Evangelicalism, abolition and slavery.
The theocratically inclined World Net Daily web site is promoting the film Amazing Grace, as to be expected with their Christianist agenda. Their “film reviewer” writes that this is the story of Wilberforce who lost his father and went to live with an aunt “in whose home he first met the great evangelist George Whitefield, and John Newton. Newton had converted to Christianity and left a lucrative life as a slave trader, and wrote the words of the hymn Amazing Grace."
Anschutz’s film also tells the story of John Newton, the man who authored the song Amazing Grace because Newton was a covert to Christianity and had once been an active merchant in slaves himself. I’ve not seen the film so I can’t say how accurate it is on this matter. I can, however say, that the web site for the film merely claims that Newton repented "over time" but gives no indication of the time involved. Newton’s conversion to Christianity was real. He was on a ship that he thought would sink during a storm and prayed that God would save the ship. When it didn’t sink, and most ships don’t sink during storms, Newton changed his life.
But when I say he changed his life he stopped swearing, he stopped gambling (so he wouldn’t be at Anschutz’s casino) and he stopped drinking. What he didn’t do was stop working in the slave trade. That continued for several more years. Then he had a violent fever and got converted all over again. This time he said it was total conversion and he was at peace. And still he continued working in the slave trade. Trading in human beings didn’t disturb his peace at all. Apparently having a beer was a problem, as was saying “damn” but helping transport human slaves didn’t bother him and if it did then it didn’t bother him enough to stop.
Only in 1754, six years after his conversion, did he retire from the maritime industry but not in moral revulsion against slavery but because he wanted to become an Anglican priest. One has to wonder how many more additional people were sold into slavery because the converted Newton found nothing in his evangelicalism that opposed slavery.
For seven years Newton was rejected for the priesthood. He also tried to be ordained by the Methodists, Presbyterians and others but no one was that keen. He eventually used the influence of a friend and was ordained. It was only in 1779 that Newton ended up in London preaching and it was here he met William Wilberforce, the main character in the Anschutz film.
And it was only now that Newton became an abolitionist. He was a Christian and a slave trader for years. Only after he left the maritime trade, and decades later, did he find himself opposing slavery. He wrote a booklet against slavery in 1787, 33 years after he left the slave trading enterprise. His conversions to Christianity did not stop him from engaging in the transport of slaves whatsoever.
And what of the other prominent “evangelical” influence on Wilberforce: George Whitefield? Whitefield is certainly a far more important figure in the development of evangelicalism than Wilberforce. Whitefield is the man who is often credited with bringing revivalist fundamentalism to America. He toured the American colonies preaching the message of fundamentalist Christianity winning many converts. His campaign was called “The Great Awakening” but what is forgotten, or ignored, is that Whitefield didn’t just support slavery he actively extended it.
The state of Georgia, where Whitefield preached and established an orphanage, prohibited slavery. But in 1749 there was a move to legalize the ownership and trading of human beings and the great evangelical leader George Whitefield was a leader of that campign. His orphanage owned slaves and upon Whitefield’s death those slaves were bequeathed as property to the Countess of Huntingdon, a benefactor of Whitefield who helped pay for his revival campaigns and was a major benefactor of the British evangelical movement.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography discusses the role of evangelical Christians in ending slavery and it notes: “During the first half-century of religious revivalism, from the 1730s to the 1780s, evangelicals showed little interest in the Atlantic slave trade or the enslavement of Africans. The mid-century progenitors of Anglican evangelicalism.... left no record of opposition to slavery in their deeds or words.”
More importantly it notes that “several important evangelicals... had a vested interest in human bondage.” Rev. Martin Madan was a slave owner who used involuntary human labor on his plantations in the Caribbean. The profits from this venture were used to build a chapel for evangelicals in London. Like Newton, his fellow evangelical slavery, he also wrote hymns.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that the few “evangelicals who took an interest in the enslaved focused exclusively on the African’s spiritual welfare.” Slaves, in accordance with the New Testament, were told to accept their bondage and improve their spiritual condition.
Only in the late 1700s did a significant group of evangelicals become persuaded that slavery was wrong and this was more due to the lobbying of Quakers than to any biblical morality. This group of evangelicals “had initially shown more concern with the promotion of religion than the cause of liberty. If left to their own devices, it seems likely that they would have pursued an ameliorationist programme, rather than the abolition of the slave trade.” They only embraced abolitionism in 1786.
If one group deserves praise in the fight against slavery it is not the evangelicals. It is the Quakers. This sect is not evangelical in any sense of the word and were often persecuted by evangelicals for their teachings. But Quakers consistently opposed slavery, which is one reason for the persecution they suffered at the hands of orthodox believers. Quakers were petitioning parliament to abolish slavery while the evangelicals were still counting the profits from the trade.
The campaign to portray evangelicals as the force behind abolitionism is a false one. And even the major evangelical influences on Wilberforce, Whitefield and Newton, were slavers. Newton’s conversion didn’t stop his slave trading as is claimed by the Religious Right. And Whitefield was a major leader of the campaign to bring slavery to the state of Georgia.
Thanks to George Whitefield by 1810 there were over 100,000 slaves in the state of Georgia. And by the time of the Civil War there were close to half a million. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that this prominent evangelical revivalist alone made it possible to enslave over 1 million people from the time he pushed for the legalization of slavery in Georgia until it was abolished by the Civil War just over a century later. Whitefield helped establish one of the largest slave trading regions in the world. Anyone think Anschutz will make a film about that?
I can’t find a firm figure regarding how many slaves were freed by the 1833 abolition act but I found several references to the compensation paid out by the British government to slave owners. It is said that £100 per slave was paid to the owners who “lost” their property. Elsewhere I read that £20 million in total compensation was given out. That would seem to indicate 200,000 slaves were freed.
If evangelicals wants to take credit for those 200,000 I’m happy to let them do so (though it is not quite accurate). But I would like them to take credit for the additional slavery that existed because of the efforts of George Whitelfield. And from what I see Whitefield’s actions lead to the enslavement of five people for every one that Wilberforce helped free. That comes to a deficit of 800,000 slaves. Evangelicals ought not celebrate and sing Amazing Grace too loudly. Their history in the slave trade is far, far dirtier than they are admitting.
Illustration: Our illustration is of evangelist George Whitefield, slaver.