Evangelical Library West and the slave trade
On a sunny afternoon in March, 150 people gathered at Widcombe Baptist Church, Bath, for the annual meeting of the ELW (Evangelical Library West).
The commemoration address for the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was given by Dr Robert Oliver, lecturer in historical theology at London Theological Seminary and chairman of the ELW. It was a thoroughly researched yet accessible paper, covering a complicated period of history.
Dr Oliver briefly surveyed the history of slavery and then explained how ‘Christian’ Europe came to ship large numbers of slaves from Africa to the West Indies, across the Atlantic, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On this ‘middle passage’ at least 10% of the slave cargo perished from disease.
The mid-eighteenth century saw the Evangelical Awakening and emergence of an Abolition movement. This was begun by Quakers and later led by Evangelicals, including William Wilberforce, Granville Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson and Sir Charles Middleton. They were prepared to face great opposition from the powerful West India lobby.
Wilberforce raised the issue of the slave trade in a House of Commons debate in 1789 and continued doing so until 1807. Nonconformists and, in particular, Baptists gave much help to the Abolitionist cause. They published sermons and boosted funds through their generous donations.
Abraham Booth preached a hard-hitting sermon in 1792 entitled ‘Commerce in the Human Species’. He concluded this with a vivid illustration of role reversal – imagine Britons themselves being captured into slavery!
Wilberforce persisted in the Commons year after year, and in the end it was war with France that changed the minds of the uncommitted.
As a result of victories in the West Indies, Britain was prepared to use her navy against the Atlantic slave trade. Politics had played its part, but, as Dr Oliver stressed, ‘we must never forget the important part played by ordinary church and chapel goers’. It was the understanding of the implications of the gospel that sustained the long, hard campaign of the Evangelicals against slavery.
(Recording from: PO Box 170, Fishponds, Bristol BS16 5XN; £3 post free; cheques to ‘ELW’).