PBS The Abolitionists: Inspiring documentary series now on DVD

WHERE TO GET THE ABOLITIONISTS: Amazon is offering a discounted price on the DVD set of American Experience: The Abolitionists, including all three hours of the series that debuted on the PBS network.

Why All of Us
Should See
The Abolitionists


AS OUR NATION prepares for the second inauguration of our first African-American president, every one of us should watch the stirring PBS drama The Abolitionists that tells the dramatic story of freedom achieved just 150 years ago. \PBS unfurls a cross between a suspenseful miniseries and a historical documentary. This is far from Ken Burns’ Civil War with its hours of scratchy violin music and slow pans across grainy photographs. The Abolitionists does, indeed, show occasional photographs of the actual heroes and villains in this drama—and we realize that the actors portraying them in the dramatic sequences resemble the originals to an amazing degree! This truly is our history writ large for 2013, the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the opening episode, watching a very young Frederick Douglass traumatized by witnessing his first whipping of a slave, viewers surely will be horrified at the level of violence considered commonplace just 150 years ago. Viewers in the North may think of this as the terrible old South—a land long ago and far away. But, very quickly, historian David Blight points out that all Americans depended economically on the millions of slaves owned in the South. The rise of cotton as a major American resource benefited northern factories and shipyards as much as the South, Blight stresses.

When Angelina Grimke (at right in this scene from The Abolitionists) begins to preach that slavery is sinful, her mother whirls around in shock and anger.As Americans, there is so much we don’t know about the campaign to end slavery. (Read our interview with historian Stephen Prothero.) Today, it may be shocking to discover that the first American abolitionists were considered dangerously unbalanced. In fact, the first hero we meet—the Southern heiress Angelina Grimke—is considered half crazy by her family when she begins to suggest that owning slaves is a sin. A devoutly Christian young woman, Grimke becomes convinced of this revolutionary idea. There isn’t anyone in her considerable circle of social contacts who would entertain such a heretical idea.

What’s fascinating about Grimke’s early awakening is that, at first, she is not interested in the human rights of African-Americans. She is focused on the souls of her white family and friend who might one day burn in Hell for owning slaves. This is historically accurate and mirrors the first responses to slavery by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who initially was only worried about ensuring that chaplains tour the slave quarters of the South to provide services. It was only many years later that Wesley became one of the world’s staunchest abolitionists. Methodist leaders in the U.S. regarded his anti-slavery obsession as more of an annoyance than any kind of convincing religious wisdom. Before the Civil War and before the rise of Catholic immigration to the U.S., Methodism was on track to become America’s largest religious group. Only Wesley saw clearly how slavery would all but destroy his American church—and that’s what happened in the Methodist denomination’s division of North and South.

No, John Wesley does not appear in The Abolitionists. Depending on how much of this history you already know, there are countless heroes and chapters in this earth-shaking history that are missing in these three hours of video across the three nights. One enormous gap is that all of the British abolitionists, such as Thomas Clarkson, are missing. So is the influence of the Triangle Trade and the world’s addiction to sugar that played such a crucial role in slavery and its eventual decline.

Brace yourself for those huge gaps. Here is what this PBS series gets right and why it should be seen by every American:

A young Frederick Douglass (in The Abolitionists) is startled when he discovers that he is able to fight back against his abusive slave owner.Frederick Douglass’s story is told in great detail and he emerges in this version of the history as the embodiment of courageous black abolitionists. So many others, including Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, are missing in these three hours. But the decision to make space for many scenes with Douglass allows viewers to truly appreciate the transformation of an abused slave into a global hero in human rights.

Yes, William Lloyd Garrison is front and center as the man who founded America’s first abolitionist newspaper, wrote the charter of the first nation-wide abolitionist organization and personally urged Douglass into the spotlight.

Most impressively, Angelina Grimke’s star rises and one can only hope that in coming years Americans will become more aware of her life and works. Only one of her two bestselling books, An Appeal to Christian Women of the South, is widely available today. Right now, one of the few places you can read Angelina Grimke’s story is the book Interfaith Heroes by Daniel Buttry. We can only hope that, someday soon, a publisher will reprint her second and even more important bestseller, written with her husband Theodore Weld: American Slavery As It Is; Testimony of 1,000 Witnesses. That book’s controversial release in 1839 is dramatically portrayed in the PBS film, but viewers will be hard pressed to find a copy after watching the series.

How did a woman like Grimke suddenly become such a firebrand? Somehow—through movement of a divine spirit or through her own genius—Angelina was able to draw original conclusions about the values colliding all around her. She certainly emerged from an unlikely place. She was born with one of the most impressive pedigrees in the South as an aristocratic, plantation-owning heiress. Yet, she threw all of that away as a zealous abolitionist in the North. Her fire burned so brightly that Grimke raced past abolition into women’s rights. She demanded universal human rights so fervently that even her abolitionist friends were terrified for her. They had good reason to fear for her safety, as The Abolitionists shows us!

Near the end of Part 1 on Tuesday night, youll smile at the scene of Grimke’s wedding to Theodore Weld, another radical activist. Their service is a triumph of do-it-yourself idealism, including bride and groom both vowing to denounce any notion that a woman should be subservient to her man.

While this series often is grim—and serious treatment of slavery must be grim at points—there are suspenseful, deeply moving and even occasionally amusing moments in this series as well. You won’t forget in Part 1 the moment when Frederick Douglass discovers that he can rise up and beat the slave owner who has been beating him. Later in the series, you’ll hold your breath when Douglass and John Brown argue on the eve of the Harper’s Ferry raid about whether Douglass should take up a gun with Brown’s guerillas. And, you’ll feel the suspense in Part 3 when deeply discouraged abolitionists anxiously await January 1, 1863, fearful that Lincoln won’t sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

Many doubted that he would have such moral courage! Well, this review contains no spoilers because we all know the broad brush strokes of this history. Of course Lincoln signed. What most Americans don’t know is how narrowly the cause of freedom squeaked into American law. We all know the costs of the Civil War, but most of us have no idea of the costs shouldered by the men and women who transformed our nation and ultimately made possible this month’s inauguration in Washington D.C.

Care to read more about this milestone in world history?

HISTORIAN STEPHEN PROTHERO talks about the enduring significance of Lincoln’s proclamations 150 years ago—from the Emancipation Proclamation through his Thanksgiving declaration later in 1863.

LINCOLN’S REMARKABLE THANKSGIVING declaration will be discussed throughout 2013, especially as November rolls around. We have that complete historic text and the story behind it.

PROFILE 1: Daniel Buttry has posted his entire chapter on Angelina and Sarah Grimke.

PROFILE 2: Buttry also shares his profile of British anti-slavery activist Thomas Clarkson.

PROFILE 3: Buttry also has posted an inspiring profile of Frederick Douglass.

The OurValues column is devoting an entire week to these themes. Add a comment.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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