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William Lloyd Garrison's Fight Against a 'National Sin'

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WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON
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See 'The Abolitionists' starting Jan. 8 on PBS featuring the intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown.

On a chilly evening in March 1828, in a modest Boston boarding house, William Lloyd Garrison, a 22-year-old impoverished printer from Newburyport, Mass., met the man who would change his life. Frail, tender-hearted Benjamin Lundy was on a swing through town raising money for his one-man abolitionist newspaper. Lundy told a wide-eyed Garrison about the slave pens he had seen in Virginia, about "soul sellers" with horse whips and barefooted children, separated from their mothers, driven through mud and snow. Garrison had never given slavery much thought before, but Lundy's vivid descriptions shook him to the core and gave him a mission: the immediate and complete abolition of slavery.

Garrison established his own anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, a weekly he would publish for more than three decades, setting the type for each issue by hand himself. He railed incessantly against the iniquities of the slave system, over time winning adherents to the cause and forcing the issue of slavery onto the national agenda. His commitment made him a hero to some -- the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe once said it was impossible to know Garrison "and not love him" -- and a villain to many others: he was burned in effigy, gallows were erected outside his house, and at one point, he almost lost his life to an angry mob. Through it all, he was driven by a religious conviction that had shaped him from his youth.

Garrison's life had begun humbly. He was the son of a drunken sailor who had abandoned the family when Lloyd was 3. His mother, Fanny, was left to fend for herself and her children. Determined that Lloyd not follow in his father's dissolute footsteps, and fortified by her own fiery Baptist faith, Fanny Garrison drummed into her son a strict moral code and a Christian conscience that would guide him for the rest of his life. When Garrison left Newburyport for Boston in late 1826, his mother was long since dead, but her admonitions to guard against sinfulness with "the whole armour of God" accompanied him to the big city.

Garrison arrived in Boston at the time of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Powerful evangelist preachers across the country were urging Americans to assume responsibility for improving society in God's name. The young man visited pulpit after pulpit in search of direction. He found himself particularly drawn to the sermons of the prominent Presbyterian clergyman Lyman Beecher. "The way to get good is to do good," Beecher would tell his congregants, urging them to form a "disciplined moral militia" to reform the country for the better.

Garrison took the advice to heart. From the beginning, his abolitionist crusade would be a religious one. In his very first anti-slavery speech at the Park Street Church on July 4, 1829, Garrison called slavery a "national sin" and urged churches to lead the struggle in the "holy contest." When he penned the founding document for the American Anti-Slavery Society a few years later, he listed the organization's goals as "the opposition of moral purity to moral corruption -- the destruction of error by the potency of truth ... and the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance."

It didn't take very long, however, for Garrison to begin to lose faith in established churches and their leadership. Days after Lundy first met Garrison, the two men organized a meeting with several clergymen, hoping the church leaders would launch an anti-slavery society. The clergymen urged caution, warning that action against slavery might enrage Southerners. Their timidity made Garrison livid.

Over the years, he grew increasingly disenchanted. Even Beecher, his old mentor, disappointed him. From the pages of The Liberator, in urgent, often offensive language, Garrison denounced Southerners and championed the immediate abolition of slavery. Beecher found Garrison's arguments intemperate and his goals unrealistic. "Oh Garrison," Beecher wrote, "great economic and political questions can't be solved so simply. You must take into account what is expedient as well as what is right." Garrison in turn would accuse Beecher of going with the South and "lulling consciences."

In the end, Garrison would urge his followers to "come out" of churches that remained neutral on the question of slavery. And although he was guided by scripture for his entire life, Garrison ultimately stopped going to church himself. When his daughter, Fanny, was asked at school whether she had been baptized, the question confused her. Her father shed what light he could. "No my darling," he replied, "you weren't baptized, but you have had a good bath every morning, and that is a great deal better."