Friday, April 15, 2011

"Thoughts Upon Slavery" by John Wesley

As part of the research required for the small group study I'm writing, tentatively titled "Essential John Wesley", I'm reading his works right now. I've done enough to outline the book, and to have an idea of how long the study will last and how long the book will be. I was kind of amazed when I went through a bibliography of his works. I knew the major ones (well, not really all of them), but was surpised just how much he had produced.

I was familiar in general with Wesley's stand on slavery. He was against it. The last letter he wrote, six days before he died, was to William Wiberforce, encouraging him to remain firm to the end in his struggle to end the slave trade. But as I researched Wesley's writings, I found he had written a short book titled "Thoughts Upon Slavery", written in 1774. I found an on-line copy of it, printed it, and finally over the last few nights read it.

It is a great read. Not terribly long by book standards, about 9,000 words, so it could almost be called a tract. Wesley took some of his material from a book by American abolitionist Anthony Benezet. Those who have read both works say that about 30 percent, though Wesley re-did some of that. He begins with a description of slavery as it existed at that time, including how slaves were procured and transported. He claimed it was the English and other Europeans who set the African nations warring against each other, resulting in prisoners of war who were then sold as slaves. Kings were offered bribes and, once corrupted by the Europeans, sold out their villagers for slavery.

This idea that the Africans willingly sold their own people to the slave traders is something I hear a lot lately, as if that made what the Europeans and their New World colonists did somehow better. It wasn't a mitigating factor, and Wesley said as much.

He contrasted the behavior of the Africans in their native environment to that of the slave traders, and found the latter wanting, inferior to the black man. To the slave traders he wrote:
Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no sympathy, no sense of human woe, no pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now? If you do not, you must go on, till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the great God deal with you as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your hands. And at "that day it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for you!"

We always want our heroes to be on the right side of history, as we currently judge what that right side is. It seems John Wesley was. It took him a few decades from when he first saw slavery up close in Georgia until he began making opposition to it a part of his public pronouncements. I suppose we could fault him for the delay, but he did have a lot on his plate. That he eventually stepped out front, encouraged by the works of Benezet and others, is a good thing. That he inspired Wilberforce and others, even better.

I'm now at the point where I'm excerpting Thoughts Upon Slavery, then will write some analysis to go around that, plus questions for the class, plus a list of references and further reading. I think I'll have all that done by Sunday evening. One exception: I have ordered a reference from interlibrary load, and purchased another one on-line. Until I have these in hand and can digest them, I won't really be "done" with the chapter.
The last couple of sections are Wesley's own writing, his statement how a Christian—indeed, a human being with a real heart—could not possibly engage in the slave trade, could not possilby own slaves. They are the best part of the book. He was everything wrong with the world as the result of sin. It's hard to argue with that. Certainly this "execrable villany" was a sin against God and against man. That it took "Christians" so long to recognize that is shameful.

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