History of religious abolitionism
“‘Am I not a man and a brother?’”
This legendary quote forms the inscription of a popular, eighteenth century anti-slavery medallion produced by the nonconformist lawyer Josiah Wedgewood. This relic delivers, together with the contemporary abolitionist literature, a testimony of the abolitionist movement during the eighteenth and nineteenth century within the world’s most dominant colonial power: Britain. This anti-slavery movement was instigated by economic, social, political and – remarkably – by religious incentives. During the abolitionist movement, various biblical arguments were used by abolitionists to illustrate that both slavery and the slave trade were immoral practices which could not be justified on Christian grounds. According to their religious discourse, Africans were made in the image of the Christian God, and were thus equal to any man on earth. Additionally, in their struggle against the slave trade they also pointed out that Africa could trade with Europe in products, instead of human beings. Nonetheless, we must also remark that, according to European colonizers and clergymen, specific interpretations of Biblical passages also justified the enslavement of African people.
Even before the peak of the abolitionist movement during the nineteenth century, the first anti-slavery voices could be heard loud and clear by a religious group known as the Quakers, in 1688. These seventeenth century Christian abolitionist Quakers were the first to denounce the use of African-American population as slaves, and this through the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery. This petition was drafted in Pennsylvania by Francis Daniel Pastorius and was subsequently signed by three fellow Quakers. Their opposition to slavery was founded by religious motives, as they perceived slavery as an unjust practice which did not align with their religious doctrine. Consequently, slave-trade was seen as an un-Christian practice too. Thus, it may be argued that, as slavery went against all the Quakers firmly believed in, their abolitionist opinions were founded by their religious beliefs. This stands in contrast to the Somerset Case (1772) for example, in which English slavery was argued to be illegal within England and Wales on judiciary grounds. Although the accused James Somerset eventually obtained his freedom through the court’s final verdict, the slavery practice would not be abolished. Moreover, it would take about thirty-five years before the slave trade was officially abolished within nineteenth century Britain. In 1807, a bill was officially passed in Parliament for the abolition of slave trade, the slave trafficking still continued until the British slaves ultimately obtained their freedom in 1838, due to the efforts of the anti-slavery society, which was established by William Wiberforce. It is interesting to note that Wiberforce believed that he had been called by the Christian God to put an end to the slave trade. In accordance with the Quakers, Wedgewood’s abolitionist views were also clearly grounded on Christian beliefs.
In this post, we will try to provide you with an overview on how abolitionist writers such as Hannah More and William Blake expressed themselves against the slave trade and slavery with the help of religious, and more specifically Christian arguments. Next to abolitionist poetry we are about to discuss, Wedgewood’s popular anti-slavery medallion, for as this attribute also contained a clear Christian message. In other words, this blog post will draw on the arguments of religious abolitionism against slavery and the slave trade in particular, embedded in literature and abolitionist symbols.
“Am I not a man and a brother?” (The British Museum)
This phrase is a well-known and at the time widely popular inscription on anti-slavery medallions. Slavery was a commonly accepted phenomenon during the eighteenth century. There was a growing awareness, however, of the violence which accompanied slave-trade and the treatment of slaves in general. Gradually, protest arose against the exploitation of slaves. Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson set up the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, supported by the Quaker movement and Josiah Wedgwood. The use of media was very important to reach as many people as possible. Clarkson used pamphlets to spread the word, he collected evidence from the brutality of slavery and the horrible violence the slaves were treated with and published this information in a pamphlet. Josiah Wedgewood published the medallion in the eighteenth century. The medallion was designed not only to spread the message to abolish slavery, but also to encourage people to share their ideals. The medal depicts a shackled slave, on his knees, with the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother”, and the reverse side with “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”. The Christian message of equality is clearly present here, as it resembles the passage Matthew 12:7 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” and Luke 6:31 “Do to others as you would have them do to you”. The medallions were immensely popular during the eighteenth century, in fact, they became a real fashion statement. Ladies would wear them in a bracelet, in a hair pin or some other sort of jewellery. The image was also printed on plates, boxes and other baubles. It became a fashion statement but even so, it promoted the cause of abolishing slavery and creating equal rights for enslaved people. The medium of jewellery is one you would perhaps not expect, but it was quite effective in its purpose of spreading the message. However, despite their best efforts, slavery in Britain was not abolished until 1833.
Hannah More’s “The Sorrows of Yamba or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation”.
In the discussion of abolitionist poetry, we would like to begin with Hannah More’s “The Sorrows of Yamba or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation”. It is a prime textual example of religious abolitionism. This poem was published in the Cheap Repository of Moral and Religious Tracts, a series of 114 texts which were aimed at the lower classes. (Damrosch 2002, 239) With this series, More wanted to “improve the habits, and raise the principles of the common people, at a time when their dangers and temptations, moral and political, were multiplied beyond the example of any former period” (More 2010, 6). Four of the Cheap Repository’s tracts promote the abolition of slavery from an Evangelical background. “The Sorrows of Yamba” is one of these four and very clearly tries to convey an Evangelical message next to an abolitionist one. For the purpose of this blog post, we will only deal with the Evangelical angle.
About halfway through the poem (the 21st stanza out of 47), the titular Yamba is on the verge of committing suicide when:
There I met upon the Strand
English Missionary Good;
He had Bible book in hand,
Which poor me no understood. (lines 81-84)
Before this meeting, Yamba had been abducted from her African homeland to serve as a slave for a cruel master in St. Lucia. During the voyage, she had been subjected to extremely degrading atrocities and her child had died of the harsh conditions. Unsurprisingly, she thought all white men were like this, and in such a world she did not want to live any longer. The missionary man was also white, however he saved her and “Soothed and pitied all my woe.” (94) He then taught Yamba how to endure this world, “Talk’d of state when life is o’er, / All from Bible good and true.” (91-92) Once she is converted, Yamba spreads the evangelical message herself:
O ye slaves whom Massas beat,
Ye are stained with guilt within;
As ye hope for Mercy sweet,
So forgive your Massas’ sin. (113-116)
With the help of her newfound religion, Yamba is able to forgive her master for his cruelty and thus finds the strength to live on.
As we have stated, “The Sorrows of Yamba” is an abolitionist poem. While the Evangelical angle may at first seem to defend slavery and teach slaves how to endure it, the last eight stanzas disprove this entirely. Yamba’s greatest wish is “that Afric might be free,” (160) which will only be achieved if the colonisers stop their exploitation:
Cease, ye British Sons of murder!
Cease from forging Afric’s chain:
Mock your Saviour’s name no further,
Cease your savage lust of gain. (161-164)
As Yamba has learned the Christian ways, she understands that the slave trade and exploitation of her homeland violate the rules of this religion. Thus, Christianity is used as an argument against slavery.
William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy”
William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” may also be perceived as an abolitionist poem, Richard M. Kain and Wylie Sypher most certainly did. They both only shortly mention the poem in its abolitionist context, but it is most certainly worth noting that Kain calls the poem “the finest poem of the abolitionist movement” (111) and Sypher mentions it in a list of the “few unquestionably beautiful poems [that] were written in the anti-slavery tradition” (157). Why is it that these authors regard “The Little Black Boy” as an abolitionist poem? Well, let us first look at the content of the poem. It tells the story of a black child, who struggles with his identity, in the first stanza he says that “I am black, but O! my soul is white;” (2), and “But I am black as if bereav’d of light” (4). This emphasizes that the little boy realises there is a difference between races, and that being black carries a negative connotation. He thinks he will only be loved once he is of the same skin colour as the white English boy, when he says “And be like him, and he will then love me” (28). The little boy feels he is not loved because of his being different. But the boy’s mother said to him that underneath God’s light, everyone and everything receives “comfort in morning, joy in the noonday” (12). Everyone is equal underneath His light, and He does consider those with a dark complexion any less than those with a white one. Skin colours “are but a cloud, and like a shady grove” (16). The poem continues with saying that, when the boys will go to heaven, the clouds will vanish and they will be alike. “When I from black, and he from white cloud free” (23) implies that, in heaven and with God, skin-colour is of no importance, the outside is of no importance and everyone will be alike.
When one looks at this text from an abolitionist point of view, one can say that Blake considers everyone to be alike and equal, in a typical Christian point of view. In that train of thought, one can argue that he consequently disapproves of the use of black slaves because they are not in any way inferior to others, thus may not be exploited as if they were inferior and savage. In the eyes of God, everyone is the same, and everyone should be thus treated. With neighbourly love, and respect.
In conclusion, we can state that Wedgewood’s popular anti-slavery medallion was designed not only to spread the message to abolish slavery, but also to encourage people to share their ideals in public. The inscriptions “Am I not a man and a brother” and “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” of this popular attribute clearly show that Wedgewood – in his fight against slavery and the slave trade – was inspired by the Christian ideal of equality. Similarly, Hannah More’s “The Sorrows of Yamba or, The Negro Woman’s Lamentation” also contains a religious abolitionist message, as the converted slave Yamba – who is the main character of this abolitionist poem – articulates the idea that both the slave trade and exploitation of her homeland actually violate the rules of the Christian religion. In accordance with More’s poem, there is also a strong suggestion that William Blake’s view within “The Little Black Boy” also aligned with that of contemporary abolitionists for he strongly supported the Christian ideal of equality amongst all human beings. Subsequently, Blake might thus have disapproved of the exploitation of African slaves on a Christian ground.
We all had great pleasure participating in this course. By way of thanks for all the interesting lectures and the chance to share thoughts and discussions on eighteenth-century subjects, we would like to end on a humorous note:
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Kain, Richard M . The Problem of Civilization in English Abolition Literature, 1772-1808. in: Philological Quarterly 15 (1936), pp.103-25.
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Sypher, Wylie . Guinea’s Captive Kings: British Anti-Slavery Literature of the Eighteenth Century. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1942.