Historical Precursors


The abolitionist movement against slavery began in the 18th century when a group of men and women were awakened to the horrific injustice of slavery and decided to do something about it. These were devout, evangelical Bible-believing Christians who decried slavery as not only a grave offense to the rights of man, but as an abominable sin against God. Believing that slavery was a national sin leading to the moral degeneracy of their culture, the first abolitionists established local societies and engaged in social, political, cultural, and ideological war with the “slave power.” Their aim was the total abolition of human slavery in the British Empire. To achieve this goal, they sought to reform the moral beliefs of their culture and called on the citizens of their country, especially those who professed to follow Jesus Christ, to denounce the sin of slavery and abolish the slave trade.

The abolitionists believed that slavery was not only destroying the lives of those being abducted, enslaved, and worked to death in the sugar fields of the West Indies, but also destroying the moral and spiritual lives of everyone who participated in it. While most Britons, even those who opposed slavery, believed the immorality of slavery had little to do with their personal lives, and that abolishing it was someone else’s job, the abolitionists stood up and decried their nation’s participation in the “odious practice.”

As a whole, Britons were content to turn a blind eye to the horrors of the slave trade, far too comfortable in their way of life, and dependent upon the sugar and cotton products produced by slave labor. Most Britons outright opposed the abolitionists, decrying them as religious fanatics and incendiary revolutionaries bent on shoving their morality down the throats of others and causing unwarranted social unrest. Most Britons, including those who claimed the name of Christ, declared themselves indifferent to the trade and its abolition. Many falsely believed or argued that the institution was natural, biblically justified, and ought to just be regulated and kept safe. Though the Church of England refused to condemn slavery and most Britons and nominal British Christians had turned a deaf ear to the plight of the slave, a group of devout men and women who had their hearts, souls, and minds set upon doing the will of God, became convinced that Christ had called them to abolish the institution of slavery and bring and end to the human misery and physical and spiritual destruction it engendered (Desmond and Moore, 2009, p. 54). These were the Abolitionists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

The right to own and trade slaves was largely attributed to a belief in the superiority of the white race. “Negroes,” the anti-abolitionist Samuel Estwick argued, “should not be considered human beings… Human nature is a class, comprehending an order of beings, of which man is the genus, divided into distinct and separate species of men.” Estwick went on to argue that people of African descent were not intellectually developed enough to be protected and defended as persons under the British Law (Stephen Wise, Though the Heavens may Fall, p. 196). As pro-slavery legislators saw it, black slaves were, “as much property as any other thing.” They “wore out with labour as cattle, and other things,” and were easily replaceable, “one slave being as good as another.” (Pearne v. Lisle, 27 Eng. Rep. 47 (Ch. 1749). Some advocates of slavery conceded the African may in fact be a man, but has not yet been “ensouled” (Wise, p. 132). Regardless of their arguments, Pro-slavery thought relied on the assumption that African slaves were considered legal property by the laws of England, and it was their owner’s choice to treat them as they chose (Wise, 122). Slaves could not be emancipated because that would be depriving slave owners of their property rights.

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Beyond the debate of morality was the misleading assertion that the slave trade wasn’t all that horrible for the slaves themselves. While pro-slavery apologists argued that the trade had been kept, safe, and legal, they spread misinformation and rumors claiming that Africans were better off as slaves and were actually happy to work in the West Indies producing the British Empire’s sugar and rum. Appallingly, Sir William Daines even claimed that he had observed slaves on the plantation who appeared so happy that he often wished he himself could be a slave (Parliamentary History 29 (1972) Column 1349).Profiteers of the trade and the politicians whom they helped to elect, diligently worked to keep the brutalities of their inhuman practice hidden from public discussion. They especially took great pains to keep the horrors of the infamous “middle passage” under wraps.But the truth of the matter was this. Slaves were being raped and murdered all across the Atlantic and worked to death in the sugar fields and cotton plantations of the British Colonial Empire. African human beings were dying by the hundreds every day in filthy disease ridden, plagued infested ships, where they had been crammed together as human cargo.

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The first task of the abolitionists was therefore to destroy the blatant misinformation produced by the pro-slavery lobby and to cry out for abolition from the street corners to the floor of the British House of Commons. To this end they accumulated evidence documenting the monstrous inhumanity of slavery and forced the public to take a look at its most wicked brutalities.

But their greatest challenge was the establishment of the full humanity and personhood of Africans. The Abolitionist had to demonstrate that Africans were fully human, and “men and brothers,” with the white race. Granville Sharp, one of the first heroes of the abolitionist movement in Britain, became famous for defending James Somerset, a free Black man who was forced into slavery after being shipwrecked in 1772. Sharp eloquently testified that the difference between “a negro and any other Englishman… was only in colour,” and questioned “why that distinction should unfortunately exempt him from the blessings of liberty?” For, as Sharp’s argument continued, “The same God who created you, gave him life, and endowed him with the like powers of reasons and reflections” (175-6 Wise).

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Abolitionists also devised political strategies and popular petitions to put the abolition of slavery before their legislators. As they tirelessly presented their views to the world, the movement expanded and gained the ear of elected officials, most notably that of William Wilberforce, who came to the abolitionist cause by way of his conversion in 1785. Prior to this, Wilberforce had enjoyed the leisurely social life of a rising politician, spending his nonpolitical energy on gambling and attending dinners. After becoming a Christian, Wilberforce argued that anyone who claimed to follow Christ must seek the abolition of slavery or cease to call themselves “true Christians.” His unremitting campaign against the “slave power” was rooted in his deep and abiding faith in Christ and his daily reliance upon the Word of God.Wilberforce’s theological motivations towards abolition were not an anomaly, but the norm. Granville Sharp similarly came to realize the evils of slavery only after he became convinced that the Bible condemned it. While Wilberforce is the most well-known of the British abolitionists, because of his tireless 40-year campaign of abolition within the House of Parliament, he praised Sharp for having “led the way” in the fight against slavery. His biographer writes that “he rigidly believed in and possessed an absolute moral sense and an unwavering Christian faith, that right make might” (Wise, p. 33).To Wilberforce’s mind, the moral decline of culture and the sanctioning of slavery were opposite sides of the same coin, and to abolish the latter would require reversing the former. As Chuck Colson writes of Wilberforce’s plan of attack, “the abolitionists realized that they could never succeed in eliminating slavery without addressing the greater problem of cultural malaise and decay.”Wilberforce therefore sought to elevate the status of Christianity in public and private life, and to make “piety fashionable” in both the higher and lower classes of society. The manner in which he attempted to carry this out utilized both political legislation and the spread of cultural awareness. Oratory and legislation alone were inadequate for the job. Wilberforce and his evangelical supporters knew that they must fan the flames of public opinion and therefore took their case directly to the British people. As church historian Bruce Shelley records, “The evangelicals secured petitions; they published quality abolitionist literature; they lectured on public platforms; they campaigned on billboards. They used all the modern means of publicity”(Bruce Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd Edition, p. 368).

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During his highly active forty-six years of political legislation, Wilberforce authored numerous bills and gave numerous speeches in the House of Commons seeking to curb the excesses and vices that plagued British life. He also created numerous societies designed to stir up and exhort the English people to counteract their moral decline: societies such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In 1797, Wilberforce published his manifesto, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, which attacked the crisis of hypocrisy that had seized Britain’s so-called Christian culture. Wilberforce observed that many of the people in his culture had “scarcely any actual knowledge of the real nature and principles of the faith which they profess.” Throughout Practical Christianity, Wilberforce contrasted the nominal Christian from the real Christian and argued that the former lacked the wisdom and proper motivation to do anything about the growing depravity in the world. In turn, he called on all committed Christians to embrace their true calling and order every aspect of their lives according the unique doctrines of Christianity.“Christianity asks us,” Wilberforce contended, “not merely to be generally religious and moral, but to believe specifically the doctrines, to consume the principles, and to practice the precepts of Christ.” Wilberforce believed that Christianity must be outwardly practiced, not just preached. If Christians held a belief to be true, such as the belief that all human beings are loved by God and possess inherent worth, Wilberforce rightly expected that they would be obliged to act on it. As he prefaced his work, “My intent is not to convince the skeptic, or to answer the arguments of those who claim to oppose the fundamental doctrines of our faith, but to point out the scanty and mistaken ideas of most orthodox Christians, and to contrast their defective theological scheme with what I consider to be real Christianity.”Wilberforce knew that if his culture were to be saved, Christianity would have to become more fully considered, understood, and faithfully practiced. The key to abolishing slavery and reversing Britain’s moral decay required, as a first step, the evangelization of British culture and reformation of “real Christianity.” The problem which Wilberforce had observed was that, “the fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines” had “insensibly gained strength,” and as “the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight,” the moral system which had been rooted in the Bible “began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.” As Marvin Olasky has noted, Wilberforce proceeded “boldly but not arrogantly, knowing that he could commend belief but not command it” and realized that the difficulties which Britain faced had resulted from “the decline of religion and morality” within the country. Wilberforce nonetheless clearly understood that all “solid hopes for the well-being of [his] country” depended “not so much on her navies and armies, as on the persuasion that she still contained many who loved and obeyed the gospel of Christ”.In time, Wilberforce did indeed witness the end of British slavery and the alleviation and reformation of many of Britain’s societal ills. On 23 February 1807, Wilberforce sat with his head in his hands, tears streaming, as the vote to abolish Britain’s participation in the slave trade finally turned in his favor. Though this victory had been twenty weary years in the making, all Wilberforce could think about the following day was what he would abolish next.Wilberforce’s steadfast endeavor to vanquish slavery is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive and important social and political campaigns in history, and it is extremely important that we understand how Wilberforce achieved so great a victory of the culturally accepted sale and trade of human beings. As Eric Metaxas insightfully concludes in his biography of Wilberforce,“What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world.”

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It is important to note that the full flowering of the British abolitionist movement followed the heels of “the Great Awakening,” and birth of Evangelicalism in Britain. The evils of slavery were preached from the pulpit in fiery sermons and calls for reform of both the self and society with the love of Christ. Aging clergymen like James Ramsay and fiery young abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson came together to devise strategies to inspire their culture to love people of African descent as their neighbors, and to see them as fellow humans created in the image of God.Richard Baxter, a prominent author during the late 18th century revivals, preached that slavery was a wicked sin and declared slaveholders to be “in rebellion against God. He was sickened by the nominal Christianity of those who sought the “service” of their slaves more than their “salvation” (Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital Foundations of British Abolitionism, University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 57). John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote one of the earliest and most influential tracts against slavery, arguing that consistent and active Christians must stand boldly against the slave trade and bring about it’s abolition (Wesley, Thoughts on Slavery, 1774).Though their arguments were varied, they were all rooted in a central belief that the slave trade was incompatible with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Their desire to bring an end to slavery was based on Christian beliefs about the nature of man, the nature of God, and the call to follow Christ. The Bible teaches that all people are created in the image of God and descended from Adam, who fell and left mankind sinful and separated from God. Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross was available to save any sinner, and in his resurrection “there was neither slave nor free.” Salvation is available for all of mankind. As evangelical Quaker George Fox wrote, “Christ, I say, shed his Blood for them as well as for you; and hath enlightened them as well as he hath enlightened you.”Pulitzer prize-winning historian David Bryan Davis attributes their motivations to the Bible, writing, it was “the abolitionists’ deep faith that all human beings were created in the image of God, and their belief that they had a duty to overcome institutions that dehumanize groups of people by treating them as exploitable animals” which gave birth to the abolitionist movement and sustained it through its end. (David Brion Davis, “Inhuman Bondage” p. 239). “How disgraceful to those who profess Christianity… to carry on a traffic in the human species, to buy and sell their fellow creatures, to make slaves of those whom heaven made of the same flesh and blood, implanted in them the same appetite, passions, and desires, and who are equally with us the sons of God.” (“A Man” in the Gazetteer. quoted in Wise, p. 134).

The principal aim of abolition was not just liberation, but salvation. Salvation for those who had been enslaved, and for those caught up in the sin of slavery, which was often accompanied by adultery, rape, abortion, and infanticide. (James Brewer Stewart “Holy Warriors” 1976, Hill and Wang, p. 15). Far from modern opinions that personal religious views should be isolated from national politics, abolitionists were not solely interested in ending slavery, but also in reforming the morals of their culture. The fact that their society permitted the practice of “man-stealing” and the treatment of humans as beasts necessitated a reformation to “true” or “vital Christianity.”
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“Abolition of the slave trade for the Evangelicals always was never an end in itself, never merely an instrument. Their horror at the trafficking and enslavement of human bodies was genuine. Yet what gave the issue particular importance to the evangelicals, what accounts for the peculiar energy they invested in the campaign, were the edifying habits that might follow from righteous labor, the moral lessons they hoped men and women would draw from fighting public sins. The Evangelicals’ turn against the slave trade was not simply an eruption of benevolence. It was also a considered, strategic choice, an opening salvo in a wider campaign against nominal Christianity that they advanced at once on several fronts” (Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 28).Dealing with the national sin of slavery provided the evangelicals an “opportunity to make piety relevant in an age that seemed to some devout men and women too respectful of the secular, too enamored with the joys of polite diversions.” The British antislavery movement emerged from a religious reaction against what its Evangelical and Quaker founders derided as “nominal Christianity,” and a desire to make religion figure more prominently in private and public life (ibid). The abolitionist movement against slavery cannot be separated from their attempt to “rehabilitate the reputation of piety and the personal commitment to faith.” (ibid p. 29).”For them, in all of their projects, the spread of Gospel preaching, the inculcation of ’vital Christianity,’ marked the true measure of success. …Their primary aim was not the abolition of the slave trade, the promotion of free labor, or social control–though they came to embrace these causes, too. Above all they wanted to make the British people sincere Christians without making themselves pariahs.” (ibid., p. 388)