While George Whitefield was seeking to improve the treatment of slaves in America, and to bring them to Christ, John Wesley could, from the relative comfort of England, see far more objectively: Slavery must not merely be adjusted or improved – it must be abolished altogether!
Wesley had not come to this conclusion all at once. Like Whitefield, he was appalled at the treatment of the slaves he had seen in America, but he had not then thought it a crime.
He later met John Newton, a former slave trader who had been converted and had quit the trade. But apparently neither of the two Johns had yet seen the need to oppose slavery.
The value of reading widely
The change came when he read an account of slavery written by American Quaker, Anthony Benezet, which described in detail the reality of slavery.
Wesley was horrified by the brutality and shamed by the heartlessness of such wickedness and became determined to go to print.
In 1774 he published ‘Thoughts on Slavery’ in which he wrote,
‘If therefore you have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of mercy, nor of the revealed law of GOD) render unto all their due. 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 choice. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion! Be gentle towards men. And see that you invariably do unto every one, as you would he should do unto you.’ (‘Thoughts on Slavery’ by John Wesley)
It was primarily through reading the words of Wesley in this short publication that John Newton came to see that slavery was indeed a crime. [i]
The value of writing letters
John Wesley influenced many of the major players in the fight against slavery in 18th Century Britain and America.
In fact, his very last letter was sent to a young politician named William Wilberforce, who would spend much of his political life fighting for the abolition of the slave trade.
Wesley’s last letter
To Wilberforce he wrote,
Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, [an ‘Athanasius against the world.’] I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.
‘Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils.
‘But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing.
‘Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
‘Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance, that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a law in all our Colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this!
‘That He who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir,
Your affectionate servant,
John Wesley’ (from the WCO)
Wesley’s passion and encouragement, and his last letter, helped the young Wilberforce to fight successfully until the British parliament finally signed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
More next time…
[i] John Pollock, John Wesley (London:Hodder, 1989) p.235
© 2010 Lex Loizides