Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Saints Go Marching: The 18th and 19th Century Movement to Abolish Slavery, with Its Many Christian Leaders, Has Much to Teach Us

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Saints Go Marching: The 18th and 19th Century Movement to Abolish Slavery, with Its Many Christian Leaders, Has Much to Teach Us

Article excerpt

The 18th century may seem like ancient history. But today's antislavery activists can learn a lot from the campaigners who, within a few short years, created a mass movement in Britain that swayed first public opinion and finally Parliament to abolish the slave trade and later slavery itself within the British Empire.

They overcame many of the obstacles faced by activists in our world: lobbying by elites invested in the status quo, a legislature that delayed action in favor of "further study," and a reactionary wartime political climate, to name a few. And, as Adam Hochschild points out in his lively abolitionist history Bury the Chains, antislavery organizers pioneered many tactics used today: speaking tours, mass boycotts, local chapters of national groups, and voter guides, all to fight an unjust economic system with global reach.

Throughout the 1700s, many thinkers were against slavery--in theory. Plays and other forms of popular culture milked the plight of slaves for sentimental drama. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote a tract called "Thoughts on Slavery" in 1774 that proposed a boycott of slave-produced sugar and rum. Quakers went the furthest, banning slave owners from their denomination.

But a concerted, large-scale movement to end slavery seemed out of reach. Other than Wesley, many evangelicals, inside and outside the Church of England, spent the first four decades after the Great Awakening more interested in converting slaves than freeing them. John Newton, who penned the hymn "Amazing Grace," worked as a slave ship officer for six years after his conversion and did not publicly oppose the slave trade until he had been a minister for decades.

But by the mid-1780s, the time was ripe for change. Several court cases had raised public outrage about the slave trade. Former Caribbean resident James Ramsay's detailed eyewitness account of slavery became a bestseller in 1784. Three years later, a young man named Thomas Clarkson and others, many of them Quakers, began organizing a mass movement of antislavery societies all over Britain. The middle class, whose power and identity were on the increase, jumped in with both feet. In 1788, prominent author Hannah More published Slavery: A Poem, aimed at an upper-class audience. Wesley, whose audiences were largely working and middle class, preached against slavery in the slave-trading port of Bristol, producing a near-riot. In 1789, former slave Olaudah Equiano's autobiography became a bestseller, and William Wilberforce brought a bill to abolish the slave trade before Parliament.

The key to antislavery forces' successes was a broad coalition, energized by Quakers evangelical Christians but reaching across the political and social spectrum, including people of prophetic faith and shrewd politicians, progressives and conservatives, elites and outsiders.

THE SURPRISING THING was that people with such different outlooks could work together and even, often, be friends. The privileged Wilberforce, for example, was friends with Clarkson, who greeted the French Revolution with little-disguised rapture. Petitions to Parliament now suddenly drew from everyone in town, including signers barely educated enough to write.

One key factor was the conversion of several members of Britain's political and intellectual elite, most notably Wilberforce and More, to "vital religion"--an evangelical faith that saw religion not just as a nondescript commitment to morality, but rather as a passionate enthusiasm for Christ's atoning work. Previously, evangelicalism had been a working-class and middle-class phenomenon; many in the upper class regarded converts as declasse, puritanical whackos. The Church of England relegated most evangelical ministers to what were considered extremely marginal positions--for example, as chaplain to a charity hospital for people with venereal disease.

Wilberforce's life strikingly demonstrated--and transcended--the tensions between evangelicals and political elites of his day. …

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