The day of America’s jubilee has dawned at last; and we who have watched and striven through the dark night of her despotism, now hail that dawning with joy and gratitude unutterable.
So wrote Mary Grew in the Twenty-Ninth Annual Report of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS). She referred, of course, to the Emancipation Proclamation. This group of women had been organizing and agitating against slavery for almost thirty years. In December 1833, a small band of twenty white and black women declared,
Whereas more than two millions of our fellow creatures of these United States are held in abject bondage, and whereas we believe slavery, and the prejudice against colour, are contrary to the laws of God, and to the principles of our far-famed Declaration of Independence, and recognizing the right of the slave to immediate emancipation, we deem it our duty as professing Christians to manifest our abhorrence of the flagrant injustice and deep sin of slavery, by united and vigorous exertions of its speedy removal, and for the restoration of the people of colour to their inalienable rights.
Since then, the population of slaves in the United States had doubled. The members of PFASS faced down mobs, and denunciations from lawmakers. After the Christiana riot, for example, Judge Robert C. Grier blamed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society for promulgating “doctrines subversive of all morality and all government." When the Civil War broke out, these abolitionists watched as leading politicians (to go unnamed here) began echoing their views.
PFASS grew in size, but a small cohort ran the organization. They defined themselves as “professing Christians,” yet they represented a variety of denominations, and included Baptists like Mary Grew (who later became a Unitarian), Hicksite Quakers like Lucretia Mott, recovering Quakers like Sarah Pugh, and supporters of the Progressive Friends, such as Harriet Forten Purvis. The society was liberal and non-sectarian, with membership based on agreement with the beliefs and duties outlined above.
Like other anti-racist prophets in American history, PFASS interpreted the significance of emancipation through the lens of Christianity, broadly defined. Their gender also shaped their interpretation:
On that day an angel passed over our land, and entering the hovel of the slave, transformed it into a HOME. He stooped over a hundred thousand cradles, and breathed the breath of a new life into the souls of their unconscious occupants, and bade a hundred thousand mothers clasp, for the first time, free children in their arms.
But they tempered their jubilation with the knowledge that slavery and racial prejudice continued. The rights of African Americans were not yet determined: The fact is revealed, clearly and sadly enough, that this nation has not heartily repented of its sins against the slave.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society vowed to keep fighting. With the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, members closed their books with satisfaction, and the observation that “neither State nor Church is yet really converted to Christianity.”
But in 1863, the joyous, optimistic, skeptical members of PFASS reprinted the text of the Emancipation Proclamation.