This year is a historical bicentennial: on 25 March 1807, William Wilberforce’s long fight to end slavery resulted in the royal assent to ‘An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’, which abolished the buying and selling of humans throughout the British Empire. This was after 20 years of struggle and repeated previous defeats of his anti-slavery bills in Parliament.
Even the usually anti-Christian Hollywood is commemorating this historic day with the film Amazing Grace (actually by Walden Media, which also produced the Narnia movie). Amazing Grace stars the Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced ‘Griffith’) of Hornblower fame as Wilberforce, and Albert Finney as his mentor John Newton, the slaver-turned-abolitionist who composed the famous hymn after which the film is named. [Update: see our film review.]
With a plethora of books attacking Christianity, this anniversary is timely in reminding the world of the great good that it has achieved when truly followed. Slavery is one of the best examples—far from being a Western Christian invention, it was ubiquitous, and it was only the Christian west that abolished it. (See also Christianity’s real record (off site), showing that atheists frequently exaggerate atrocities by professing Christians, ignore the great good done by Christians practising their faith, and ignore the far greater atrocities of atheist regimes.)
As conservative black economist Thomas Sowell points out in the Slavery chapter in Black Rednecks and White Liberals, slavery has been around all over the world for most of its history. And for most of this dismal history, it was not a racial issue. Most slaves did not differ racially from their masters.
For example, Europeans enslaved Europeans—indeed, it was a European people group, the Slavs, that was such a common victim of slavers that the very word comes from this group (although in the Slavonic languages, slava means glory). Also, Asians enslaved Asians, and Africans enslaved Africans—black slaves were usually first captured by other blacks because the Europeans were susceptible to African diseases if they ventured into the interior.
And in many cases, Caucasians were enslaved by non-Caucasians: the dark-skinned Muslim Moors enslaved ‘white’ Europeans during their occupation of the Iberian peninsula (what they called ‘al Andalus’) from 711 to 1492.
Later, from the 16th century, the Muslim Barbary States of North Africa encouraged pirates who had a flourishing white slave trade. In the first half of the 17th century, 20,000 captives were said to be imprisoned in Algiers alone. The Europeans paid blood money to these rogue states until US President Thomas Jefferson sent the American Navy to bomb the pirate ships and ports in 1805 (the US Marines’ taking of Tripoli in the Battle of Derne is the inspiration for the phrase ‘to the shores of Tripoli’ in the Marine Hymn).
Tragically, Muslims are still enslaving blacks today in Africa. African-American economist Dr Walter Williams of George Mason University writes in Black Slavery is Alive in 2001:
‘Slavery in the Sudan is in part a result of a 15-year war by the Muslim north against the black Christian and animist south. Arab militias, armed by the Khartoum government, raid villages, mostly those of the Dinka tribe. They shoot the men and enslave the women and children. Women and children are kept as personal property or they’re taken north and auctioned off.
‘American Anti-Slavery Group says, “Most distressing is the silence of the American media whose reports counted for so much in the battle to end apartheid in South Africa.” … In fact, it’s fairly safe to say that most of today’s most flagrant human rights abuses occur in Africa. But unfortunately they get little attention — maybe it’s because Africans instead of Europeans are the perpetrators; Europeans are held accountable to civilized standards of behavior, while Africans aren’t.’
Wilberforce and his anti-slavery fight were documented in a recent book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild (2005). Dr Sowell summarizes in a review:
Indeed, Hochschild documents that the world’s first anti-slavery movement began with a meeting of 12 ‘deeply religious’ men in London in 1787, including Wilberforce.
Wilberforce’s motivations are crystal clear from his own book A Practical View of Christianity (1797). This was a best seller in its time, going through five printings in six months and was translated into five foreign languages. John Piper writes:
Indeed, Wilberforce had to struggle against not only repeated rejections, but also ill health. He had painful chronic ulcerative colitis (large bowel disease), for which he was prescribed laudanum (a sweetened solution of opium and alcohol), a strong painkiller for the time. It is now usually illegal because it is so addictive, and Wilberforce kicked the habit, but not before it had damaged his eyes. He also had a morose wife who was an unfortunate contrast to his cheerful disposition.
Yet not only did he lead the way to abolish slavery, he also promoted hospitals and prison reform, and advocated positive reform in India and other colonies. He also fought against cruelty to animals, founding what we know today as the ‘Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’. No wonder he was eventually called the ‘Conscience of Parliament.’
Wilberforce was not always a Christian. Indeed, he was born into the privileged class, and that culture, much like today’s Hollywood, loved gambling, fancy clothes, fast horses, drinking and gluttony. Furthermore, he had denounced the deity of Christ after attending an apostate church much like today’s liberal ones. But in a secular sense, he was succeeding very nicely, entering parliament at 21, and was a good friend of William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806), who would become the UK’s youngest ever Prime Minister at 24.
However, Wilberforce gave his life truly to Christ in 1775, then wanted to quit parliament because of the immorality and infighting. However, he visited John Newton (1725–1807), famous for the great hymn Amazing Grace (hence the name of the film). Newton in his earlier days had been a slave trader himself before his conversion to Christ. Newton was the one who convinced Wilberforce that he would do the most good by remaining in Parliament:
After Newton’s conversion, he first insisted that slaves were to be treated humanely. But he soon came to see that since the slaves were also created in the image of God, the slave trade was wrong in itself, and could not be humanized. He left the trade, became friends with the great evangelists George Whitfield (1714–1770) and John Wesley (1703–1791) and his brother Charles (1707–1788), became a minister, and testified to King George III (1738–1820) about the atrocities of the slave trade.
John Wesley was instrumental in the conversion of Wilberforce himself. And Wesley’s last letter of his life of 24 February 1791 was to Wilberforce commending his abolitionist work, comparing this to the gallant struggle of Athanasius (c. 293–373) for the vital biblical doctrine of the full deity of Christ.
Another prominent anti-slavery activist in Britain was Granville Sharp (1735–1813), who was most responsible for a law that a slave became free from the moment he set foot on English territory, and founded a society for the abolition of slavery. He was also a joint founder of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Society for the Conversion of the Jews. A noted Greek scholar, he published a detailed and accurate study, discovering a rule of grammar that’s accepted by the majority of Bible translators today and now bears his name. But the existing English translations had overlooked this rule, thus, as he pointed out, they obscured the deity of Christ in places like Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1, which should say ‘our (great) God and Savior Jesus Christ’.
Another very important activist was Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846), an evangelical Anglican who first became interested in the issue when he was at Cambridge in 1785. That year, he won a Latin essay competition with an essay called Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting? His detailed research convinced him of the immorality and horrors of slavery. Next year he translated this essay into English under the title ‘An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African’, translated from a Latin Dissertation. This essay was very influential in the foundation of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade soon after, in 1787. Also in that year, he wrote the pamphlet: A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition. He was a most courageous opponent, since early that year, he was attacked in Liverpool by a gang of sailors who had been paid to assassinate him, and he barely escaped with his life.
The 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade didn’t actually abolish slavery, just trading in slaves. So Wilberforce’s campaign was not over. But as it stood, it allowed the British navy to declare slave-transporting ships as equivalent to pirates, and capture them to free the slaves and possibly execute the crew. This would be what Dr Sowell means by ‘Western Imperialism’. It was also an example of ‘imposing one’s morals on others’.
Related to this, the Stephen Spielberg film Amistad (1997), although dramatizing events connected with a real-life slave mutiny on a real ship by that name, accurately portrays a typical British navy officer, Captain Fitzgerald’s utter disgust for slavery. The movie ends with this captain finding the Lomboko Slave Fortress in Sierra Leone, Africa where the slaves had embarked, sending its crew of Royal Marines to capture the fort’s owners and liberate the captives, then blasting it to pieces with the ship’s cannon.
However, even this did not stop the trade, because some captains would throw the slaves overboard if they saw the Navy. This was also portrayed on Amistad, although there is no evidence that it happened on that particular ship. But the ‘Slavery Abolition Act’ was passed in 1833. This made slavery illegal and mandated that slaves would be freed (immediately for children under 6, while those over 6 would be part slave and part free for a further four years and be paid wages).
Fortunately, Wilberforce lived to see this. He had become seriously ill with influenza when on 26 July 1833, he learned with much rejoicing that this act had passed the final reading in the House of Commons. Three days later, he died. One month after that, Parliament passed the act.
It should not be too surprising that Wilberforce and his allies should have such a strong Christian commitment. Indeed, the opposition is founded in the Creation account of Genesis. God created a male and female human in His image, and gave humanity dominion over the rest of creation, not over fellow humans (Genesis 1:26–28). And Galatians 3:28 explicitly teaches the foundational equality of human beings in nature.
Every two-penny christophobe ignores the above points, and tries to portray the Bible as advocating slavery. However, they are guilty of gross decontextualising of the Bible, in presuming that the word in the Bible refers to the antebellum American South. In reality, it had a wide range of meanings. E.g. in the biblical culture, the Prime Minister’s cabinet members would be called his ‘slaves’. The New World slavery that most people think of was expressly forbidden in the Bible, because it resulted from kidnapping, and because converted slaves were not freed as per Philemon and Anselm (above). A scholarly apologetics site run by a CMI contributor explains more:
‘Scholars do not agree on a definition of “slavery”. The term has been used at various times for a wide range of institutions, including plantation slavery, forced labor, the drudgery of factories and sweatshops, child labor, semivoluntary prostitution, bride-price marriage, child adoption for payment, and paid-for surrogate motherhood. Somewhere within this range, the literal meaning of “slavery” shifts into metaphorical meaning, but it is not entirely clear at what point. A similar problem arises when we look at other cultures. The reason is that the term “Slavery” is evocative rather than analytical, calling to mind a loose bundle of diagnostic features. …
‘The word ‘ebed [עבד], however, denoted not only actual slaves occupied in production or in the household but also persons in subordinate positions (mainly subordinate with regard to the king and his higher officials). Thus the term ‘ebed is sometimes translated as “servant”. Besides, the term was used as a sign of servility in reference to oneself when addressing persons of higher rank. Finally, the same term was also used in the figurative meaning “the slave (or servant) of God”. Thus, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prophets, David, Solomon and other kings are regularly called slaves of Yahweh (Exod 32:13; Lev 25:55; 1 Sam 3:9; Ezra 9:11, etc.). Similarly, all the subjects of Israel and Judah are called slaves of their kings, including even wives, sons, and brothers of the latter (1 Sam 17:8; 29:3; 2 Sam 19:5, etc.; cf. also Gen 27:37; 32:4).…
‘For example, courtiers of an Aramean ruler or the soldiers of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II were considered slaves of their monarchs (2 Kgs 6:11; 24:10–11). It is natural that kings of Judah depending on more powerful rulers of neighboring countries were considered their slaves. Thus, Ahaz is referred to as a slave of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (2 Kgs 16:7). In modern translations of the Bible ‘ebed / doulos [δούλος] and several other similar terms are rendered “slave” as well as “servant”, “attendant”, etc. Such translations, however, might create some confusion and give the incorrect impression that special terms for the designation of servants and slaves are attested in the Bible… ‘However, selecting the proper meaning from such a broad metaphorical application of the term designating a general dependence rarely presents great difficulty. For example, Abimelech, king of Gerar, called up his slaves and told them his dream (Gen 20:8). Apparently, these “slaves” were royal courtiers and officials.’
Then why is there no command in the Bible to free the slaves immediately? Because the commands in the Bible already documented would subtly undermine the institution far better than a slave rebellion. E.g. the prohibition on trading in slaves would drastically localize it. Compare the application of Paul’s teachings with the tragic end to the rebellion of Spartacus (c. 120–70 BC), or in modern times, compare Martin Luther King’s peaceful (and Bible-based) protests with the secular revolutionary Malcolm X.
This is reinforced in the Mosaic Law, which explicitly prohibits kidnapping and selling others into slavery, ‘Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death,’ (Exodus 21:16). And of course, Moses was the man who God used in His miraculous deliverance of the Israelite nation from bondage in Egypt, commemorated in the great Jewish celebration of the Passover.
In the Law of Christ, the Apostle Paul lists ‘slave traders’ / ‘menstealers’ (ανδραποδιστής andrapodistēs) with murderers, adulterers, perverts, liars and other evil people (1 Timothy 1:10). Paul tells slaves to become free, if they can (1 Corinthians 7:21), and conversely tells free people to not become slaves (1 Corinthians 7:23). When it came to a personal example, he encouraged Philemon to free his escaped slave Onesimus (Philemon 16). Furthermore, he ordered masters to treat their slaves in the ‘same way’ as they were treated, and not to threaten them (Eph. 6:9).
Such practice would see the end of slavery, and without bloodshed. This indeed happened, as thoroughly documented in Rodney Stark’s book For the Glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts and the end of slavery (see review, The biblical origins of science). He devoted ch. 4 to the consistent teachings against slavery.
Stark documented that even back in the 7th century, Christians publicly opposed slavery. The bishop and apologist Anselm (c. 1033–1109) forbade enslavement of Christians, and since just about everyone was considered a nominal Christian, this practically ended slavery. Then the famous theologian and apologist Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) denounced the practice. Several popes supported this from 1435, and Pope Paul III (1468–1549) gave three major pronouncements against slavery in 1537, e.g. Sublimus Dei — On the Enslavement and Evangelization of Indians in the New World. As Stark writes, ‘The problem wasn’t that the [Church] leadership was silent. It was that almost nobody listened.’
Wilberforce’s fight against slavery has much to teach us today, because many of the opposition tactics are very similar to what anti-Christians use today (‘so there is nothing new under the sun’ Ecclesiastes 1:9). There are several categories:
As pointed out in Christianity on Trial (see review, Countering Christophobia), pagan philosophers, like Aristotle, regarded some people as natural slaves, and ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers hostile to Christianity such as Hume and Voltaire believed in the inferiority of dark-skinned people. They had no time for the equality of nature taught in the Bible.
This is probably the most common trap that Christians can fall into today. But Wilberforce faced exactly the same attitudes. For example, William Lamb aka Lord Melbourne (1779–1848), a future Prime Minister of the UK and a mentor of Queen Victoria (and the eponym of Australia’s second city), pontificated: ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.’ Likewise Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon (1740–1799) spouted, ‘Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon’.
Thus pro-abortion politicians who say crude things like ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries’ are saying nothing new. But in reality, facile slogans like ‘Don’t like abortions? Don’t have one!’ are as immoral as ‘Don’t like slavery? Don’t own slaves!’
This is a common tactic today. It is one type of (circumstantial1) ad hominem (‘to the person’). It doesn’t refute a position per se, but can discredit its proponents and thus their position by association.
Wilberforce had to face this charge, but it wasn’t in the least bit substantiated (he certainly never owned slaves himself!). Admiral Lord Nelson (1758–1805) showed that although he was a brilliant naval tactician, he was a lousy logician. He wrote from his flagship Victory to blast ‘the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies!’ The Duke of Clarence asserted in the House of Lords that ‘the promoters of the Abolition were either frauds or hypocrites!’ King George III declared that Wilberforce and his allies were ‘hypocrites and not to be trusted!’ (see William Wilberforce— Setting the Captives Free).
Today, we often find that Christians are charged with hypocrisy, whether they deserve it or not. However, ‘hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue’—see The Haggard tragedy: ‘Christianity must be wrong because of all the hypocrites in the church!’ As shown, when some of its leaders fail to live up to their teachings, they cause great harm to themselves and others. Thus even their failings demonstrate how good these teachings would have been if put into practice.
It is a contrast to the blind spot anti-Christians have towards hypocrisy in their own ranks. They often don’t live consistently by their own teachings, but in their case it is a good thing, because the teachings are lousy.
E.g. Peter Singer, the antitheistic ‘ethicist’ who supports infanticide, euthanasia and bestiality, would not have his own mother killed when she developed Alzheimer’s. So his hypocrisy showed how diabolical his theories really are, and it is a good thing for his mother that Peter is a better son than he is an ethicist.
Similarly, the misotheist Richard Dawkins rejects objective right and wrong, but still wants to denounce creationists and pro-lifers as ‘wrong’. And consider those postmodernist academics who claim that language has no objective meaning but is in the eye of the beholder. They would bleat piteously if their university accountant decided not to pay them, on the grounds that he beheld their salary contract as meaning that they would work for free.
Wilberforce’s opponents were not above this type of argument as well. In Wilberforce’s case, attacks would focus on his shortness (he was only 5’ (152 cm) tall). James Boswell (1740–1795), best known for his fascinating biography of Dr Johnson (1709–1784), author of the first English dictionary, wrote the following ‘poem’ (see Remembering a Hero):
Misotheists today are not above inflammatory language. A good example is our old friend Dawkins. Tobias Jones in the leftist UK paper The Guardian, in an article Secular fundamentalists are the new totalitarians: Militant secularists like Richard Dawkins are taking their revenge on us believers for refusing to stay in the closet writes:
The USA abolished slavery only after its Civil War (aka ‘War between the States’) in 1865, although it is an over-simplification to attribute this war to slavery alone. Here it was a case of being slow to realize the implications of the Declaration of Independence which declared:
This is mainly because right at the start, many of the states were Slave States. All the same, as Carroll and Shiflett point out in Christianity on Trial, this deduction from Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 (above) would have been laughed at in pagan times. It was this declaration that led Lincoln to abolish slavery, citing it in the Gettysburg Address.
However, American slavers likewise realized the contradiction between slavery and the Declaration, so some of them invented schemes by which the black slaves were regarded as less than human. So in reality, it was more a case of slavery causing racism rather than racism causing slavery.
Indeed, the 1787 US Constitutional Convention originally counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of deciding representation in the House. Actually, this compromise was to limit the voting power of the Slave States, because otherwise they could have counted the slaves for voting purposes, yet used this voting leverage to vote against these very slaves, which would be real chutzpah. Naturally all this became academic after the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1865), so the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1868) counted whole persons regardless of race.
However, while slavery flourished, some of its defenders picked up on biblical compromises, such as the pre-Adamite nonsense, which was a common justification for racism before Darwin. Another was inventing a ‘curse on Ham’ that allegedly resulted in dark skin. However, the Bible is crystal clear that the curse wasn’t even on Ham at all, but on his son Canaan, and by implication, only Canaan’s descendants. There is not the slightest hint in Scripture, whether explicitly or by logical deduction, that they were black, let alone that blackness is the result of any curse (see also Are black people the result of a curse on Ham? from One Blood: The biblical answer to racism).
However, America had a huge number of Christians who wrote and campaigned extensively against slavery (the page Slavery: Early Christian responses in America links to dozens of articles by these Christian abolitionists). There was also the heavily Christian-based novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), widely recognized as a major cause of people in the North turning so strongly against slavery. Abraham Lincoln called her: ‘the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.’ She also pointed out in another book Woman in Sacred History (1873) that the American slaves themselves used explicit biblical imagery to describe their plight:
It is also noticeable that 100 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. cited overtly biblical justifications for racial equality. And the enemies of racial equality also saw its Christian underpinning, as shown by the KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, 15 September 1963, which killed four black girls. This shows once more the virulently anti-Christian attitudes held by fanatical racists (see also Darwinism’s influence on modern racists and white supremacist groups: the case of David Duke).
In 1857, the US Supreme Court, under Roger Brooke Taney (1777–1864) ruled in the ‘Dred Scott decision’ that Congress could not outlaw slavery in any territory—this was to be the territory’s ‘right’ after it had become a state. Also, slaves were defined as non-persons, and their descendants could not become citizens.
Later, this was rescinded, but it severely dented the moral authority of the Supreme court. And they haven’t learned either. In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, activist judges led by Harry Blackmun (who ironically had a cameo in Amistad) invented a ‘right to privacy’ supposedly found in the US Constitution, applied this to a woman’s womb, and decided that she has a right to abort her baby for any reason (which must logically include the reason, ‘We don’t want a girl’). In the process, the Court explicitly declared the unborn baby a non-citizen. I am convinced that one day, posterity will look upon Roe v. Wade with as much revulsion as the Dred Scott decision.
Wilberforce’s son, Samuel (1805–1873), the Bishop of Oxford, obtained notoriety as an opponent of Darwinism, who was supposedly bested in a debate with Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895). However, real historians have demolished the usual mythology behind the debate, both the notion that Huxley had demolished him, and that Wilberforce had really asked Huxley whether his ape ancestry was from his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side (see the pro-evolution historian J.R. Lucas, ‘Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter’, The Historical Journal 22:313–330, 1979). This doesn’t stop the antitheistic Australian Skeptics from offering a ‘Wilberforce Award’, but then their scholarship has never been of a particularly high standard, as our debate with them showed.
Also ignored by those who want to paint this debate as bigoted religion v enlightened science, Sam Wilberforce was Professor of both Theology and Mathematics of Oxford, and had reviewed Darwin’s Origin for the Quarterly Review, and Darwin admitted the scientific cogency of that review.
And Sam Wilberforce was fully supportive of his father’s anti-slavery campaign. He made such a strong impression at an anti-slavery meeting in 1841 that he was soon appointed as chaplain to Prince Albert. However, this was a marked contrast to his evolutionist opponent, who followed his mentor Darwin in believing in white supremacy (although paradoxically both disapproved of slavery). Huxley said in Emancipation—Black and White (1865):
Strangely enough, Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion cites this sentiment by Huxley. In a typically shoddy display of historical revisionism, Dawkins uses this example of a man who was supposedly enlightened for his time to show how much we have grown in morality today:
In reality, Huxley’s sentiment was a backward step from the previous work of Wm. Wilberforce for racial equality, and was written to oppose the notions of equality current in America on the close of the Civil War.
It is a perfect illustration of the point made by famous Marxist evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2005), that racist arguments ‘increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory’. And such ideas reached their horrifying climax 70 years later in Germany, directly inspired by evolutionary theory.
(Availale in Russian)