Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Peculiar Institution

John Wesley, Slavery and the Failure of American Methodism
Larry James
United Methodist History  HX 7365, Fall 2013
Professor Tamara E. Lewis

In August, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion.  I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane.  I was disappointed in both these respects.  It neither made him to be humane to his slaves nor to emancipate them.  If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before.[1]

This statement from Frederick Douglass presents in stark relief the juxtaposition of John Wesley’s ethic and the troubling practice of the church which he helped export to North America.  Given the teaching, personal conviction and activism of John Wesley regarding slavery, how does one explain the failure of the movement he founded to embrace and sustain those same values in its New World expression and experience? 
John Wesley’s views on human bondage combined clarity, passion, courage and an integrated understanding of God’s creation of a common humanity.  Wesley’s most definitive and comprehensive teaching on slavery appears in his pamphlet, Thoughts Upon Slavery, first published in 1774.[2] In the essay Wesley sketches slavery as an institution that creates capacity and benefit for only the master, allowing slave owners to relate to their human property “in the same manner as his cows and horses” (I.2).  Wesley takes great pains to describe geographically, politically and socially the delightful nature of the regions in African from which slaves originated.  In his brief, but careful study of Africa, he effectively debunks the pro-slavery notion that those captured and transported are being rescued from a land “so remarkably horrid, dreary and barren, that it is a kindness to deliver them out of it” (II. 1-11). 
Wesley’s evaluation of the African people encountered by European explorers and businessmen presents an extremely positive, if idealized, view of the indigenous population.  His viewpoint is important in light of the fact that as early as four decades earlier people began to question the full humanity of Africans.[3]Again, Wesley’s purpose is to counter the understanding that slavery brings great benefit to Africans captured and transported to the New World for this purpose.  Speaking of the Fulis nation of Senegal, Wesley observes,
The Fulis are governed by their chief men, who rule with much moderation.  Few of them will drink anything stronger than water, being strict Mahometans.  The Government is easy, because the people are of a quiet and good disposition, and so well instructed in what is right, that a man who wrongs another is the abomination of all.  They desire no more land than they use, which they cultivate with great care and industry.  If any of them are known to be made slaves by the white men, they all join to redeem them.  They not only support all that are old, or blind, or lame among themselves, but have frequently supplied the necessities of the Mandingos, when they were distressed by famine (II. 6).

Speaking of natives of Benin,

. . . also very charitable, the Kind and the great Lords taking care to employ all that are capable of any work.  And those that are utterly helpless they keep for God’s sake; so that here also are no beggars. . . . Upon the whole, therefore, the Negroes who inhabit the coast of Africa, from the river Senegal to the southern bounds of Angola, are so far from being the stupid, senseless, brutish, lazy barbarians, the fierce, cruel, perfidious savages they have been described, that, on the contrary, they are represented, by them who have no motive to flatter them, as remarkable sensible, considering the few advantages they have for improving their understanding; as industrious to the highest degree, perhaps more so than any other natives of so warm a climate; as fair, just and honest in all their dealings, unless where white men have taught them to be otherwise; and as far more mild, friendly, and kind to strangers, than any of our forefathers were.  Our forefathers! Where shall we find at this day, among the fair-faced natives of Europe, a nation generally practicing the justice, mercy, and truth, which are found among these poor Africans (II. 11)?

                        Wesley makes clear the scandalous manner in which slaves ended up in the colonies of North America.  By trickery and fraud, numerous slaves were enticed to come on board ships where they were constrained and carried away (III. 1.). Many other Africans entered the slave trade after their European oppressors stirred up conflict and war among various tribes and nations.  The spoils of these unnatural conflicts included prisoners who came to be sold as slaves to the traders supplying a growing North American demand for laborers (III. 2.). Wesley also documents the incredible loss of life during the passage to the New World (III. 5.), as well as the heart wrenching separation of families placed on the auction block in the slave markets (III. 7.).
                        Clearly, John Wesley adamantly opposed any form of human bondage as thoroughly unchristian and terribly wrong.  In 1788, Wesley used much of the content of his pamphlet in a sermon he preached in Bristol, one of the most active centers of slave trafficking.  The sermon caused a troubling stir in his audience that resulted in something like a riot. [4]  Given the realities of Wesley’s conviction and the strength of his consistent message, as well as the extent of his influence upon the preachers with whom he worked (including those sent to and raised up in the colonies), how does one account for the manner in which these teachings were so quickly compromised and ultimately set aside? 
                        First, Wesley answered the question, at least indirectly in his rather distressed sermon, Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity.  Wesley feared that personal holiness declined in direct proportion to the affluence of a disciple of Christ.  He mused in the sermon whether or not,
. . . true scriptural Christianity has a tendency, in process of time, to undermine and destroy itself?  For wherever true Christianity spreads, it must cause diligence and frugality, which in the natural course of things, must beget riches.  And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity. Now if there be no way to prevent this, Christianity is consistent with itself, and of consequence, cannot stand, cannot continue long among any people: since, wherever it generally prevails, it saps its own foundation.[5]

Christians involved in the slave trade found it to be lucrative.  As Methodism came to North America and co-existed alongside profitable slave markets, many members of the movement, especially in the south, invested in the business, often carried away by greed and its attendant benefits and success.  In Thoughts Upon Slavery, Wesley recognized the role of money and greed as prime motivators in the slave enterprise.  Of course, he railed against both in the pamphlet.
It is far better to have no wealth, than to gain wealth at the expense of virtue.  Better is honest poverty, than all the riches bought by the tears, and sweat, and blood of our fellow-creatures (IV. 7.). 

And again,

            Regard not money! All that a man hath will he give for hislife! Whatever you lose, lose not your soul: Nothing can countervail that loss. Immediately quit the horrid trade: At all events, be an honest man (V. 3.).

In large part American Methodists were driven into support of slavery for strictly economic

reasons. Greed trumped faith.

            Second, many argued simply that the practice of slavery and the slave trade was

authorized by law.  Slavery was legal. Not only was the peculiar institution legal in secular law, a compelling argument could be made that slavery was authorized in holy scripture as well.  Clearly, many Christians in the New World felt completely justified in supporting slavery thanks to the message of the Bible itself. 
            Wesley seems to understand this reality.  In Thoughts Upon Slavery, Wesley argues in a most radical manner against the horror and the evil of the slave trade.  Setting even scripture aside, he calls upon natural law and common sense:
I would now inquire, whether these things can be defended, on the principles of even heathen honesty; whether they can be reconciled (setting the Bible out of the question) with any degree of justice or mercy. Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong still.  There must still remain an essential difference between justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy.  So that I still ask, Who can reconcile this treatment of the Negroes, first and last, with either mercy or justice? (IV. 1., 2.)

            Wesley’s hermeneutical instinct, leading to his “setting the Bible out of the question,” begs a number of questions relating to social and theological questions facing followers of Jesus today.  Leaving that discussion for another day, it is important to note a version of Methodism’s quadrilateral at work in Wesley’s argument against slavery.
            Third, American Methodists did not hold to Wesley’s views on slavery, at least in part due to the thought and life practice of another extremely important Methodist influence in and upon American colonists:  George Whitefield. 
            If John Wesley influenced the clergy of England and to a lesser degree those who first served the colonists, George Whitefield had a larger influence on the American people.  Whitefield’s preaching during the Great Awakening commanded attention and a following in the colonies.  The fact that Whitefield himself eventually owned slaves and argued that Georgia make slavery legal surely had great influence on American Methodists.  Whitefield’s support of slavery began as at least a pragmatic consideration.  His efforts to begin and sustain a working orphanage in Georgia, led him to believe that slaves would be needed to make the enterprise financially viable.  He argued the same about the Georgia economy.  Whitefield lobbied the trustees of the colony to legalize slavery for economic reasons.  Citing the challenge of developing and operating his orphanage, Whitefield argued, “Had a negroe [sic] been allowed, I should have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans, without expending above half the sum which had been laid out.”[6]
            One last thought concerning Whitefield:  there remains much work to be done regarding his position on slavery.  Especially important will be consideration of both his personal views on the importance of evangelism and pietism, as well as his Calvinism and its effects on his views of social reality and worldly justice.  To be sure, the observations of Frederick Douglas noted at the beginning of this paper make very clear the irrelevance and hypocrisy of the prevailing faith perspectives of growing numbers of Methodists from across the new nation.

[1] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in The Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., (New York:  Mentor, 1987), 287 from a reference first discovered in Kyle Painter, “The Pro-Slavery Argument in the Development of the American Methodist Church,” Constructing the Past:  Vol. 2:  Iss. 1, Article 5.
[2] John Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, 1774.  Published by Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church at www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/The-Wesleys-and-Their-Times/Thoughts-Upon-Slavery.
[3] Brycchan Carey, John Wesley’s “Thoughts Upon Slavery” and the language of the heart, in The Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 85:2-3 (Summer/Autumn 2003),  272.
[4] Ibid, 277 which references Wesley’s Letters vii, 359-360.
[5] Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, editors, John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, 556.
[6] Kyle Painter, “The Pro-Slavery Argument in the Development of the American Methodist Church,” in Constructing the Past: Vol. 2: Iss 1, Article 5, 34-35


Anonymous said...

One should follow Christ and not John Wesley or George Whitfield.

Anonymous said...

What is the relevance of that comment? If Wesley or C.S. Lewis or my Aunt Sally can help me better uderstand Christ, I am not "following" that person, just getting some assistance. And are you arguing that Christ approved of slavery, so there would be a different outcome to this line of thought if we were "following Christ" and not Wesley?

Anonymous said...

Good article. The fact that Christians sitting in church pews every Sunday supported slavery should indeed be a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks the church or individual Christians are not influenced by many strong external forces today.