Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review of "John Wesley and Slavery"

As part of the research for my John Wesley small group study book, I have spent time looking at his position on slavery. This is best stated in his long tract/short book Thoughts Upon Slavery, printed in 1774. My research led me to an article a 2008 issue of the Wesleyan Theological Journal, which in turn led me to other references. One of those is the book John Wesley and Slavery by Warren Thomas Smith, Abingdon Press, 1986 [ISBN 0-687-20433-X, Library of Congress No. 85-15796].

An older book, you say, and not worth the time to take up band width in reviewing. I think not, however. This thin volume (160 pages including index and a copy of Wesley's 1774 work) is a treasure trove of information. Smith starts with the story of the ending of slavery in the British Empire, in 1838, and a little bit on how they got there and what it meant to millions of manumitted slaves. He asks,
"How did all this come to pass? Who was responsible for the eradication of this intolerable institution of slavery? Indeed, many! One name, however, must be mentioned. He contributed much more than most people have ever recognized—more than he himself ever knew. It is long past time that he received his due recognition. His name is John Wesley!"

A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but Smith makes the case that Wesley's contribution to the eventual end of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery is huge, perhaps even essential. Smith traces first the establishing of the trade and the institution of slavery, then Wesley's part in bringing it down. The importance of the writings of Anthony Benezet, a Philadelphia Quaker, are shown. Thoughts Upon Slavery is analyzed (see my review of Thoughts Upon Slavery here).

Smith documents some contacts that John Wesley had with African, both during his stay in Georgia and in the years in England after his evangelical experience. I believe Smith is trying to say that these encounters were important to Wesley's coming to an understanding that slavery was wrong. In journal entries and letters, in the few times he mentions blacks, he always presents them in a good light. It was clear to Wesley that this racist garbage that people were writing—that Africans were lazy, unreliable, untruthful, without feelings, and somehow less than human—was wrong. Blacks were as human as whites. And actually, when he speaks of slave traders and owners, he doubts the full humanity of those. For Wesley humanity was defined by mercy and justice, not by skin color. I would have liked for Smith to be more forceful in developing this strain of his research. It's in the book, but the reader has to come to conclusions about it, rather than seeing a forceful statement by Wesley.

Also included is Wesley's efforts against slavery after the publication of Thoughts Upon Slavery. In other tracts, letters, and published journals, Wesley does not seem to miss an opportunity to speak out against slavery. By this time in his life, Wesley was well known and somewhat popular. His publishing platform was huge, and he had a distribution network though Methodist preachers that writers of today dream about. Smith develops this well.

I could pick at the book a little. Smith included a chapter on Wesley's ancestry. It's short, a mere four pages, but it wasn't necessary. He has a few typos, such as claiming something written by Wesley in 1755 was written in 1743, and one time placing Thoughts Upon Slavery as published in 1744 instead of 1774. These aside, another bone I have to pick with Smith are some statements made without references that really need references. Without those references, they are assumptions presented as facts. A couple of examples:

p. 42 "Charles [Wesley] had written it, and doubtless discussed it with his brother." This concerned an entry in Charles' journal about barbaric treatment he had seen of slaves. Can we assume that each brother shared everything with the other? While this is an assumption, it's probably correct.

p. 38 "The Wesleys vigorously applauded the original ban on slavery [in Georgia]." This might be, but I'd like to know what writing shows this.

p. 41 "Of course they had read much on the subject [or slavery], and they would have seen Africans in England, but now it came home to them." Where is the evidence that the Wesley brothers had "read much on" slavery? I find no documentation on that, and Smith presents none.

I could go on, but those should show the nit-picking I could do, but I will end there. The book is worth reading. The last twenty-five pages is a facsimile reproduction of Thoughts Upon Slavery, and not a particularly good copy. In 1986 that might have been the only way for a reader to easily find it. Today it is in many places on the Internet.

Well, I took up the bandwidth. This book is of interest to Wesley scholars, and dabblers such as me. I obtained it through inter-library loan; it goes back on Monday. If you ever come across it at a used book sale, it is worth having. For someone whose interest is piqued, it's probably worth buying through Amazon or ABE Book Exchange.

No comments: