Friday, November 28, 2014

Evangelicalism and Slavery: Historic Allies Not Enemies

The Christian Right film Amazing Grace was being promoted to libertarians, no doubt with funds from some Christian source. The promotion says the film is about about William Wilberforce and his effort to get England to abolish slavery, as well as his relationships with evangelist George Whitfield and John Newton. The film is named after the words of the hymn Amazing Grace, which Newton wrote.

Now, for some inconvenient facts. Wilberforce was not the first to call for abolition of slavery. Deists like Jefferson and the Quakers, who are not orthodox Christians by any means, were there first. Nor was England the first country to abolish slavery. Revolutionary France, considered godless by the orthodox Christians, had abolished slavery in 1794, but Napoleon, an orthodox Christian and opponent of deism, restored it when he took power. 

The city state of Venice outlawed slavery in 960, Iceland abolished it in 1117, Spain did so in 1542, Poland in 1588, etc. Wilberforce gets attention for two reasons. First, English-speaking people tend to only pay attention to the history of English-speaking countries. Second, Wilberforce is promoted by fundamentalists because he was an evangelical Christian. Evangelicals are working hard to take credit for abolitionism.

Notice all these other countries where slavery was abolished first, which evangelicals do NOT mention. None of them were Protestant, and none had a prominent evangelical involved. So, they can't take credit. Thus, as far as modern evangelicals are concerned, abolitionism started with Wilberforce. 

In fact, in America evangelicals were the most prominent group in favor of slavery. A transcript of a speech that Frederick Douglass gave, American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting held at Finsbury Chapel, Moorefields to receive Frederick Douglass, the American Slave, on Friday, May 22, 1846 illustrates this:
Frederick Douglass

“I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter, the great sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. While America is printing tracts and Bibles; sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in various ways for the promotion of the Gospel in foreign lands, the slave not only lies forgotten—uncared for, but is trampled under foot by the very churches of the land. What have we in America? Why we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands up as the great defender of this cursed institution, as it is called.”

In 1842 James Gillespie Birney published, The American Churches, The Bulwarks of American Slavery. He noted, "The extent to which most of the Churches in America are involved in the guilt of supporting the slave system is known to but a few in this country." [He means England when he says "this country," as that is where his book was published. He notes that the Methodist Episcopalian Church went as far as passing a resolution damning abolitionism: "By the delegates of the Annual Conferences in General Conference assembled,—that they are decidedly oppose to modern abolitionism, and wholly disclaim any right, wish, or intention, to interfere in the civil and political relation between master and slave, as it exists in the slave-holding States of this Union."

In 1861 Rev. Thomas Smyth of the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston made a passionate attack on the "atheistic Declaration" [of Independence] for espousing "the 'higher law' doctrine of the radical antislavery men. If the mischievous abolitionists had only followed the Bible instead of the godless Declaration, they would have been bound to acknowledge that human bondage was divinely ordained. The mission of southerners was therefore clear; they must defend the word of God against abolitionist infidels.”

Douglass said that abolitionism was hindered by the churches, not helped:

"This I conceive to be the darkest feature of slavery and the most difficult to attack, because it is identified with religion, and exposes those who denounce it to the charge of infidelity. Yes, those with who I have been laboring, namely the old organization Anti-Slavery Society of America, have been again and again stigmatized as infidels, and for what reason? Why, solely in consequence of the faithfulness of their attacks upon the slave-holding religion of the southern states, and the northern religion that sympathizes with it."
People pleaded with Douglass to mention churches that were opposed to slavery but he replied that "the church-going bell and the auctioneer's bell chime in with each other, the pulpit and the auctioneer's block stand in the same neighborhood; while the blood-stained goes to support the pulpit covers the infernal business wit the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services for the churches." Douglass cited Birney's book and spoke of churches that sold slaves "for the purpose of sending the Gospel to the heathen."

Charles Bradlaugh, in 1889, wrote that the famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was not a Christian, went to deliver an anti-slavery lecture in Boston but found only building available to himself, "the infidel hall owned by Abner Kneeland, the 'infidel' editor of the Boston Investigatory who had been sent to gaol for blasphemy. Every Christian sect had in turn refused Mr. Lloyd Garrison the use of the buildings they severally controlled. Lloyd Garrison told me himself how honored deacons of a Christian Church joined in an actual attempt to hang him."

The film Amazing Grace implies that Newton converted to evangelical Christianity and, as a result, became an abolitionist. This actually is NOT true. While both are true—eventually—the one was not caused by the other. Newton, in fact, was a slaver. His job was to sail slaves to the Americas where they were sold. Newton continued to do this well after his so-called conversion. Newton became an evangelical in 1748. He continued selling slaves until he retired from the sea in 1754 because he wanted to become an Anglican priest. Newton was quite happy to use violence against slaves and used torture to wring confessions from those he thought guilty of planning their own freedom.

A third of a century after his retirement as captain of slave ships Newton came out in support of abolitionism. So, if his conversion to evangelicalism made him an abolitionist, it took almost four decades to do so. 

Newton wrote that after his conversion he just never gave a thought to the morality of slavery. He said he never thought of it and that not a single friend, evangelical or not, thought it wrong to enslave people. He considered his job as slaver "the line of life which Divine Providence had allotted to me."

George Whitefield is another evangelical who is considered a major influence on Wilberforce—which he was. Whitefield was NEVER an abolitionist, though he was an evangelical revivalist. Whitefield founded an orphanage in Georgia where slavery was actually illegal—Georgia was a colony not founded by a religious group and was anti-slavery. People don't know that. But in 1749, Whitefield helped lead a campaign to make slavery legal in Georgia. He used slaves to help run his orphanage. On his death the slaves were left to the Countess of Huntingdon, who was a major financier of evangelicalism in England. She never freed those slaves either, in fact, she doubled their numbers. 

Whitefield remained a slave-owner and slavery supporter his entire life. Yet, he was the man who helped convert Wilberforce to evangelicalism. So, it is clear that it wasn't evangelicalism that caused Wilberforce to be an abolitionist. If anything, he managed it in spite of his religion. Whitefield wrote:

"As for the lawfulness of keeping Slaves I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money & some that were born in his house – And I cannot help thinking that some of those servants mentioned by the Apostles in their Epistles, were or had been slaves. It is plain that the Gibeonites were doomed to perpetual Slavery, & though liberty is a sweet thing to such as are born free, yet to those who never knew the sweets of it, slavery, perhaps, may not be so irksome. However this be, it is plain to a demonstration, that hot countries cannot be cultivated without Negroes." 

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography discusses the role of evangelical Christians in ending slavery and it notes: “During the first half-century of religious revivalism, from the 1730s to the 1780s, evangelicals showed little interest in the Atlantic slave trade or the enslavement of Africans. The mid-century progenitors of Anglican evangelicalism.... left no record of opposition to slavery in their deeds or words.”

More importantly it notes that “several important evangelicals... had a vested interest in human bondage.” Rev. Martin Madan was a slave owner who used involuntary human labor on his plantations in the Caribbean. The profits from this venture were used to build a chapel for evangelicals in London. Like Newton, his fellow evangelical slavery, he also wrote hymns.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that the few “evangelicals who took an interest in the enslaved focused exclusively on the African’s spiritual welfare.” Slaves, in accordance with the New Testament, were told to accept their bondage and improve their spiritual condition.

The one religious group that actually does deserve credit for abolitionism is the Quakers—but American evangelicals don't like Quakers and the Puritans were happy to execute a few Quakers to make that point. One evangelical journal, unlikely to be read by the rank-and-file, admits: "The first generation of Evangelicals, then, signally failed to question the morality of the African slave trade. There was no Evangelical equivalent to the prophetic Quaker voices of Benjamin Lay, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet. The early Evangelicals preached about turning from ‘the world’, but when it came to the slave trade, they were social conformists."

Evangelicals did begin to change, but it wasn't as a result of their religion. As the journal I quote above notes, there was an interest by some evangelicals in the late 1700s "prompted by a variety of factors, including the growing influence of Quaker and Enlightenment critiques of slavery, and the upheaval of the American Revolution. In other words, non-orthodox religions and the classical liberal values of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution changed minds, NOT evangelicalism. 

I should note that the American Revolution caused a lot of people to rethink liberty for others. As the journal notes: "In New England and the Middle Colonies, Evangelical preachers were often fervent promoters of American protests against British ‘tyranny’. But, as they preached, some became painfully aware of the glaring gap between the noble rhetoric of American liberty, and the terrible reality of American slavery." If you read the history of abolitionism you will find the Revolution changed ideas about the idea of all men being endowed with rights. By the early 1800s it was widely being preached this meant blacks as well, and by the mid 1800s the same principles were being applied to women. Sure, it took another 100+ years before it was applied to gay people. Evangelicals, for the most part, opposed abolitionism but eventually came around. They opposed the equality of rights for women, and have mostly come around—though not as much as the general public. And, they are the major opponents to rights for gay people today.

But, before we end this excursion through history we have to return to Wilberforce. Stephen Tomkins, a biographer of Wilberforce says, "His hands were not as clean as we assume." Wilberforce pushed to abolish the slave trade but originally left slavery alone. Slave trading ships were boarded by the British navy which did not free the slaves but instead turned them over to Sierra Leone, a colony run by the Sierra Leone Company, which Wilberforce and friends operated. The Guardian reports

But, what to do with the rescued slaves? "They could have set them free. But what they did was hand them over to the authorities in Freetown," said Tomkins. Sierra Leone became a crown colony in 1808, but was still managed by Wilberforce and his friends. "So with their knowledge, and their acquiescence, the navy would hand the slaves over. Some the colony kept themselves, others they sold to landowners and put them to slave labour." 

Men and children were "indentured" for $20. Women were given away. They did not call them slaves, they were "apprentices"—not purchased, but "redeemed." 

They receive no wages, just food. And those that escaped were recaptured, in irons. the only distinction between them as "slaves" and as "apprentices," was that they must be freed after 14 years. 

Thomas Perronet Thompson, governor of the colony, complained to Wilberforce that this policy meant they had "become slave traders themselves." Thompson's opposition to the practice was not appreciated and Wilberforce and the others voted to remove him from his position. 

The film Amazing Grace is not a very honest portrayal of the history of evangelicalism and slavery. It implies things that are not true—that evangelicals were the leaders of abolitionism. In truth, British evangelicals were very pro-slavery until well after the Quakers had made abolitionism an issue. They were latecomers to the abolitionist cause and most evangelicals were either on the sidelines or supporters of slavery. Men like Wilberforce, as late as he was to cause of abolitionism, were the exception, not the rule. In was only around 1780 that some British evangelicals joined Quakers to fight slavery—the Quakers had been at it for almost a century by then. And Wilberforce only joined the cause in 1791. He didn't become an abolitionist until about a decade after he became an evangelical—which compared to Newton was actually rather speedy. 

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  1. This is fascinating. And it makes sense to me. I know that the Quakers were in the forefront of abolitionism but I didn't know how much the evangelicals lied about their role.

    1. My take would be that some evangelicals are lying and know it and most are ignorant and believe what they say. Evangelicals are very good at believing the rewriting of history done by some of their leaders. For instance, evangelical writer David Barton concocts history to fit his agenda. I think he knowingly lies.

      But, many people believe his rubbish because they want to think it is true. They don't know better, they aren't lying but they are wrong.

      This film, from an evangelical in Hollywood, was false. They know they were writing a script and that it was "based" on some facts but not entirely accurate. Most the churches that lined up to watch it thought it was all true and ignore how it was manipulated for the sake of the story.

  2. Aside from assuming malicious intent and hijacking the cause of abolition, what about the significance being in the scale of impact. None of the other historical instances of abolitionism had the effect of the time of Wilberforce. We have a country near the peak of power choosing abolition. We can say the same thing about environmentalism today. It's easy for smaller industrialized nations to be greener than the U.S. but is that really as big an impact as the U.S. being green? Does the U.S. have more of a claim to environmentalism being post-industrial compared to China who's still developing into it?

  3. In addition, the problem (for white, right-wing evangelicals) is that (a) much of the movement, maybe a majority, actively supported slavery and (b) did so with theology which is both still accepted, and whose support for slavery is not refutable (within that theology).

    See Mark Noll's 'The Civil War as a Theological Crisis'. IIRC, in that book he pointed out the for evangelicals (and many mainstream Protestants), the 'Biblical' case *for* slavery was not refutable under their theology and understanding of what the Bible meant, and how it should be used.