Ben Wright is Assistant Professor of History at The University of Texas at Dallas. This interview is based on his new book, Bonds of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism (LSU Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Bonds of Salvation?
BW: My life project—the question that wakes me up in the middle of the night and that I plan to address with all of my future work—is studying how Christianity inspired people of faith to confront, or sadly too-often perpetuate, white supremacy. Exploring the abolitionist movement was an obvious starting point.
This specific project began when I kept encountering white Christians who privately attacked slavery yet never took any organized antislavery action. Understanding this seeming hypocrisy led me the ideologies of conversionism and purificationism, and then tracking the development and consequences of these ideologies gave me my narrative.
Finally, I will admit that history is a conversation between the past and present, and I absolutely used the process of writing this book to work through some of the moral failings of the evangelical world in which I grew up. Those interrogations took on a different tenor after the 2016 election.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Bonds of Salvation?
BW: Bonds of Salvation is the story of how Protestant Christianity, and its ideologies of conversionism and purificationism, both inspired and limited the development of American abolitionism. Dreams of expanding salvation formed some of the most powerful forces in creating the American nation and then only a few decades later, tore the country apart.
JF: Why do we need to read Bonds of Salvation?
BW: Perhaps it’s Midwestern humility or enduring imposter syndrome, but I’m wincing at the word “need.” One could certainly have a happy and fulfilling life without reading my book.
But… I do think my book attempts to address some very important questions about Christianity and American history: What does the kingdom of God look like? How do our religious communities balance looking within and without, salvation and holiness, evangelism and discipleship? How do we balance our desires for unity and our seeking justice? And ultimately, to invoke Frederick Douglass, what is the difference between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ?
On a more specific note, Bonds of Salvation makes a few historiographical interventions. First, it challenges the distinction in antislavery studies between gradualism and immediatism and instead offers a framework of conversionism and purificationism. Second, it argues for the centrality of conversionist Christianity in creating denominational bodies that fostered and nearly destroyed the American nation. Third, it centers missionary debates in the debate over the American Colonization Society, the national organization that sought to solve the problem of slavery and expand salvation by resettling Black Americans in Liberia.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BW: I had many outstanding mentors. To name just a few: Diana Magnuson at Bethel University foregrounded historiographical change in her undergraduate classes. The realization that history was not the recounting of dry facts but rather an invitation to an evolving conversation ignited something in me. Randall Balmer, then at Columbia, rescued an overwhelmed and outgunned MA student, and made me believe that I was capable of doing meaningful work. John Boles at Rice set an example of diligent scholarship and generous collegiality. The best advice I ever received about wanting to become a historian was, “don’t do it.” Only after really understanding the difficulty of the work and the obstacles of a nearly impossible job market did I realize that I needed to at least try to find a career reading, writing, and teaching history.
JF: What is your next project?
BW: My next monograph will build on the work I’ve done on the colonization movement and delve more deeply into how British and American missionaries crafted visions for empire that led to colonization in West Africa.
I also stay pretty busy maintaining (and hopefully soon extending) my textbook project, The American Yawp. I’m really interested in both the intellectual implications and practical applications of the digital humanities. Joseph Locke (my American Yawp co-editor) and I have a piece that underwent an open review from the AHR about those issues (see ahropenreview.com). We hope to extend that analysis in some other works.
And in honor of this excellent blog’s founder, I’ll admit that, at least in my head, I’m frequently humming “Reason to Believe” and rewriting a series of essays on religion and Bruce Springsteen.
JF: Thanks, Ben!
Anyone interested in buying Bonds of Salvation can use the promo code 04READHOME for 40% off from The Louisiana State University Press.