Summary and Keywords
American reformers have always put religion at the heart of their protest movements. They have invoked divine law and the word of God, ignored expediency and pragmatics, and acted on behalf of a transcendent truth. Nearly all major progressive reform movements have drawn on religious belief as they envisioned a new society. In particular, the American prophetic mode has been crucial to the reform tradition. American reformers in nearly all of the country’s reform movements of the past two hundred years have used the prophetic mode. But of the major reform movements, abolitionism and anti-lynching were the most thoroughly infused with religion. Abolitionists drew on the imagery of both Revelation and the Old Testament God of war, infusing their performative martyrdoms with apocalyptic imagery. They depicted Christ as the warrior of Revelation and Christ as the son of the Old Testament vengeful God, transforming the abolitionist martyr into the abolitionist messiah: a portent of divine judgment. Anti-lynching activists echoed and revised abolitionism’s Christ-like sacrifice for white America’s soul and created a series of black Christs that restaged the passion play for the Jim Crow South. This reform rhetoric, displaying the same righteous anger as abolitionists, met the religious imagery of racists head-on and turned anti-lynching’s calls for social change into a sacred text. At the heart of both major movements, which laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and for the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st century, was a messianic martyrdom that countered the religious justifications for slavery, lynching, and white supremacy.
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