Title Reviewed:
Abolitionist, Actuary, Atheist: Elizur Wright and the Reform Impulse

Author Reviewed:
Lawrence B. Goodheart

Merton L. Dillon


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 87, Issue 1, pp 94-95

Article Type:
Book Review

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Abolitionist, Actuary, Atheist: Elizur Wright and the Reform Impulse. By Lawrence B. Goodheart. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990. Pp. xiii, 282. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $27.50.)

Elizur Wright, sometime abolitionist, actuary, and atheist, seemed destined for the ministry. Born in 1804 to fervently religious parents, educated at that seedbed of evangelicalism, Yale College, and then employed by Oberlin College, where religious commitment reigned, Wright must have felt all but irresistible pressure to consecrate his life to the pulpit. But resist he did. As an Oberlin faculty member in the 1830s, he became embroiled in a tooth-and-nail controversy between immediate abolitionists and proponents of black colonization. His ready pen in the immediatist cause propelled him from his frontier academic post to headquarters of the newly organized American Anti-Slavery Society in New York. As the society's secretary, he played a key role in the most aggressive and fateful reform effort of the age. During that campaign his unbelief was honed. Concluding that the conservatism of churches and clerics formed an obstacle to emancipation second only to that of slaveholders themselves, Wright adopted an anticlerical, antireligious stance that led him finally into the advanced freethought position that the author with probable exaggeration calls atheism. It also led him into temporary poverty and joblessness as the antislavery coalition splintered and he himself lost favor with the controlling groups.

Most of the prominent abolitionists of the 1830s maintained at least minimal ties with the movement as it evolved in later decades. Wright seems not to have done so. After several discouraging efforts at publishing reformist newspapers, his career took an unexpected turn. In the 1850s circumstances allowed him to help institute reforms in the infant life insurance industry, whose mysteries were creating fortunes for a few manipulators and losses for myriad small policyholders. Wright put his remarkable mathematical ability to the task of developing actuary tables that removed some of the mystery and much of the chicanery from life insurance. This was a permanent achievement from which millions of Americans have benefited.

Lawrence B. Goodheart has performed the enviable feat of making the abstruse realm of insurance statistics—of which Wright was master—comprehensible to the layman. For this alone he deserves congratulation. In all, Goodheart has written a well-researched, engaging study of a nineteenth-century figure whose varied accomplishments deserve to be better known.

MERTON L. DILLON is professor of history at The Ohio State University, Columbus. He is the author of several books on abolitionism and has recently published a study of slavery, Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and Their Allies, 1619-1865 (1990).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.