not us." Unable to bear Garrison's taunts about the oddity of a no-organizationist serving as editor of the organ of a society, he tried to appropriate what was not his. Then the train of hostility could not be stopped.[xxxii] Before the bitterness had any chance to subside, in 1846 Rogers died in Lynn, with Judson Hutchinson of the Hutchinson Family Singers at his side.[xxxiii]

     One may question whether Massachusetts would have interfered in the slightest had all the consequences been foreseeable. Rogers' own paranoiac rejoinders to the Liberator were surely embarassing to abolitionism. To the modern reader, moreover, they are very tiresome. With an increasing tendency to attack Garrison with the same millenarian invective he had once aimed at the corporate church, Rogers lost his earlier ability to concentrate on remediable inconsistencies in nonresistant abolitionism.[xxxiv] As a result, one check on the inclination of nonresistants to confuse the message of moral suasion with the hope of political gains was lost in the mid-1840s.

   It would be a mistake to use the unfortunate case of Rogers to show that the Garrisonians had been impressionable or even insincere in adopting anarchistic ideas. Rogers was for a time a trenchant critic of hazy attitudes toward dicive authority, political expediency, and organizational restraints; to some extent he anticipated the critique of the ambiguities of nonresistance presented earlier in this book. Nevertheless, Wright spoke from within the same complex of convictions that were associated with Garrison, Quincy, or [Henry] Wright. In their own ways they all employed the logic of separatism, moral suasion, and free meeting to forecast the liberation of mankind from coercion. If Rogers rebelled against the restrictions even of God's government, other Garrisonians were to follow the same path. When he noted that he had joined Clapp in the "Refuge of Oppression, the Liberator column reserved for proslavery voices, Rogers had reason to wonder whether at some point Garrison might not have to place himself there.[xxxv]

    It remains puzzling to watch the growth of hostility between Garrisonians and no-organizatiosts in spite of their common affection for nonresistance and coming-out. Regional differences at times seemed weightier than ideological ones. The hub city was estranged from some currents of feeling in the hinterlands. Perhaps in Boston it was difficult to question the apparent purposes in delivering addresses, publishing tracts, passing resolutions. In the come-outer regions of Cape Cod, New Hampshire, and the factory towns, the outlook for slavery was more personal, less conventional. Rogers thought the deference of his opponents for "aristocracy" was their undoing.[xxxvi] His was a Jacksonian viewpoint that emphasized the rural-versus-urban conflict of voluntary societies. Certainly in Boston the idea of a voluntary society remained harnessed to the hope of secular reform, while in the outlying areas this idea suggested the style of a new life.

    There is no doubt that Garrison himself was badly stung by the affair. His affection for Rogers had been unusually strong, even if it was a trifle patronizing. "As Jonathan loved David," he wrote to a mutual friend before the clash, "so do I feel my attachment drawn to N.P.R." He delighted in the rapid and "wonderul transformation" in Rogers' views toward greater and greater radicalism. But after the disputes began, no love was possible, and he was more aware of Rogers' "strong tendency of mind toward speculative atheism." Rogers, in his changing view, had grown foolish on the subject of freedom and had fallen in with others whose opinions were like those described by Milton: "license they mean, when they cry liberty." The break was both personal and theological. Garrison complained that "his malignity will surpass his former friendship," and at the same time compared his fall to Lucifer's - he would never rise to goodness again. Garrison avoided reading Rogers' writings in the last year of his former friend's life.[xxxvii] After this bitter tragedy we may be sure that the remaining Garrisonians were concerned to avoid atheism and license, however deep may have been their thirst for liberation.

   the Rogers affair impresses us with the complexity of the motives and goals in Garrisonian reform. In his excellent biography of Garrison, John L. Thomas has revealed the influence on him of the theocratic benevolence organizations through which ministers like Lyman Beecher, disturbed by the separation of church and state, tried to improvise controls over the people at large.[xxxviii] What had been an engine of the saints to control the unregenerate was transformed by the Garrisonians' discovery of immediatism: the goal was no longer to check vice but to end it, and society became a sort of replacement for the church. From our survey of come-outerism, however, it is evident that there was another source for the aspirations of reform societies. Besides the model of theocentric control, Garrison had the model of lower-class come-outerism and, behind it, a long history of religious individualism. This second model denied the possibility of order through control. Indeed, it celebrated the enthusiasm of the churchless. Garrison and his colleagues mixed the two models of reform society, but Rogers was purely a come-outer. The clash between Rogers and Garrisonians revealed unavoidable frustrations in the attempt to organize men and women to seek individual spontaneity. It also demonstrated that Garrison and Quincy would not permit the quest for self-liberation to discredit or detract from the movement on behalf of the slave.



[i] "We have never attended a meeting of any character so splendidly sustained and orderly, voluntarily and beautifully conducted," he wrote of the Stafford County Anti-Slavery Society's annual meeting in 1842. "It was a self-governing meeting. Our nominal president declined keeping order; and when, once or twice, some, who came into dispute, called for order and bred some little disorder, he threw the meeting on its self-government,and all was quietness" (quoted in Pillsbury, Acts of the Anti-Slavery Apostles, 22).

[ii] Goodell, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 529-531.

[iii] Higginson, Contemporaries, 333.

[iv] He also criticized "the cultivation of mere letters" in the Boston Miscellany and praised the "almighty power" of human speech, "unalloyed by learning." For these and other comments on language and style, see Miscellaneous Writings, 248, 227, 321, 357-359.

[v] Herald, March 30, 1839, 2.

[vi] Herald, Apr. 13, 1838, 2. Already he dismissed fears of Garrison's leadership: "We should say rather that it would not be safe to have a leader. We are a band of volunters

[vii] Pillsbury, Acts, 248.

[viii] Miscellaneous Writings, 60.

[ix] Herald, Sept. 27, 1844, 2.

[x] Herald, March 15, 1844, 1. A few months earlier, a writer in the Liberator (Dec. 22, 1843 2-3) predicted that the come-outers were bringing on the "SECOND REFORMATION." Rogers reprinted this view in the Herald, Dec. 29, 1843, p. 4.

[xi] See the violent statements in the Herald, March 12, 1842, 3: "Under a cunning priest they [the churches] are worse than the Inquisition. . . . A woman is a perfect slave in them, as much as she is in a Turkish Harem. . . . . A christian cannot live in one of them, any more than a freeman can live under an overseer's whip on a plantation." Therefore whatever "exposes their anti-christian character advances anti-slavery." For Rogers' own account of his earlier views, see Herald, July 22, 1842, 3.

[xii] Herald, April 8, 1842, 3.

[xiii] He was aware of his inconsistency: "I am for treating everybody kindly, and in a way to make them feel happier, and be the better. But when a man puts on the Priest, he not only forfeits all right and title and human coutesy, but it would be wrong to extend it to him." See Herald May 17, 1844, 2.

[xiv] Herald, May 30, 1845, 2.

[xv] Miscellaneous Writings, 308.

[xvi] 285-288

[xvii] Herald of Freedom, Jan 26, 1844, 1; Liberator, Sept. 8, 1843, 4.

[xviii] Herald, May 17, 1844, 3.

[xix] Miscellaneous Writings, pp. 280-285, 311-313.

[xx] Introduction to Miscellaneous Writings, xxi.

[xxi] Pillsbury, Acts, p.45.

[xxii] Herald, Jan 9, 1846, 2-3.

[xxiii] Herald, Aug 30, 1844, 3. This atttitude of Rogers forces us to look for many sources to define his "position."

[xxiv] Herald, May 30, 1845, 2; Liberator, June 6, 1845, 3.

[xxv] Herald, March 8, 1844, 3.

[xxvi] Herald, Jan 26, 1844, pp.2-3.

[xxvii] See, for example, Liberator, Feb. 7, 1840, p. 3.

[xxviii] Herald, July 5, 1844, p. 2.

[xxix] Herald, Oct 18, 1844, p. 2. Earlier (July 5, 1844, p. 3) Rogers had ridiculed those few who did vote at their conventions. After the third-party abolitionist, J.H. Ela, became "publishing agent" of the Herald, there began to appear reprints from such non-Garrisonian periodicals as the Christian Politician and the True Wesleyan. See Apr 18, 1845, p. 1; May 16, 1845, p. 1.

[xxx] Rogers reprinted his editorial and Quincy's letter in Herald of Freedom, July 25, 1845, pp. 3-4.

[xxxi] Miscellaneous Writings, p. xv. [The essay appears on this site.] Pierpont also (p. xvi) thought it unrealistic to attribute Rogers' early death to a broken heart, as some did, because Rogers had been afflicted with illnesses all his life. Moreover, when Quincy objected to certain passages in the introduction, Pierpont agreed to withdraw them from future editions. See Liberator, Dec 17, 1847, p. 2; Dec 31, 1847, p. 2.

[xxxii] Garrisons, Garrison, III, 123-127.

[xxxiii] Pierpont in intro to Miscellaneous Writings, p. xviii.

[xxxiv] Pierpont and Richard Hildreth more gently explained that broken-heartedness sapped his talents (MW p. xv). For one indication of the regret of Rogers' antagonists, observe that in Pillsbury's treatment (in Acts) of Rogers, himself, and other New Hampshire abolitionists, no mention is made of the dispute.

[xxxv] Pioneer, July 9, 1846, p. 3. For the presentations of both sides in the case of Clapp see July 24, 1846, p2. Garrison had waited until Clapp was abroad to launch an attack insinuating immorality.

[xxxvi] Herald, Aug 15, 1845, pp. 2-3.

[xxxvii] Garrison to Maria W. Chapman, Sept 9, 1843, Weston Papers, Boston Public Library; Garrison to R.D. Webb, March 1 1845; to George Benson, May 19, 1845; to J.M. McKim, July 19, 1845, Garrison Papers, Boston Public Library.

[xxxviii] Thomas, The Liberator, p. 70.

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