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My Finger on the Hot Button

Lessons from the abolitionist era on addressing controversial social issues

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Last year I took my wife to St. Louis on a holiday weekend, and mixing business with pleasure, we spent two half days in the Missouri Historical Research Library. My purpose was to research sermons from the mid-19 century, specifically those addressing the topics of slavery and gambling.

I wanted to see how preachers dealt with the hot button issues of the day, particularly in a border area like St. Louis. In the 1800s, Missouri was a slave state, while Illinois was free. I intended to compare and contrast those sermons with how contemporary preachers approach social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

I came to the library planning to research from a list of six preachers from that place and time. The only name known to me was Edward Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I searched books, personal letters, local newspapers, and other documents, many of them original manuscripts. The hunt failed to produce any sermons by those on my list of preachers, so I widened ...

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