‘We will be slaves no more
Since Christ has made us free
Has nailed our tyrants to the cross
And bought our liberty’,
- Popular slave song.
Last year, 2007, was the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire in 1807. A number of British cities involved in the trade staged special exhibitions and events marking abolition. At the beginning of the year, there was a special service of remembrance attended by the Queen and leading British politicians held at Westminster abbey. Frank Walton over at Atheism Sucks mentioned that last month, January, was Black History month. In Britain Black History month has been October for the past couple of years. Given the immense importance of the abolition of slavery has had in shaping American and European attitudes towards slavery, freedom, race and human dignity, I thought I’d also review the immense contribution Christianity made to regulating the trade in an attempt to make it more humane, and finally to abolishing it all together. This was done by Christians of a variety of denominations – Roman Catholics, Quakers, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and Moravians. There had, it is true, been revolts by slaves long before Christians campaigned for the abolition of slavery, but these were revolts by slaves against their own enslavement, not against slavery as an institution. The 18th and 19th century abolitionist campaigns went beyond this, demanding not just the liberation of slaves, but the complete end to slavery as a social institution.
Regulation of Slavery by Roman Catholicism
As plantation slavery emerged with the conquest of the Americas by the Europeans, so the Papacy attempted to regulate it and ameliorate its excesses for Roman Catholics. The Church condemned either the trade itself, or slavery, in 1462, 1741, 1815 and 1839. 1 In the Spanish empire, the legal position of slaves was essentially a continuation of the medieval legal provisions established in the common law code of 1250, Las Siete Partidas. This included rights for the slaves, and their masters’ obligations towards them. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church recognised slaves’ humanity and demanded their humane treatment. 2 A Roman Catholic Caribbean synod of 1622 further codified the legal position of slaves, establishing sanctions for masters who prevented their slaves from attending mass or receiving religious instruction on Feast Days. 3 The Spanish law code of 1789 stipulated that masters had to encourage their slaves to marriage and provided for the slave’s purchase of their freedom in instalments in a process termed coartacion, although even after liberation the slave remained a second-class citizen, unable to carry arms, and forced to wear a certain type of dress and with some legal obligations towards their former masters. 4 Slaves were also able to gain their freedom through co-operation with their masters or the authorities in certain criminal cases. Slaves accused of crimes, even murder, enjoyed the same rights of prosecution and trial as free people. There was also a limitation on the punishment inflicted on slaves who failed to perform their duties. By law a slave could only be given a maximum of 25 lashes, in such away that they did not bruise nor draw blood. Slaves who escaped to Cuba to embrace Roman Catholicism were protected by a royal order of 1733. 5 Slaves also often enjoyed the same rights to holidays and free days as the rest of society. In Brazil slaves were free on Sundays and all holidays, and were allowed to work for themselves to build up money in order to purchase their freedom. 6 Furthermore, in Brazil slaves were married in church. Slave families could not be separated by sale. Their murder at the hands of a sadistic master was prohibited. 7 Blacks and people of mixed race enjoyed a freedom in Spain that they did not have further north. They weren’t just labourers, but were also skilled craftsmen, soldiers, musicians and even became priests and judges. ‘All these things were possible to the slave before the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, and it was for this reason (amongst others) that emancipation in Iberian domonions occurred without violence, bloodshed or civil war.’ 8
Protestant Insistence on Equality of Christians Regardless of Race
The Protestant churches too initially insisted on the full humanity of the slave. The Dutch Reformed Church at the 17th century synod of Dort declared that slaves who converted to Christianity ‘ought to enjoy equal rights of liberty with other Christians.’ 9 This racial equality even existed in Cape Colony, long before the rise of apartheid. In the 17th century the mixed race children of European fathers were freed when they reached adulthood, provided that they spoke Dutch and were confirmed members of the church. ‘During the early the period freed slaves of mixed ancestry were not viewed as a separate ethnic group; they had all the civil rights of whites, with whom they intermarried, although this situation changed in the 18th century.’ 10
Denial of Slaves’ Equality
This situation changed in the 17th and 18th centuries as the planters became reluctant to see their slaves enjoy the possibility of liberty that could be offered by conversion to Christianity. In Jamaica slaves were given very little free time to cultivate their own plots of land, and were discouraged from Christian, or indeed any other religious practices. 11 Marriage was discouraged and promiscuity encouraged, in order to increase their numbers and their profitability by selling members of a slave family separately. It was also feared that family life would give them a place in society and give them ideas above their station. 12 Initially, the churches collaborated with this attitude. ‘In the meantime, the Anglican clergy generally took the path of discretion and exhorted the slaves to please their masters by working hard, and to accept with resignation their earthly lot which, whether predestined by God ornot, had somehow devolved upon them.’ 13 The Anglican Thomas Secker declared in 1740 that ‘Scripture, far from making any alteration in civil rights, expressly directs taht every man abide in the condition wherein he is called, with great indifference of mind concerning outward circumstances.’ 14
Christian Opposition to Slavery and the Slave Trade
This was not the attitude of other Christian denominations, however. Although George Fox, the founder of the Quaker faith, in his visit to Barbados in 1671 had told the slaves he tried to convert to ‘to be subject to their masters and governors’, by the late 17th century Quakers were opposed to slavery. 15 This was not such a great step for them. Although Fox accepted slavery, he strongly believed that masters had a duty to treat their slaves humanely, and that they should be freed after a certain period of time. 16 They came to this view from their conviction that Christ had died for all humanity, regardless of colour. ”Christ died for all,’ declaimed the great Quaker Geroge Fox, ‘for the Taiwanese and for the blacks as for you that are called whites.” 17 In 1680 the Quaker Morgan Godwyn stated that ‘Negro’s are men, and therefore are invested with the same right … that being thus qualified and invested to deprive them of this right is the highest injustice.’ 18 In 1727 the Quakers resolved that involvement in slavery or the slave trade ‘is not a commendable nor allowed practice, and is therefore censured by this meeting.’ 19 Nevertheless, some Quakers continued to own slaves, although many firmly rejected their personal involvement with the trade. Dr. John Lettsom, for example, who had been born into a slave-owning family in Tortola, freed his slaves in 1767 after his return from England, where he had gone to receive his education and medical training. 20 In 1776 the Quakers requested everyone who participated in the slave-trade to resign their membership of the Society. 21 Other Christian leaders also stressed the common humanity of slaves. The Boston judge Samuel Sewall, a Presbyterian, wrote an early anti-slavery tract explicitly based on the Bible, The Selling of Joseph in 1700. 22 The Methodist preacher George Whitefield exhorted Whites to consider slave children as the equals of their own. ‘Think your children are in any way better by nature than the poor negroes? No! In no wise! Blacks are just as much, and no more, conceived and born in sin, as white men are; and both, if born and bred up here, I am persuaded, are naturally capable of the same improvement.’ 23
The greatest opposition to the slave trade, however, came from the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1756. This group won a major victory in the 1772 legal decision regarding the slave, James Somerset. Somerset had been brought to England by his master, from whom he escaped. He was then recaptured, and faced export for sale in Jamaica. After a lengthy trial, the court ruled that there was no provision supporting slavery in English law, and Somerset was freed. Although it was not a victory for abolition, it did reinforce opposition to slavery in Britain. 24
The leaders of the British anti-slavery campaign were William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship and Anglican priest. Wilberforce had been elected an MP for Hull in 1780. 25 A favourite figure in British high society and a gambler, Wilberforce experienced a profound religious conversion in 1785 and contacted John Newton, then the rector of Olney, about becoming an Anglican priest in 1785. 26 Newton persuaded him to continue in his political career, but combine it with his Christian principles. In a letter to Samuel Cowper of January 1786, Newton stated ‘I hope the Lord will make him a blessing, both as a Christian and as a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide! But they are not incompatible.’ 27 Newton was not to be disappointed. Convinced of the fundamental evil of slavery, Wilberforce began a long parliamentary campaign against the slave trade, submitting bills against it in 1788, 1791, 1795, 1796, 1797, 1798, 1798, 1799 and 1802. 28 The Quakers had, already, called for the formation of a committee at their London Yearly Meeting in 1783 to draft a petition to parliament to outlaw the slave trade. 29 Another pillar of the British anti-slavery campaign was Thomas Clarkson. Clarkson was the son of an Anglican curate, was going to enter the church himself before he turned his energies to attacking the slave trade. 30 Indefatiguable in gathering information on the ‘abominable trade’, Clarkson travelled to slaving ports around Britain and even several times to Africa interview the captains and crew of slave ships. In his career he searched 317 to find a willing witness to the slave trade. 31 Wilberforce and Clarkson were supported in their efforts by John Newton and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Newton, the reformed captain of a slave ship, supported the Abolitionist campaign with the 1788 pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. 32 In it, Newton vividly described the appalling death rate among slaves and crew aboard the slave ships, and the rape and sexual abuse of slave women. Attacking notions that the abuse of African women was acceptable, as they lacked the sensibility of White women, Newton stated firmly ”I dare contradict them in the strongest terms … I have lived long and conversed much among these supposed savages. I have often slept in their towns … with regard to teh women in Sherbro where I was the most acquainted, Ihave seen many instances of modesty and even delicacy which would not disgrace an English woman.’ 33 Newton’s pamphlet was strongly supported by the Anti-Slavery Society, then called The Society for Effcting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which sent unsold copies of it to every MP, both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. 34 In February, he gave his personal testimony on the slave trade to a Privy Council established by parliament to investigate it. 33 Newton further corresponded with Phillips, the president of the Society, and gave further evidence before a parliamentary select committee in 1790. 35 For Newton, the people of the Sherbro district ‘are in a degree civilised, often friendly, and may be trusted where they have been previously deceived by the Europeans. I have lived in peace and safety amongst them when I have been the only White man amongst them for a great distance.’ 36
18th Century Materialist Scientific Racism
Although this may strike contemporary readers as rather patronising, it is very far from the racist views of Black Africans generally held in the 18th century. The 1797 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica declared that ‘vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race: idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness adn intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself.’ 37 Freethinkers shared this prejudiced. M. Le Romain’s entry ‘Negre‘ in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie declared that ‘they appear to constitute a new species of mankind’, describing them as the ‘wicked people that inhabits the African meridian’ before going on to describe scientific attempts to discover the cause of their darker complexion. 38 The great sceptical philosopher David Hume also assumed that Blacks were inferior, once describing a Black Jamaican who was admired for his great intellect as ‘admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.’ 39 The racist language of European secular intellectuals like Hume was in sharp contrast to the Christian abolitionists, such as John Wesley, James Ramsay and Granville Sharp, who identified this racial inferiority with materialistic philosophy and Hume and Voltaire, and viewed their campaign for abolition as a vindication of Christianity, moral accountability and the unity of humanity. 40 Sharp was a lawyer who specialised in representing slaves, and was a vigorous opponent of those who denied the divinity of Christ. 41
The Anti-Slavery Society and John Wesley
The abolitionists also included the notable evangelical Anglican poet and educationalist, Hannah More. Their badge, showing a chained African slave wearing only a loin cloth, kneeling with the slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother’, was designed by the great porcelain manufacturer William Wedgewood. They also had the full support of John Wesley. On the journey to and from Leatherhead in London to deliver his sermon of Wednesday, 23April 1791, Wesley read the autobiography of the former slave, Olaudah Equiano, known in his day as Gustavus Vassa, the Interesting Narrative, which he helped finance. 42 As Wilberforce was preparing for the 1791 antislavery debate, Wesley wrote him a letter of encouragement. The letter gave a frank statement of Wesley’s view of slavery, and of the righteousness of Christian opposition to it:
’But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God: O be not weary of well doing. Go on, in the name of God, and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
Reading this morning a tract wrote me by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance, that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redess; it being a law in all our Colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this!’ 43 Wesley had become convinced of the iniquity of slavery in 1772 after reading a work by the great Quaker anti-slavery writer, Anthony Benezet. He expounded his opposition to it in the book, Thoughts on Slavery, asking ‘did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this? … I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.’ 44 In 1784 the Wesleyan Connexion in America threatened to expell slave-owners, though it later backed down. 45
Success of Wilberforce’s Campaign against British Slave Trade
As well as acting against the prevailing sceptical, scientific view of Black’s racial inferiority, Wilberforce and his Christian allies against the slave trade also faced opposition from the secular political establishment. Lord Melbourne declared that ‘things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.’ 46 Secular opinion viewed the abolitionists very much as do-gooding religious fanatics. In the 1820s and 1830s opponents of the anti-slavery campaign described it as ‘philanthropic’ and ‘visionary’ in a pejorative sense. In 1805 Wilberforce succeeded in persuading the Prime Minister, William Pitt, to outlaw the selling of slaves to Dutch Guinea and a group of French islands. Then, due to the efforts of the evangelical James Stephen, the slave trade was finally outlawed in the British empire on the 1st May 1807. The Duke of Norfolk declared it to be a ‘humane and merciful act’ and considered it no accident that the slave trade had been outlawed during Holy Week, which celebrated ‘that stupendous instance of mercy towards mankind, the redeption of the world by His death upon the Cross.’ 47
Christian Missions to the Caribbean
After the abolition of the slave trade, Wilberforce and the Anti-Slavery Society turned their attention to attacking slavery itself, aided by Black Christians themselves who drew on Christianity to resist slavery. Although the planters in the Caribbean had been unwilling to allow Christian evangelism amongst their slaves, this changed during the 18th century. Christian missionary work amongst the slaves in the British Caribbean effectively began in 1753 when two Jamaican planters invited the Moravians to teach their slaves Christianity. 48 The Moravians were then followed by missionaries of other denominations, including Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The Wesley Missionary Society was founded in Jamaica in 1789. They were especially active in attempts to bring the Gospel to Jamaican slaves, and improve their physical condition and material environment. 49 In Antigua Wesleyan Methodism was run between the death of its founder, Nathaniel Gilbert and the arrival of his official replacement, by a series of gifted female slave preachers, very much in the spirit of the early Christian church. 50 They were joined by two Black American Baptist preachers, George Lisle and Moses Baker, who founded the Native Baptist Movement. Concerned at the mixture of orthodox Christianity and what was perceived as African paganism in their doctrines, the Jamaican government invited the Baptist Missionary Society in England to send more orthodox preachers and missionaries to the country. This resulted in the formation of the Jamaican Baptist Mission in 1814. A decade later, in 1824 the Presbyterian Church of Jamaica was founded, soon followed by the Congregationalists. 51
Missionaries’ Concern to Protect Slaves and Improve their Conditions
In general, the Nonconformist denominations in Jamaica worked together to protect slaves from excessive cruelty and to improve their condition by instructing them on the sanctity of human life and personality, the importance of self-respect and individual responsibility. The result was antagonism between the planters, who saw the missionaries as a threat to their interests, and the missionaries themselves. 52 There was initially opposition over the provision of education by the missionaries because it was feared that this would enable the slaves to read revolutionary tracts preaching insurrection. 53 The missionaries in their turn began to formulate plans for the eventual abolition of slavery. When a slave revolt broke out in Demerara in 1824, it was blamed on the preaching of the missionary, John Smith. Smith was arrested and died in custody. Although he himself and his widow claimed they had not encouraged the slaves to revolt, this nevertheless demonstrates the potent force Christian mission posed as a challenge to contemporary dehumanising conditions in slavery, and its encouragement of slaves to challenge their enslavement. 54
The Baptists were particularly active in the campaign to improve conditions for slaves. In Jamaica, the Baptists established a form of church membership distinguished by the ‘Baptist ticket’. This was a printed card issued every month to each member of the congregation, recording their weekly attendance and offerings. They also acted as passes to church meetings, which were regarded as private, and which sometimes included plans for emancipation. The freedom preached by these missionaries were blamed for the slave revolt which erupted in December 1831 and raged through Jamaica the following year. The leaders of Moravian and Baptist Missionary Societies, H.G. Pfeiffer, William Knibb and Thomas Burchell were arrested on the charge of inciting the revolt. However, the government found that there was nothing to incriminate them, and eventually they were acquitted and released. 55 Jamaican Baptist slaves could face intense persecution for their faith. In 1831 Samuel Swiney, a deacon of the Baptist missionary, William Knibb, was prosecuted for illegal preaching , after he led a prayer meeting while Knibb was ill. 56 In that instance, Swiney was acquitted and the two magistrates who attempted to prosecute him, Harden and Finlayson, were struck off the Commission of the Peace. 57 One of the leaders of the slave rebellion of 1832 was reputed to be the preacher, Box, who had incited it with his preaching. 58 The missionary work of the Methodist and Baptist churches were especially important in creating the popular campaign for emancipation that began in 1823. 59 Historians of the 19th century anti-slavery movement, such as David Brion Davis and Hugh Thomas have stressed that the central motivating force behind the campaigners were their religious convictions, and that the backbone of the campaign was the Quakers, with their capacity for organisation, and the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. 60 The great historian of the campaign of Black Jamaicans for freedom, Dr. Richard Hart, the author of Blacks in Bondage and Blacks in Freedom, notes the immense role the missionaries played in educating and preparing Black Jamaicans for their freedom, and in challenging and denouncing slavery.
Christian Black Slave Resistance and Abolition
William Wilberforce retired as MP in 1825. 61 On his retirement, leadership of the Anti-Slavery Society passed to Thomas Fowell Buxton, another Christian reformer, whose efforts resulted in the passing of the Abolition Act of 1833, which outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire. 62 This act resulted in the emancipation of 780,000 slaves throughout the British empire. The British authorities were also active patrolling the oceans to prevent the importation of further slave and their export from Africa. Between 1820 and 1870 the royal navy intercepted 1,600 slaves ships and freed over 150,000 slaves. 63 Like Black Jamaicans, Afro-American slaves also found in Christianity a way to resist slavery. In particularly, they expressed their longing for freedom by strongly identifying with the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt. 64 This was expressed in Spirituals, such as ‘When Moses Smote the Water’, ‘Did Not Old Pharaoh Get Lost’, ‘Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep (Pharoah’s Army Got Drownded)’ and ‘Go Down, Moses’. 65 Black American Christianity also focussed on Christ’s suffering under injustice, in the words of the historian Julius Lester, ‘someone who had suffered as they suffered, someone who understoood, someone who offered them rest from their suffering.” 66 Jesus was also for American slaves, ‘King Jesus’, who would return, as promised in the Book of Revelation, to lead His people to freedom and destroy slavery forever. 67
Black Americans also actively formed their own churches. These grew out of the work of Black Methodists under the direction of Richard Allen (1760-1831) in Philadelphia, resulting in the formation of the first Afro-American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1816, followed in 1824 with foundation of teh African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1824. These sent missionaries to the south, where they competed with the mainstream Baptist and Methodist churches, which already had a very high slave membership. 68 These churches, ran for free and slave alike, ran Sunday schools and Bible classes, prayed for the sick and buried the dead. As in the Caribbean, they acted to nurture Black autonomy and self-organisation. From them emerged the great preachers, editors, educators, orators and organizers for the Black community, talented people who turned their attention to the campaign against slavery. 69 The Bible inspired many slaves to take up arms against their oppression. In 1800 Gabriel Prosser led a revolt after taking on the role of a ‘Black Samson’, inspired by the Bible to lead armed resistance against slavery and set up a Black kingdom in Virginia. Denmark Vessey, a Black Methodist, in 1822 was inspired by the Book of Joshua and the battle of Jericho to attack Charleston, believing he was guided by God in the form of an angel with a blazing sword. Nat Turner, the Black Baptist preacher who led a holy war against slavery in 1831 that resulted in hundreds of deaths, when he was being led to the gallows said ‘Was not Christ crucified?’ 70 ‘These three revolts, therefore, suggested that AFrican-American leaders – a Black Samson, a Black Joshua, a Black Messiah – could translate Christian resources into political action against the conditions of slavery. Rather than a system of social control, therefore, Christianity appeared in these slave revolts as an impetus for liberation.’ 71 Revolts were rare, but nevertheless ‘under the bondage of slavery, Christianity provided a religious vocabulary for liberation in the formation of supportive communities and social networks. In response to the dehumanizing conditions of slavery, Christian church represented a recovery of humanity.’ 72
Christian Abolitionism in the US
American anti-slavery campaigners also included Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Unitarians, as well as Methodists and Baptists. After the Revolution a number of states abolished slavery, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780. They were followed by a process of gradual emancipation in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island. As with Lord Melbourne in England, secular politicians decried the Christian basis of the abolitionist movement. In 1790 a Maryland congressman complained of ‘the disposition of religious sects to imagine that they understood the rights of human nature better than all the world besides.’ 73 The Second Great Awakening also had an effect on slave consciousness. Not only did it encourage slave-owners to support religious instruction and church attendance amongst their slaves, but the conversion experience itself, the personal feeling of God’s saving grace, allowed slaves to forge their own relationship with God independent of any other third party. In an 1835 church conference in Maine, 80 per cent of the Baptist clergy there identified themselves as ‘decided abolitionists’. 74 Many Roman Catholics also supported the abolitionist cause, such as John Purcell, the Bishop of Cincinnati. 75
Although southern Christians generally considered slavery to be justified by scripture, nevertheless certain oppressive details were challenged and subverted by Christian ministers and their congregations. In antebellum Amite County in Missippi, White ministers appear to have married slaves and in 1822 caused the state legislature to revise a law restricting Blacks’ religious freedom and the rights of Black preachers. In Georgia, some clergymen advocated Black marriage and family rights, while other Whites openlhy taught slaves to read the Bible in direct contravention of the state law. When the Civil War broke out, reforming clergy then turned to demanding the legalisation of Black education. 76
Lyman Beecher founded Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati in 1832 with a deliberately colour-blind admissions policy. Although the board of trustees became so alarmed at the abolitionist opinions of the students that it banned anti-slavery activities, this resulted in 53 students moving to Oberlin College, where they continued their activities. These reforming clergymen were immensely influential in their religious and political activities in the mid-West. Stanley Elkins, a historian of slavery, considered that the abolitionists were motivated by the Puritan notion of collective accountability that made every man his brother’s keeper. They preached necessity of turning away from sin and for its elimination from society. For them, the most heinous social sin was slavery, as Black souls were as valuable as Whites, and for one of God’s children to enslave another was a violation of God’s highest law. 77
Congress passed a law in 1807 outlawing the importation any Black or mixed race slave into America from 1 January 1808. 78 1834 saw the foundation of the American Anti-Slavery Society, funded by Arthur and Lewis Tappan, wealthy merchants in New York and Boston. They also funded Black education along with a number of other reforming projects. Lewis Trappan declared that they did so because ‘we owe it to the cause of humanity, to our country and our God’. 79 It was not only northerners who embraced Abolitionism, however. They included southern Americans such as James Thome, and Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The Grimke sisters came from slave-owning family in Charleston, South Carolina. Angelina had been converted to the anti-slavery cause after reading a tract on it in 1835, and her letter to her sister explaining the reasons for her conversion was included in an abolitionist pamphlet, ‘An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South’. 80 Perhaps the most famous of all female Abolitionists, however, is Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and her husband was a Congregationalist professor of the Old Testament. A strong believer in sin, guilt and atonement, she incorporated these sentiments into her book, rebuking the American nation for the sin of slavery. 81 Even the leaders of the secular anti-slavery movement, John Quincy Adams, Joshua R. Giddings and Salmon P. Chase, were deeply religious people who recognised the importancy of the evangelical movement as a constituency for anti-slavery activism. 82 Christianity also inspired Harriet Tubman, the heroine of the Underground Railroad, who freed over 300 slaves. Of her mission, she said ‘I must go down, like Moses into Egypt, to lead them out.’ 83 The religious character of Black troopers in the Civil War was noted by one of their commanders, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who remarked on the religious nature of their songs and that ‘behind the gentle worlds in praise of God lurked the spiritual armor of people long at war with oppression.’ 84 Indeed, after the War broke out, Abolitionist Christians were responsible in a large part for Lincoln’s re-election in 1864. Victor B. Howard, in his book, Religon and the Radical Republican Movement, notes how the anti-slavery churches marshalled support for Lincoln, with the effect that the Republicans had almost all of the evangelical Christian vote. The Abolitionist paper, the Christian Advocate and Journal, declared that ‘There probably never was an election in all our history into which the religion element entered so largely, and nearly all on one side.’ 85 Thus, ‘antislavery Christians ensured that the election became, in effect, a referendum on whether to abolish slavery for good.’ 86
Christian Campaign Against Global Slavery
The Christian campaign against slavery did not end with the outlawing of the slave trade and slavery. Despite it’s prohibition, slaves continued to be illegally exported from Africa and elsewhere. In its campaign against the global slave trade, the British government drew on the testimony of Christian missionaries in Africa. The 1848 parliamentary select committee on the slave trade, for example, heard testimony from members of the American Episcopalian Church active in Sierra Leone, a Baptist missionary from Fernando Po and Bimbia, as well as missionaries from Jamaica, Demerara, Barbados and Abeokuta. 87 The parliamentary commissions also heard testimony from Africans themselves, including former slaves, such as Thomas Maxwell, now a citizen of Sierra Leone. Maxwell described the appalling murder of his father and uncles by the African slavers who had carried him off. His slave ship had, however, been intercepted by the royal navy, and he and the rest of its human cargo freed. Maxwell had converted to Christianity, and was studying to be a missionary to bring spiritual and physical freedom to his people. 88 As the British empire expanded into the Pacific, Polynesians were kidnapped to serve as slaves on plantations in Queensland and elsewhere. The British government, colonial authorities and planters believed that the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean had resulted in a labour shortage, and attempted to correct this by importing indentured labourers from India and China. Despite their nominally free status, these people were treated as slaves in the infamous ‘Coolie trade’. Outrage at the suffering produced by the system across the globe prompted the British government to introduce legislation regulating the trade and securing something like decent living and working conditions for the indentured labourers and their families. Hugh Tinker’s history of the infamous ‘Coolie trade’, A New System of slavery, describes not only the suffering and protests by Asians against it, but also the Christian clergy who denounced it, and joined Indian nationalists in demanding an end to the trade.
Of critical importance in this campaign was the royal navy, which acted as the ‘global policeman’ patrolling the oceans against slavery. One New Zealand historian has pointed out that the commanders of the anti-slavery vessels in the West African squadron and elsewhere were either evangelical Christians, or had been educated by evangelicals. For this historian, the British navy was the most powerful force protecting indigenous Polynesians in the Pacific. The London Times in 1869 printed a letter by the wife of one Polynesian missionary to the Rev. John Graham protesting against the atrocities against Polynesians committed by British traders in the Pacific. 89 One of the most vigorous campaigners against the enslavement of indigenous Polynesians was the Anglican bishop Patterson. An anti-slavery rally in 1869 in Sydney, Australia, included speeches and condemnation of slavery from the Anglican Bishop of Sydney, bishop Patteson, Rabbi A.B. Davis of the Sydney Synagogue, Rev. John Graham of the Congregational Church, Rev. J.B. Smyth, chaplain to H.M.S. Brisk, Rev. J.P. Sunderland, the Presbyterian minister, Rev. Adam Thomson, the Wesleyan Methodist minister, Rev. G. Hurst, and Rev. G.H. Moreton. These clergymen based their ardent opposition to slavery on the Biblical injunction against man-stealing. 90 The personal efforts of many of the Christian missionaries against the slavers in Africa result in personal assault, injury and possible martyrdom. In 1874 Benjamin Hartley, a missionary student with the Universities’ Mission in East Africa was attacked and seriously injured by Arab slavers when he approached and began talking to their slaves. He was rescued by a group of Zunyamwezi people, and brought back to the mission, critically injured, by his sub-deacon, Francis Mabruki. The Moslem overlord of the district, Seyd Burghash, who had signed treaties with the British against the trade, was investigating the attack in order to procure evidence against the slavers. 91
Persistence of Slavery Today
Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Christian clergy and laymen, as well as countless people of other faiths and none, and governments and charities around the world, slavery still persists today around the world, and charities, such as the secular Anti-Slavery International, continue the campaign against it. There are bonded slaves in Brazil, and slave workers in sweatshops in Asia. Slavery also continues in Africa, particularly Mauretania and Sudan. Most of the slaves in Sudan are Christian and pagan Black Africans from the Dinka people. Between 1995 and 2000 Christian Solidarity International, a charity dedicated to the ‘worldwide respect for the God-given right of every human being to choose his or her faith and to practice it’ freed nearly 21,000 Sudanese slaves by purchasing and releasing them. The great defenders of Black Sudanese themselves have been the two bishops, one Roman Catholic and the other Episcopalian. 92
Thus, although Christianity originally permitted slavery, it also demanded its regulation. The enslavement of the great figures of the Bible, like Joseph, and the Hebrews themselves in Egypt and their deliverance from Pharaoh inspired enslaved Christians to resist slavery, while the Biblical insistence on the unity of humanity and their equality before the Lord, along with the sufferings and continued resistance of the slaves themselves against slavery, caused White Christians to demand its abolition. It also created a tradition of Christian opposition to racism of which the Civil Rights campaign was very much a part and a continuation. When Dr. Martin Luther King stood up and declared ‘I have seen the Promised Land’, he expressed the hope and outrage that inspired George Fox, Samuel Sewell, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Harriet Tubman and countless others. Odiously, slavery still persists. We’re not there yet, but these people who believed in the God-given liberty of all humanity were instrumental in abolishing it in the West, and creating the campaign against it throughout the world.
1. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 28.
2. Ivor Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman: Jamaica and Its Religion (Cambridge, James Clarke & Co 1982), p. 25.
3. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, pp. 25-6.
4. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 26.
5. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, pp. 26-7.
6. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 27.
7. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 26.
8. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 27.
9. David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History (London, Penguin Books 2000), p. 436.
10. John Holm, Pidgins and Creoles: Volume II - Reference Survey (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1989), p. 342.
11. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 29.
12. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 30.
13. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 33.
14. Chidester, Christianity, p. 436.
15. James Walvin, The Quakers – Money and Morals (London, John Murray 1997), p. 126.
16. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 34.
17. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 32.
18. Walvin, Quakers, p. 126.
19. Walvin, Quakers, p. 127.
20. Walvin, Quakers, p. 127.
21. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 41.
22. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 41.
23. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 32.
24. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 33.
25. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 36; Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (London, Continuum UK 2007), p. 226.
26. Aitken, John Newton, p. 226.
27. Aitken, John Newton, p. 230.
28. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 36.
29. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 34.
30. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 35.
31. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, pp. 35-6.
32. Aitken, John Newton, p. 242.
33. Aitken, John Newton, p. 244.
34. Aitken, John Newton, p. 246.
35. Aitken, John Newton, p. 248.
36. Aitken, John Newton, p. 239.
37. 1797 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 31.
38. ‘Negre’ by M. Le Romain, in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopedie ou Dictionnaire raisonne des science, des arts, et des metiers, in Emmanuel Chadwick, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Oxford, Blackwell 1997), pp. 91-2.
39. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 31.
40. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 31.
41. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, pp. 31-2.
42. Stephen Tomkins, John Wesley: A Biography (Oxford, Lion Publishing 2003), p. 192.
43. Tomkins, John Wesley, p. 193.
44. Tomkins, John Wesley, p. 177.
45. Tonkins, John Wesley, p. 177.
46. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 36.
47. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 38.
48. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 34.
49. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 35.
50. Tomkins, John Wesley, p. 177.
51. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 35.
52. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, pp. 35-6.
53. House of Commons Papers 1817: Report of the Commissioners for the Management of the Crown Estates in Berbice, 1816.
54. House of Commons Papers 1824: Demerara – Relating to the Insurrection of Slaves, and the Trials Thereon.
55. Morrish, Obeah, Christ and Rastaman, p. 37.
56. House of Commons Paper 1831: Jamaica Slave Trials and Punishment.
57. House of Commons Pamphlet 1832: Jamaica Slave Trials and Punishment.
58. House of Commons Papers 1832: West India Colonies – Slave Instructions.
59. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 39.
60. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 35.
61. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 39.
62. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 38; House of Commons Paper 1834-5: Slavery Abolition Act – Order in Council, dated 31 july 1835, for giving effect to the Act 3 & 4 Will. IV c.73, for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies.
63. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 38.
64. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 49; Chidester, Christianity, p. 438.
65. Chidester, Christianity, p. 438.
66. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 49.
67. Chidester, Christianity, pp. 438-9.
68. Chidester, Christianity, p. 439; Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 49.
69. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 50.
70. Chidester, Christianity, pp. 437-8.
71. Chidester, Christianity, p. 438.
72. Chidester, Christianity, p. 439.
73. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 42.
74. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 42.
75. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 43.
76. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 43.
77. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 45.
78. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 44.
79. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 45.
80. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 46.
81. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 47.
82. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 47.
83. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 50.
84. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 50.
85. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 51.
86. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 51.
87. House of Commons Papers 1848: Third Report – Slave Trade.
88. House of Commons Papers 1850: Report-African Slave Trade.
89. House of Commons Papers 1868-9: Queensland (South Sea Islanders).
90. House of Commons Papers 1868-9: Queensland (South Sea Islanders).
91. House of Commons Papers: Slave Trade no. 5 (1874) Reports on the Present State of the East African Slave Trade.
92. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 52.