Christians today can be heard disagreeing over a variety of topics such as whether women or gay people should be allowed to serve as church leaders. Today Christians are also at the forefront of the debate on matters affecting poverty and trade.
Two hundred years ago there were similar debates in Christian circles over the issue of the slave trade, slavery itself and the use of slave-produced goods.
In 2007 Christians throughout Britain and elsewhere will be involved in marking the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. This British Parliamentary Act which was passed on 25 March 1807 started a process that led to the ending of one of the most brutal chapters in human history and the freeing of Africans enslaved by a European profit-making trading venture.
Slavery in the 18th century was not new. Slavery existed since ancient times and it is well documented in the Bible. This article will concentrate on the involvement of Christians in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, both as hero and as villain. We have often heard about the courageous work of Christian abolitionists. However, we rarely hear of the involvement of the Church and its leaders in the business of supporting the trade in humans, how the Church profited from the produce of enslaved people and how they used the Bible to justify their actions.
Churchmen and the enslaved
In 1701 King William III granted a charter to the Church of England’s Mission Society, known as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to Foreign Parts (SPG) to spread the Gospel throughout British Colonies. Within a short time after its formation, the Society found itself the beneficiary of two sugar plantations in Barbados with some 300 enslaved Africans. This generous legacy was a gift from General Christopher Codrington, a former Governor-General of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies.
General Codrington’s wish was that “the 300 ‘negroes’ would be kept and a number of scholars would be maintained there…taking care of the souls and bodies of the enslaved”. An educational institution was built but the intention was not fulfilled, at least not for a very long time. When the college was opened in 1745, only white children were admitted. It had taken 120 years for the college to begin its assigned work of converting the enslaved Africans.
The Codrington estate was something of a contradiction for SPG. On the one hand the Society not only kept slaves but behaved as brutally as commercial slave owners by reputedly branding their slaves. This church-based organisation took little heed of the most important commandment of Christ “love one another as I love you”. On the other hand, the 410 SPG missionaries or catechists were endeavouring to bring Native Americans and slaves in the Americas and Caribbean into church and attempting to teach them the good news of the gospel.
Whilst the established Church went on record as recognising both the possibility and desirability of the slaves becoming Christians, little was done to achieve this. As with commercial slave owners, Churchmen such as the Bishops of London and Durham, and the Archbishop of York, were fully engaged in managing the minutiae of maintaining the plantations through agents and ensuring that when the sugar arrived in London and Bristol it was sold on, and the profits used for the benefit of building the new college in Barbados and re-stocking the Barbados plantation. What the Abolitionists were able to do towards the end of the century, the SPG and the Church of England had the capacity to do if they had so desired in 1710.
The Bible and the enslaved
The work of teaching and baptising the enslaved was not only met with barriers from commercial planters but many Christians among the plantation society were against any such a move. In 1787, the Dean of Middleham stated in a letter to the Abolition Society in Britain “we know how invincibly unwilling the white people are to admit slaves to the privileges of Christianity”. Even the chaplain of Codrington college in Barbados admitted that one reason why very little had been done to educate and baptise slaves was simply because slaves were “perverse and happier to remain ignorant”
Selected texts from the Bible were used to coerce, convince and cajole enslaved Africans that God sanctioned the Transatlantic Slave Trade for their spiritual and social betterment. Some Christians were of the opinion that, whilst it was not lawful to enslave a fellow countryman, (Exodus 21), Africans were suitable for forced labour and enslavement because they were ‘not of the faith’.
Christianity during the Transatlantic Slave Trade was used to encourage slaves to be compliant and subservient. Africans, especially those who were Christianised were encouraged to yield to the power of the overall system of slavery – in this sinful world, the Saviour suffered although He was perfect therefore suffering was part of the refining process that made one a better Christian.
Planters maintained that to educate slaves would not only raise them above their station but would create a threat of revolt. Missionaries argued that converted Christian slaves would be more docile and more diligent labourers than the heathen ‘negroes’. Christianised slaves would therefore leave the established order of West Indian society undisturbed and slaves would look for their reward in heaven.
Ministers of religion were often regarded as a menace by slave owners. In order to win over their support, some missionaries tried to show that even prominent Christians owned slaves and according to Paul in his letter to Philemon, ‘it was proper to treat the runaway slave as a brother in Christ’. On the other hand, 1 Timothy 6:1 was used to instruct the rebellious slaves that it was sinful to resist what God had sanctioned -“slaves belonging to Christian masters must consider their masters worthy of respect…”.
Although slavery had existed throughout history, it was the uniquely appalling events of the Transatlantic Slave Trade that led Christians to engage with a major campaign to ban the trade at an international level.
Christianity and abolition
Abolitionists cleverly used the brutality and sadism of plantation life to sway public opinion. For over 300 years millions of Africans were captured in their homeland and transported thousands of miles to a life of torture and enforced servitude in the Americas.
Black and white men and women, stood up against the plantocracy and vested interests to fight for the ending of the industry of human trafficking. In 1787 Quakers and Anglicans organised to form the Society for effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade dedicated to bringing an end to what they described as ‘an evil trade’, unlike the words of the young John Newton who considered slave trading as ‘a credible and profitable way of life’. Newton later became a dedicated Christian and a committed abolitionist.
By forging useful alliances, Christian abolitionists concentrated their efforts on first ending the slave trade: it would take a further 30 year to end slavery. Thomas Clarkson gathered evidence by conducting interviews with sailors, documenting the inhumane treatment onboard ships for sailors and slaves alike. This evidence assisted William Wilberforce MP for Hull to table his Bill in Parliament in 1789 to argue the case for abolition. Hannah More, evangelical leader and campaigner who inspired a generation of women to take action against slavery. Granville Sharpe helped to free many slaves through the British Courts. Former slave, Olaudah Equiano used his autobiography in 1789 as a campaigning tool when he toured Britain to promote the anti-slavery message.
The abolitionists had an enormous struggle on their hands. The pro-slavery lobby of merchants, shipbuilders and planters voted against the Bill among them were a number of Church of England Bishops. The King, George III, was against the whole idea of abolishing slavery claiming that Planters would be economically ruined or else they would be massacred. The Parliamentary debate that began on 18 April 1791 finally came to fruition with the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act becoming law on 25 March 1807.
Christianity and slavery today
Like the Abolitionists of the past, Christians have taken a lead in putting modern day slavery in all its despicable forms on to the political agenda.
Through the Set All Free project under Churches Together in England, members of the Christian community and Secular society have come together to work towards ending subjugation to help break the chains of slavery.
USPG - United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (formerly SPG) is supporting dioceses around the world. Girls are extremely vulnerable in India, they are used as cheap labour and still seen as a man's property. Migrant workers in Korea are not only abused and beaten by factory managers but they are rarely paid. Children are working in mines, factories and agriculture in Africa, India and Brazil instead of attending school. Growers of cocoa in Ghana and bananas in the Caribbean are seeking help through USPG to speak out on trade justice because the developed world continue to set trade rules that penalise and exploit developing countries. Unless trade is fair poverty will not be made history.
As Christians we have been charged with a responsibility by our Lord " to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly" for we are ALL made in the image of God. Let us rise to the challenge. We had no control over those who enslaved our brothers and sisters in the past but we certainly have control on how we respond to enslavement today. So let us be inspired by the example of the Abolitionists of the past and become abolitionists for the twenty-first century - to set all free.
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O’Connor D et al Three Centuries of Mission The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel 1701-2000 Continuum London (2000)
Churches Together in England and Anti-Slavery Act to End Slavery Now The Printed Word (2006)