Sunday, 23 August 2020

Thoughts upon God and Slavery


It is true that some cruel forms of slavery still flourish in many places in the “enlightened” world today.  This is a really hard thought for us to process in our democratic and comfortable society isn’t it?  It is inconceivable to most humans (we hope) that one person can own another person and be in total control of their lives – or indeed, whether they live or die.  However, when I consider slavery and it becomes clear that historically many slave owners professed Christianity and some even used quotes from the Bible as an “excuse” for their treatment of fellow humans, I feel desperately ashamed of their behaviour and sad to know just how many times over the centuries slavery has reared its ugliness and horror.

On Sunday 9th August the Rev. John told us that “Although the Rev. John Wesley claimed to have been opposed to slavery from the first time, he heard of it, …we do not know with certainty when he first heard of slavery. He might have come into contact with slaves in England.” 

However, we do know that; “In 1736-7, Wesley visited North America including Georgia, which was then a British colony, and there he came into contact with enslaved people. This experience left him with a loathing of slavery but at first, he felt unable to act on this.” 

In 1774, he wrote that tract called "Thoughts on Slavery" that went into four editions in two years.  In it, he attacked the Slave Trade and the slave-trader with considerable passion and proposed a boycott of slave-produced sugar and rum. In August 1787, he wrote to the Abolition Committee to express his support.  In 1788, when the abolition campaign was at its height, he preached a sermon in Bristol, one of the foremost slave trading ports. In those days, an anti-slavery sermon could not be preached without considerable personal risk to the preacher and a disturbance broke out.  He maintained an interest in the abolition movement until he died.”

Although John Wesley noted in his journal that he did not like a sentimental style of writing, he seems to have written his “Thoughts on Slavery” in a deliberately impassioned style in order to strengthen his moral, religious and economic arguments.  He made no apologies to those who are sensitive about the truths that he has written.  He has been credited with being the first advocate for the abolition of slavery to make his arguments with sentimental rhetoric, which became the model for the subsequent debates against slavery.

Wesley also famously said: "Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you, but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do with everyone as you would he should do unto you."

It is not easy reading, yet I feel compelled to share a few of John Wesley’s “Thoughts on Slavery” – with apologies for this shocking content.  The problems of greed and the lack of kindness, care, understanding and love have overwhelmed society and allowed unbelievable evil to overcome good often throughout history.  People like John and Charles Wesley, William Wilberforce, John Newton, Lord Mansfield and many others were the right people for their time and were willing to work together and be examples of the power of working with the love of God as your strength.  On 22 May 1787, the first meeting of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade took place, bringing like-minded British Quakers and Anglicans together in the same organisation for the first time.  All the Abolitionist organisations working to free the slaves in America and the British and other colonies were making progress against the terrible problems of greed, dependence on slaves and the cruelty it brought to hundreds of thousands of the innocent victims were at last gaining momentum.

In his booklet, John Wesley gave DETAILED information from various sources about the orderly and calm nature and life of the inhabitants of the coast of Africa from which huge numbers of native people were seized, transported and sold as slaves.  He noted these details to quash the stories of the kidnappers that they were “saving” them from a terrible environment where few could survive!

“The Gold-Coast and Slave-Coast, all who have seen it agree, is exceeding fruitful and pleasant, producing vast quantities of rice and other grain, plenty of fruit and roots, palm-wine, and oil, and fish in great abundance, with much tame and wild cattle. The very same account is given us of the soil and produce of the kingdoms of Benin, Congo and Angol--From all which it appears, That Guinea in general, far from being an horrid, dreary, barren country, is one of the most fruitful, as well as the most pleasant countries in the known world. It is said indeed to be unhealthy. And so it is to strangers, but perfectly healthy to the native inhabitants.

Such is the country from which the negroes are brought. We come next to enquire, What sort of men they are, of what temper and behaviour, not in our plantations, but in their native country. And here likewise the surest way is to take our account from eye and ear witnesses. Now those who have lived in the Senegal country observe, it is inhabited by three nations, the Jaloss, Fulis, and Mandingos. The king of the Jaloss has under him several ministers, who assist in the exercise of justice. The chief justice goes in circuit through all his dominions, to hear complaints and determine controversies. And the viceroy goes with him, to inspect the behaviour of the Alkadi, or Governor of each village.

The Mandingos, says Mons. Brue, are rigid Mahometans, drinking neither wine nor brandy. They are industrious and laborious, keeping their ground well cultivated, and breeding a good flock of cattle. Every town has a governor, and he appoints the labour of the people. The men work the ground designed for corn; the women and girls, the rice-ground.  He afterwards divides the corn and rice among them: And decides all quarrels if any arise. All the Mahometan negroes constantly go to public prayers thrice a day: there being a priest in every village, who regularly calls them together:  And so the reports of the places and people go on.

We have now seen, what kind of country it is, from which the negroes are brought: And what sort of men (even whitemen being the judges) they were in their own country. Enquire we, Thirdly, In what manner are they generally procured, carried to, and treated in America.

First. In what manner are they procured? Part of them by fraud. Captains of ships from time to time, have invited negroes to come on board, and then carried them away. But far more have been procured by force. The Christians landing upon their coasts, seized as many as they found, men, women and children, and transported them to America. It was about 1551, that the English began trading to Guinea: At first, for gold and elephants teeth, but soon after, for men. In 1566, Sir John Hawkins sailed with two ships to Cape Verd, where he sent eighty men on shore to catch negroes. But the natives flying, they fell farther down, and there set the men on shore, "to burn their towns and take the inhabitants." But they met with such resistance, that they had seven men killed, and took but ten negroes. So they went still farther down, till having taken enough, they proceeded to the West-Indies, and sold them*.

It was some time before the Europeans found a more compendious way of procuring African slaves, by prevailing upon them to make war upon each other, and to sell their prisoners.  Till then they seldom had any wars: But were in general quiet and peaceable. But the white men first taught them drunkenness and avarice, and then hired them to sell one another. Nay, by this means, even their kings are induced to sell their own subjects.

Such is the manner wherein the Negroes are procured! Thus the Christians preach the gospel to the heathens!           

Thus they are procured. But in what numbers and in what manner are they carried to America?--Mr. Anderson in his History of trade and commerce, observes, "England supplies her American colonies with Negro slaves, amounting in number to about an hundred thousand every year." That is, so many are taken on board our ships; but at least ten thousand of them die in the voyage: About a fourth part more die at the different Islands, in what is called the Seasoning. So that at an average, in the passage and seasoning together, thirty thousand die: That is, properly are murdered. O earth, O Sea, cover not thou their blood!

When they are brought down to the shore in order to be sold, our surgeons thoroughly examine them, and that quite naked, women and men, without any distinction: Those that are approved are set on one side. In the mean time a burning iron, with the arms or name of the Company, lies in the fire, with which they are marked on the breast. Before they are put into the ships, their masters strip them of all they have on their backs: So that they come on board stark naked, women as well as men. It is common for several hundreds of them to be put on board one vessel; where they are stowed together in as little room, as it is possible for them to be crowded. It is easy to suppose what a condition they must soon be in, between heat, thirst, and stench of various kinds. So that it is no wonder, so many should die in the passage; but rather, that any survive it. 

I will not burden you with the horrendous laws that John Wesley wrote about in his Booklet – laws that were made for the punishments to be metered out to slaves.  However, he did record; “The author of the history of Jamaica, wrote about the year 1740, in his account of the sufferings of the negroes; The people of that island have indeed the severest ways of punishing; no country exceeds them in a barbarous treatment of their slaves, or in the cruel methods by which they are put to death.”

The Rev. John concluded his Sermon: “Slavery continues to flourish in our world today. People who are hungry, homeless, or otherwise vulnerable are lured into debt slavery because they are promised a better life. Some of them are forced into prostitution. Some are forced labourers. Some are illegal immigrants who pay large fees to an “agent,” who smuggles them into a nation, and then keeps them in virtual slavery because of the debts run up. Some are children sold as jockeys, as prostitutes, as labourers. Some are farm labourers whose parents passed on debts to them and they will, in turn, pass those debts on their children.”

“The greatest riches are spiritual and moral.  And they are produced by a Gospel-enlivened society organically rooted in stable marriages and families, chastity, sobriety, self-denial, thrift, hard work and moral responsibility.  These virtues and practices are rightly encouraged by churches, which are called to redeem the fallen, and governments, which are responsible for public order.”

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