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Date: 29 January, 2007
The story of Christians struggling against the injustice of the slave trade is one which should be celebrated, says Steve Tomkins
They say there are two sides to every story, but that seems a serious underestimate when it comes to the abolition of the slave trade.
It is the story of Europeans enslaving Africans, and of Europeans fighting for the rescue of Africans.
It is the story of Africans selling Africans into slavery, and of African slaves battling for their freedom.
It is the story of Christians struggling against injustice, and of a church which owned and profited from its own slaves.
It is the story of British ships taking 40,000 slaves a year across the Atlantic, and of the British navy spending £40 million wiping the international slave trade off the Atlantic.
All in all, though, the abolition is surely something worth celebrating, because, whatever else it is, it is the story of the greatest evil of an era being fought and defeated.
It is especially worth celebrating for Christians - and not just because our history offers few other achievements which are so unequivocally praiseworthy. The fact is that the campaign against the slave trade, and against slavery itself, was an overwhelmingly Christian one.
It came originally from the Quakers. They believed that all people have the same light of God within them, and that we are therefore all equal and no one should be treated greater or less honour than anyone else.
This was very controversial in the 18th century (they refused to doff their hats to their social betters for one thing), and it made them hate slavery when it was accepted by more or less everyone else. They were the first to write petitions and books against it, but few people listened - because they were Quakers.
It was when Anglicans got involved that people started to listen. Anglicans like Granville Sharp, an amateur Bible scholar and evangelist who rescued individual slaves as well as pamphleteering.
Another was Thomas Clarkson, an Anglican priest, but nine-tenths Quaker. Clarkson boarded slaveships collecting information and death threats and travelled 35,000 miles around Britain drumming up support.
The slave Olaudah Equiano, who bought his freedom and brought first-hand experience to the campaign, was a zealous convert.
The other leaders were wealthy evangelicals, like William Wilberforce, the national star of the movement, who gave it 30 years of his life and kept up the struggle when others gave it up as a lost cause. Like James Ramsay, the Caribbean minister whose life and health were destroyed in the backlash.
Like the fiery James Stephen, top barrister and greatest pamphleteer of the age, who said, ‘I would rather be on friendly terms with a man who had strangled my infant son than support an admission guilty of slackness in suppressing the slave trade’.
Like the placid Scot Zachary Macaulay, editor of the cheap but boring Christian Observer, who sunk his fortune, disastrously, into a settlement for freed slaves in Sierra Leone.
And like John Newton who went from slave trading to Amazing Grace, and published his accounts of the trade.
The movement was dripping with religion. There were bishops and Dissenting missionaries, hymnwriters and an evangelical naval chief.
There were perhaps one or two leading campaigners who were not what someone like Wilberforce would consider proper Christians, like the hard-drinking, hard-gambling MP Charles James Fox. But even he sincerely argued for abolition as a matter of Christian compulsion.
As for the Church of England, it should not be forgotten that it was willing to own a large slave plantation (which it received as a bequest). But equally we must recognise that this never stopped the Church throwing its entire weight behind the abolition movement.
Abolition was preached from the pulpits, and the bishops fought for it constantly in the House of Lords. In 20 years, there is no record of one bishop opposing it.
Other denominations were equally committed. John Wesley led the Methodists against the slave trade - ‘that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, England, and of human nature’.
The Independents became abolitionists en masse after their missionary John Smith became a martyr to the cause.
And the campaign was a Christian one, not in its head count, but in what drove those abolitionists. Wilberforce especially saw it not just a moral compulsion but above all as a mission from God.
He had always been an extraordinarily principled person, but on his conversion he saw that he would have to answer to God for what he had done for the world, and he hadn’t done anything. This made him look for a mission, and he found it in the slave trade.
This is what drove him on and on for 30 years, when all seemed hopeless, made him refuse to admit defeat, and forced him to keep at it until they had won.
Thank God he did.
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