Today we will examine the role of religion in the Slave Trade.
The Bible and slavery
Like most holy books, the Bible can be used to support particular viewpoints, and slavery is no exception. There are numerous references to slavery in the Bible which can be interpreted to condemn or condone this practice, and even those verses which appear unambiguous, are far from clear when scrutinised.
For instance, scriptural passages from the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy which appear to denounce slavery actually condemn enslavement in certain circumstances rather than slavery in general. On the other hand, although St Paul’s New Testament epistles fail to condemn slavery, they argue that slaves must be treated fairly as ‘brethren’.
Out of Africa
Historical records show that Islam and Christianity played an important role in enslavement in Africa. The Arab-controlled Trans-Saharan slave trade helped to institutionalise slave trading on the continent. And during the ‘age of expedition’, European Christians witnessed caravans loaded with Africans en-route to the Middle East. Others arriving much later in West Africa observed slavery in African societies, leading them to assume that African enslavement was intrinsic to the continent.
For many of these early European explorers, the Bible was not only regarded as infallible, it was also their primary reference tool and those looking for answers to explain differences in ethnicity, culture, and slavery, found them in Genesis 9: 24-27, which appeared to suggest that it was all a result of ‘sin’.
In the Genesis passage, Africans were said to be the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who was cursed by his father after looking at his naked form. Moreover, in Genesis 10, the ‘Table of Nations’ describes the origins of the different ‘races’ and reveals that one of the descendants of Ham is ‘Cush’ – Cush and the ‘Cushites’ were people associated with the Nile region of North Africa.
In time, the connection Europeans made between sin, slavery, skin colour and beliefs would condemn Africans. In the Bible, physical or spiritual slavery is often a consequence of sinful actions, while darkness is associated with evil. Moreover, the Africans were subsequently considered ‘heathens’ bereft of Christianity, although scholars now suggest that Christianity reached Africa as early as the early 2nd century AD and that the Christian communities in North Africa were among the first in the world. However, Europeans doubtlessly refused to acknowledge the relevance of African Christianity as it appeared irreconcilable with the continent’s cultural surroundings.
Religion as justification
The emergence of colonies in the Americas and the need to find labourers saw Europeans turn their attention to Africa with some arguing that the Transatlantic Slave Trade would enable Africans, especially the ‘Mohammedans’, to come into contact with Christianity and ‘civilization’ in the Americas, albeit as slaves. It was even argued that the favourable trade winds from Africa to the Americas were evidence of this providential design.
Religion was also a driving force during slavery in the Americas. Once they arrived at their new locales the enslaved Africans were subjected to various processes to make them more compliant, and Christianity formed part of this. Ironically, although the assertion of evangelisation was one of the justifications for enslaving Africans, very little missionary work actually took place during the early years. In short, religion got in the way of a moneymaking venture by taking Africans away from their work. It also taught them potentially subversive ideas and made it hard to justify the cruel mistreatment of fellow Christians.
However, some clergy tried to push the idea that it was possible to be a ‘good slave and Christian’ and pointed to St Paul’s epistles, which called for slaves to ‘obey their masters’, and St Peter’s letters (1 Peter 2: 18-25), which appeared to suggest that it was wholly commendable for Christian slaves to suffer at the hands of cruel masters.
While some clergymen were using Christian scriptures to propagate slavery, others were scouring the Bible to end it. Although evangelicals tend to receive most of the credit for this, the origins of Christian abolitionism can be traced to the late 17th Century and the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers.
Since their establishment in the mid 17th century, Quakers had faced persecution for their beliefs which stated that everyone was “equal in the sight of God” and capable of receiving the “light of God’s spirit and wisdom”, including Africans. Several of their founders, including George Fox and Benjamin Lay, encouraged fellow congregants to stop owning slaves, and by 1696, Quakers in Pennsylvania officially declared their opposition to the importation of enslaved Africans into North America.
Quakers in Philadelphia and London debated slavery at their yearly meetings in the 1750s, and fellow Quaker Anthony Benezet’s Some Historical Account of Guinea (1772) became required reading for abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. For instance, it informed John Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Slavery(1774) which in turn influenced many British Christian abolitionists and was said to have inspired the former slave trader turned clergyman, John Newton, to break his decades of silence about his involvement in the slave trade.
Many early Christian opponents of slavery came from congregations such as Congregationalists, Quakers, Presbyterians, ‘Methodists’ and Baptists, who were called ‘Nonconformists’ or ‘Dissenters’ because they disagreed with the beliefs and practices of the Church of England. These Christians were often marginalised because of this, but their counter-cultural stance enabled them to make connections with those who faced other forms of persecution.
Calls for abolition grow
The main thrust of Christian abolitionism emerged from the evangelical revival of the 18th century, which spawned dynamic Christians with clear-cut beliefs on morality and sin and approached the issue of slavery from this standpoint.
In his Thoughts upon Slavery, John Wesley questioned the morality of slavery and those who engaged in it, while William Wilberforce, the evangelical Anglican MP who worked to end the slave trade in Parliament, believed that he had been called by God to end the ‘immoral’ slave trade.
Many evangelicals were interested in the physical as well as the spiritual condition of enslaved Africans. Clergymen such as James Ramsay, who had worked in the Caribbean, were influential in pointing out that many Africans died without hearing the gospel.
However, practical evangelical abolition work began with the Anglican Granville Sharp in the mid 1760s when he fought for the freedom of a young African, Jonathan Strong. Sharp rose to national prominence during the landmark Somerset Case of 1772, which determined the status of slavery in Britain. He would later join with the Quakers to establish the first recognised anti-slavery movement in Britain in 1787. By this time, other Anglicans such as Thomas Clarkson had entered the fray. Clarkson, who had written an award-wining essay on slavery in 1785, received what he considered to be divine instructions to work to end slavery.
It would be wrong to suggest that there were Christian ‘saints’ and ‘sinners’ in regards to slavery. It can be argued that both characteristics co-existed within denominations and individuals alike, demonstrating the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies of all human beings. For instance, the Quakers have been described as the ‘good guys’, yet their links to slavery included the infamous David and Alexander of Barclays Bank fame, Francis Baring of Barings Bank and the Quaker merchant Robert King who was Olaudah Equiano’s last slave master. Most tellingly, even during the height of their anti-slavery activity, many Quaker meeting houses refused to accept Africans into their congregations.
This was also the situation with the other denominations. The Church of England, being the established church, had links to slavery through the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel missionary organisations, which had plantations in Barbados; while the Bishop of Exeter was a personal slave owner. Moreover, Anglicans involved in slavery often poured their ill-gotten gain into Church coffers. And in cities such as Bristol, the church bells pealed when Wilberforce’s anti-slave trade Bills were defeated in Parliament.
However, not all Anglicans were complicit. Dr Beilby Porteus, the Bishop of London, was an evangelical abolitionist whose sermons regularly railed against slavery. Similarly, the Clapham Sect, a group of Anglicans based around Clapham, south London, carried out sterling work to end the slave trade. Likewise, the Countess of Huntingdon (herself a slave owner) became a sponsor of the poetry of the former enslaved African Phyllis Wheatley. Wheatley’s work, some of which addressed freedom and bondage, was published in the UK because publishers in Boston could not accept that a Black woman could write such exquisite verse.
However, the Christian abolitionists have their detractors and some have argued that they never showed the same commitment to ending slavery as they did to ending the slave trade. Their attitude towards Africans appear condescending by today’s standards. Yet, for their time, they were considered enlightened for recognising that Africans were made in the image of God and believing that Africa could trade with Europe in products and not human beings.
The enslaved and Christianity
One of the most common misconceptions about Christianity was that it turned Africans into servile slaves. A more accurate reading suggests that Africans accepted and incorporated aspects of Christianity that were in keeping with their traditional belief systems. Others withstood centuries of slavery and missionary influence to practise traditional beliefs that thrived despite great attempts by the respective authorities to stamp them out.
Adherents to Islam also faced great restrictions on their ability to practise their religion openly. When Non-conformist missionaries stepped up attempts to evangelise Africans during the late 18th century it was noted that the African Muslims still held on to their tendency to pray with their arms open, as opposed to the Christian way with hands clasped.
The Africans who embraced Christianity identified closely with the Bible’s view of freedom, equality and justice and especially drew parallels between their own situation and the Hebrew people in the Book of Exodus. Indeed, such was the potency of this Old Testament story that many clergymen were instructed to avoid it in their Bible lessons. However, for the Africans it demonstrated that God was on the side of the oppressed and would send a Moses to free them. It was ironic that for Africans, the Americas (the USA in particular) represented the Biblical Egypt or Babylon – a place from which to escape – while for persecuted European Christians it was the Promised Land.
It is no coincidence that in the Diaspora, ‘leaders’ in the Black community are invariably men and women of faith; a trait that is traceable to slavery. During this era, a religious leader was deemed to be called by God and given wisdom and power to lead and practically all the leaders of slave insurrections were men and women of faith (or were ‘protected’ by prayers or hexes) such as Tacky (Tacky Rebellion), Nanny of the Maroons, Toussaint and Boukman (Haiti), Sam Sharpe (Jamaica), Nat Turner (USA), Quamina (Guyana) etc.
Moreover, many slave insurrections such as the ‘Tacky’, ‘Bussa’ and ‘Christmas’ Rebellions occurred during Christian religious festivals. There is little doubt that Africans took umbrage at the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be followers of a merciful God, yet forced his ‘children’ to work on holy days.
Slavery in England
Africans in Britain were also using the so-called slave master’s tool to destroy his house. The status of slavery in England remained ambiguous during the 18th century due to Parliament’s failure to address the issue directly in law. However, English Common Law suggested that Christians could not be made slaves.
The subsequent Lord Mansfield edict of 1772, in which he allegedly commented that “The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe”, held out the mistaken hope for many Africans that a baptised slave living in England was free. Consequently, scores of Africans were baptised in St Margaret’s Church in Westminster, London.
Equiano and the ‘Sons of Africa’
Although this hope proved unfounded, England proved a magnet for Africans and many, including Olaudah Equiano [a former slave who had managed to buy his freedom], joined the campaign to end slavery. Once he obtained his freedom Equiano wrote his autobiography and worked with the ‘Sons of Africa’ for African freedom.
Equiano petitioned Parliament and Queen Charlotte on the question of slavery and was a regular writer to the Morning Chronicle, London Advertiser and Public Advertiser newspapers. He also exchanged theological arguments on slavery with the Church’s number one slave trade apologist, the Liverpool-based clergyman The Revd Raymond Harris.
Through their writings and talks these Africans dispelled all notions of racial inferiority and black complacency towards slavery. Unlike their white counterparts, Africans had little option but to oppose slavery as they were always susceptible to enslavement by unscrupulous traders.
Consequently, Africans such as Ottobah Cugoano, who published his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, demanded immediate, not gradual, freedom for the Africans in the late 18th century, at a time when his white counterparts were concentrating on ending the slave trade.
Some Christians saw 2007’s bicentenary of the parliamentary act to end the slave trade as an opportunity to highlight faith-based activism at its best. For evangelicals, it was a chance to reclaim the social justice mantle that was handed over to the ‘liberals’ by those who thought that such work was a distraction from preaching the Gospel.
Some Christians turned their attention to ‘modern day’ slavery and suggested that a new generation of abolitionists needs to be as prophetic as their forebears in ending this affront to human dignity.
However, many in the church saw the bicentenary as an opportunity for it to examine its role during this era and make amends for past mistakes. In 2006 the General Synod voted to apologise to the descendants of victims of the slave trade, in which the Church was involved. Christian scriptures were used as part of a process to enslave and dehumanise Africans and some Christians believe that the Church should make amends by working to end the legacies of slavery and the racism that still continues to blight church and society.
The slave trade helped to shape Britain and the Church played a key role in marking the anniversary.
Thanks for your attention.