Evangelicals rightly celebrate William Wilberforce. His Christian beliefs motivated his historic effort to secure the abolition of the slave trade, in the British empire, in 1807 (see ET, December 2017).
What we don’t talk about so much is how a number of godly Christian leaders, particularly in the Southern USA in the nineteenth century, supported slavery either directly or indirectly. It is perhaps even more painful to admit that, for a time in the eighteenth century, George Whitefield owned slaves.
How could godly Christians accept slavery? Some people unfamiliar with Whitefield or American Christian leaders of the Southern states — men like Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Robert Lewis Dabney and James Henley Thornwell — might assume from this that these were of dubious moral and ethical character.
How do we explain the views and practices of these men? It is important that we try to do so. We live in an age when much of British and American history is seen, especially by many in the academic community and the students they teach, as filled with a wicked and oppressive white supremacist agenda, fit only for condemnation. The views of the men I have mentioned would only serve to convince them that the church was complicit in this evil agenda.
How do we explain these Christians’ views and actions? First, love of the truth and love for our neighbour demand that we say unambiguously that their views and practices on slavery were morally wrong. We cannot say otherwise.
The part that racial prejudice played has compounded the evil and poisoned relations between the races. Also, many Christians, like Charles Spurgeon, the great nineteenth century preacher, detested slavery and believed it to be a ‘crime of crimes’. He said he would not admit a slave owner to the Lord’s Table.
All slavery is wrong and the brutal treatment of some African slaves was reprehensible. But, I know of no evidence that these men were directly guilty of such treatment. While George Whitefield kept slaves on a farm he owned, to help pay the costs of the orphanage he started in Georgia, he nevertheless publicly condemned slave owners who mistreated their slaves. He did that when few others would have dared do so in the South.
We must also consider the evidence we see in the lives and ministries of those men. That evidence, when viewed fairly, does not allow us to dismiss them as simply wicked. The record of their ministries reveals deep Christian faith and spiritual experience.
That doesn’t absolve them of wrong, but it does help us have a sense of proportion and perspective. But it also makes our job more difficult. If we could dismiss them as wicked, the explanation would be rather easy. But they weren’t; they were quite the opposite.
So how do we explain a slave owner like George Whitefield or a passionate defender of slavery like Benjamin Palmer? The critic will say, ‘Slavery is evil and they were complicit in that evil and therefore have no right to be heard. And if Christians defend them, then Christianity has no right to be heard’. That is exactly what some are saying. How should we respond?
The history of slavery is a vast subject, far beyond the scope of this article. It has existed from earliest times in different forms and in virtually all cultures and nations, with members of every race enslaved at some time or other.
Some sporadic efforts to abolish slavery took place before Christ. More efforts took place in Christianised Europe during the Middle Ages. The Atlantic slave trade, which existed from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, was eventually abolished in Britain (1807) and America (1808). But progress was slow.
Today, almost all countries have officially outlawed slavery, though modern forms, such as human trafficking, sadly, persist.
This cruel expression of our sinful nature is a gross violation of the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves. So why didn’t Whitefield, Palmer et al see it?
I think we have to conclude it was due largely to the cultural norms of those times, which included a deeply lamentable racial prejudice and also some faulty interpretation of Scripture.
In the famous Somerset case in Britain in 1772, it was determined that slaveholders had no legal right to retain their slaves if they escaped. That was the beginning of the end of slavery in Britain (1833). The end came later in America (1863), and only after the bloodiest war in American history.
Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded ‘middle passage’, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Surprisingly, only about 388,000 went directly to North America (http://www.slavevoyages.org/assessment/estimates).
Slavery was mostly an accepted part of the culture in the American colonies. Even in New York City, as late as 1748, 20 per cent of the population were slaves (George Whitefield; Yale, 2014; p.98). But the southern part of what became the USA was where slavery was so much a part of the social and economic life of the people.
One of Whitefield’s recent biographers, Thomas Kidd, demonstrates how slavery was widely accepted during Whitefield’s lifetime (George Whitefield, p.262). He points out that, while Whitefield was severely criticised by his enemies throughout his lifetime for many things, criticism for his owning slaves was rare. Slavery was simply not considered in the same light as it was later and is today.
That explanation won’t satisfy everyone, but I think it a fair one. The fact is that, throughout the history of the church, the norms, values and attitudes of the culture of the day can usually be found to some degree in the church, and some of these values were and are sinful. It shouldn’t be so, but it was then and it is now.
That doesn’t excuse the Christians of an earlier generation. We cannot excuse them, but it helps us better understand them. And perhaps it helps restrain us from hastily condemning them.
Instead, we might examine our own lives and churches, and ask God to show us what norms, values and attitudes of our culture we are tolerating or even encouraging today — values for which some future generation may (even hastily) condemn us.
Dennis Hill is minister of Kingston Evangelical Church, Hull