Generally, Whitefield is justly criticised in connection with his work amongst the first Africans in America.
He did not fight against slavery. At the Orphanage he built in Bethesda, Georgia, he purchased slaves, who although they were treated well, were nevertheless, slaves.
Whitefield felt his responsibility was to preach to slave owners, and to correct abuses rather than launch an assault on the institution itself.
He certainly didn’t agree with the harsh treatment of slaves, but whether he acquiesced with the institution, or whether he merely felt he could do nothing, his failure to use his influence to end slavery, or even begin a serious debate to end slavery, was certainly a sin of omission on his part.
Rebuking the White Man
In an open letter, published by Benjamin Franklin, to the inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Whitefield wrote the following:
‘I must inform you in the meekness and gentleness of Christ, that God has a quarrel with you for your cruelty to the poor negroes. Whether it be lawful for Christians to buy slaves, I shall not take it upon me to determine, but sure I am that it is sinful…to use them worse than brutes.’
‘Some, as I have been informed by an eye witness, have been, upon the most trifling provocation, cut with knives, and have had forks thrown into their flesh: not to mention what numbers have been given up to the inhuman usage of cruel task masters, who by their unrelenting scourges, have ploughed upon their backs and made long furrows, and at length brought them even to death. I hope there are but few such monsters of barbarity [among you]…
An uprising amongst the slaves would be just
Whitefield continued, ‘Although I pray God the slaves would not be permitted to get the upper hand [ie, in revolution against the white slave owners], yet should such a thing be permitted by [God], all good men must acknowledge, the judgement would be just.
‘Whilst I have viewed your plantations cleared and cultivated, and have seen many spacious houses, and the owners of them faring sumptuously every day, my blood has almost run cold within me, when I have considered how many of your slaves have neither convenient food to eat, nor proper [clothes] to put on, notwithstanding most of the comforts you enjoy were solely owing to their labours…
‘Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for the miseries that shall come upon you [for] their cries have come into the ears of the Lord…’ (Quoted in Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, Banner of Truth edition, Vol 1. P,495-6)
Wesley’s view of slavery differed from Whitefield
It is important that we don’t take Whitefield’s passive response to slavery as representative of the Christian position generally.
John Wesley was outspoken – even to the point where he risked Methodism’s popularity in America. At one point, all Methodist itinerant preachers, except the valiant Francis Asbury, returned. And Asbury himself was forced to ‘lie low’.[i]
Wesley, in a fierce attack on slave owners, wrote:
‘You know [slaves] are procured by a deliberate series of…complicated villainy (of fraud, robbery and murder)…Now it is your money that pays the merchant, and through him the captain and the African butchers.
You therefore are guilty, yea principally guilty, of all these frauds, robberies, and murders…therefore, the blood of all these wretches who die before their time, whether in their country or elsewhere, lies upon your head.’[ii]
As a result of Wesley’s position, and that of the Methodist leadership generally, slave holders were not allowed to become members of the Methodist Societies both in Britain and America.
But the most important change came with William Wilberforce, as we’ll see here.
To read a former slave’s tribute to George Whitefield click here
[i] Mark Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, IVP, Leicester, p.201
[ii] From Welsey’s pamphlet ‘Thoughts on Slavery’ published 1774. Quoted by Noll, p.237
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