Wilberforce, Slavery, and the Bible. Genesis 47
William Wilberforce lived in the late 18th century and into the 19th century, and he was responsible for the passage of the anti-slave trade bill that ended the slave trade in the British empire, and also the abolition of slavery in the British empire.
1) Slavery is not immoral, sinful or wrong.
2) Slavery in some cases is a very good thing.
3) The Bible does not condemn slavery.
The average late 20th century, early 21st century, person thinks that all three of those statements are false because there is a presupposition in American thought today that slavery by definition is evil and inherently wrong. What we are going to see is that it is not. Genesis 47 is the story of what happens as Joseph has brought the family to Egypt, and he settles them in the land of Goshen where they will be protected and where they will grow. They will actually acquire land, according to Genesis 47. In contrast to the blessing of God upon Jacob and his family and their acquisition of the land during this world-wide depression and famine at that time we see the Egyptian citizens coming toward the end of their seven-year famine cycle. As the last couple of years approach they are running out of money to buy grain and food which was wisely stored up by Joseph. Joseph is a picture of wisdom throughout this section, so we have to keep that as a back drop because as we loo at Genesis 47 through the eyes of a lot of contemporary development we can come to wrong conclusions because it doesn't look good to us from our 20th century vantage point. Yet the writer of Genesis is Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and is presenting a series of events in the life of Joseph to show how wise he is as the savior of both the Egyptian people and the Jewish people. Joseph is pictured here as being a blessing, not only to his family and to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but also he is a blessing to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians. By the end of the chapter, in order for them to survive—he doesn't give them handouts—they get to buy to survive but they do it with their own land and with their own property and with whatever is left of their own cattle and their own livestock. It ends up meaning that Pharaoh owns everything. At the end of the chapter the Jews have autonomy but the Egyptian citizens have become what we would call debt or indentured servants to the government which imposes under Joseph a twenty per cent property tax in order to work the land and enjoy it. It is interesting that when God sets up the Mosaic law there is no property tax because God is providing for a future for the generations so that they can acquire wealth. So what there was was a flat rate income tax of three different tithes in the Mosaic law. But the end of the chapter ends up with slavery.
What does the Bible say about ? What is the role of Christianity? And what should a Christian think about slavery? If we listen to the secular media today that has this knee-jerk reaction against Christianity and wants to blame Christianity for every ill that comes along, then we are going to see that Christians get blamed for slavery. It is true that there have been certain groups of Christians—using the term in a very broad sense—that have been involved in the justification of wrong forms of slavery. But it is not Christianity as Christianity is taught that produced that; that came from other systems. In fact, the only religious or philosophical system in the history of the world that developed a system for abolishing slavery was Christianity. Abolitionism could not grow out of Islam; it could not come out of Buddhism; it did not come out of Hinduism; it didn't come out of secular humanism, or any of the other systems that have dominated the 20th century, from man in all of his intellectual arrogance as he looks down his nose at Christianity.
William McDonald in the New York Times wrote: "How an institution to spread a message of love [Christianity] could also engage in brutality and persecution, and turn a blind eye to slavery …" In other words, it is all you Christians' fault. On the other hand, on a web site for the Council for Secular Humanism we find the following quote" "Slavery was a close companion of Christianity and was not thought to conflict with religious doctrine."
Slavery was not invented by Christianity, it goes back into the deep, dark recesses of the post-Noahic flood era. We have no indication of it before the flood but it may very well have been practiced before the flood. But slavery in one form or another was practiced by the Sumerians, by the early Babylonians, by the Hittites, by the Canaanites, by the Egyptians. It has been practiced by the Greeks and by the Romans, by the inhabitants of North America known as the American Indian. All of these different groups practiced slavery. It happened in Africa: black on black slavery hundreds of years before Christianity came along. Aristotle considered that some men were born in such a way that they naturally ought to be slaves. So there has been a justification from human viewpoint throughout the centuries that some men are naturally born to be slaves and others are different. Even in some of the early years of the church there were writers such as Justin Martyr and others who wrote against slavery, that this was not consistent with what the Bible taught, that men should love their brothers as themselves.
By the late 18th century the British empire was deeply involved with the slave trade. Starting in the 1600s they had started transporting African slaves from Africa to the West Indies, and this went on and increased dramatically through the 1700s, so that by the time of the American war for independence there were about 100,000 slaves a year being transported from the heart of Africa to the western hemisphere as slaves. This was a major economic enterprise in the British empire.
But it was at that time that there were some key evangelicals—using the term in a correct way. Men who believed in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Word of God, that the only way to have eternal life was to put your faith alone in Christ alone, who were committed to the basic orthodox views of the church. This was before there was the influence of Protestant Christian liberalism—like William Wilberforce who was the prime mover and shaker in the movement against slavery. But it did not begin with him. There was another man who was an even stronger influence in the movement, and although he wasn't a member of Parliament at the time he was very influential. His name was Granville Sharp. One of the things he did in his spare time was become a master scholar in Greek. But one of the things he was deeply concerned about was that slavery in the form of cattle slavery was inherently wrong. We need to make a distinction between cattle slavery and what is called debt slavery or what might be called an indentured servitude. When we come to the Scriptures we see there is a distinction between those two positions.
There were several early movements to try to abolish slavery. There was Justin Martyr and there was also Patrick of Ireland. By the time of the end of the eighteenth century there was a group of people develop called the Clapham Sect. They met in the small village of Clapham just outside of London and they really weren't a sect in the pejorative sense of a cult, they were just a close fellowship of evangelical Christians, most of whom were very powerful and very wealthy English lords and gentlemen. They met together for the purpose of mutual encouragement because it was a time in England where England recognized that they were in a period of moral and spiritual decline. These men recognized that God had placed them in a unique position because of their wealth, influence and political power to have a positive impact on the nation. It is important to understand how they did that, what their motivation was, and what their theological framework was, because we will see some differences between what happened in England and what happened in the United States; and theology is at the very core. Theology drives every issue in life, there is no issue in life that is not ultimately driven by a theological perspective. If you start off with bad theology at the get go you are going to end up with wrong application and it will bring with it consequent problems.
William Wilberforce was a native of Kingston Upon Hall. He was born in 1759 and raised by some evangelical relatives of his parents but did not become a believer until about 1784 when he was about 25 years of age. He was educated at St. John's College in Cambridge and in 1780 when he was 21 years of age he became a member of Parliament for Hall. Later he was a representative for Yorkshire. At that time he became an intimate friend of William Pitt. William Pitt was the one who labelled him the nightingale of the House of Commons because he had the ability to sway people with his tremendous oratory. So he was very involved in politics from the time he was 21 on and in representing his constituency. In 1784 and 5 he was travelling on the Continent and was reading the New Testament and also a tract written by a Philip Doderidge, and while he was reading that he recognized that Jesus Christ had died on the cross for his sins and he trusted Christ as his savior. Unlike many Christians he recognized that that meant he had to overhaul all of his thinking from the ground up in terms of what the Bible said. He recognized that God had saved him for a purpose and placed him where he was in society and in politics for that purpose. He didn't get there easily. Initially he wanted to go into the ministry, but there was a pastor who was involved to some degree and knew many of the people involved in this Clapham group who became his mentor. This pastor told him that he didn't need to go into the pastorate, he needed to recognize that God had placed him in the House of Commons for a purpose and that he needed to serve the Lord there as a member of Parliament. This young pastor had the well-known name of John Newton. John Newton was a former slave ship captain and slave trader. He trusted Christ as his savior and left the slave trade and became a pastor who eventually wrote a hymn that is sung now and then by people, called Amazing Grace. Newton was a mentor for Wilberforce for the rest of Newton's life; he was somewhat older than Wilberforce.
Wilberforce kept his position in Parliament and he became involved with other believers who were involved behind the scenes to influence the government and to influence legislation. This was the beginning of what snowballed into the golden era of evangelical Christianity during the Victorian era. It was the decisions that were made by these men in a lot of different ways that set the foundation for the rise and development of missions and the world missionary movement that came out of England in the 19th century. It had a tremendous impact because of a lot of things that they did. For example, in 1787 they established the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. In 1799 they established the Church Missionary Society. In 1804 they established the British and Foreign Bible Society. In 1796 they established the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. They also involved in establishing the Society for the Reformation of Prisons. They were involved in the founding of the Society for the Propagation for the Knowledge of the Gospel among the Jews. Wilberforce was involved in that, he was very much a pro-Zionist, believing that the Jews had a right to their own homeland. He also founded the Society for the Promotion of Manners because it had come to a point by the end of the eighteenth century in England where people just didn't know what good manners were anymore. They did this because they understood what provided stability in a nation, and that stability could only come from the eternal principles of God's Word, and they were simply applying these. Some of these men were members of government, others weren't, but they were extremely influential. Their impact extended in England down through the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century.
What distinguished these men from American abolitionists was their theology. It is very important to understand their theology. In terms of bibliology they believed that the Word of God was inerrant and infallible, that it was inspired by God, breathed out by God, and thus infallible. Because they believed that the Bible was inerrant they believed what the Scriptures taught was absolutely true. Thus, when the Scriptures taught, as in Acts 17:26, that God made all nations of one blood, men said all human beings were equally descended of Noah and of Adam, and thus every single human being, whether they were from the heart of the dark continent or whether they were Asian or European they were equally in the image of God. Therefore no one was inherently any better or any worse. In theology proper they were Trinitarian, but they believed that God governed and superintended human history. They had a sound view of God as the creator and consequently man as the creature. That leads to anthropology, the biblical view of man. They believed that all human beings were created in the image of God, and thus equal, and they believed that all human beings were descended from fallen Adam and were equally fallen, so that every human being was totally depraved, and that because he was born a sinner he would die a sinner and could not be perfected. He was constitutionally fallen, therefore man was able to grow as a believer but he was not perfectible. The implication of that is that if man is not perfectible, society is not perfectible. If society is not perfectible then that means that part of the role of human government is to suppress evil and criminality. When it comes to salvation they believed that because man is a sinner there had to be a spiritual substitute for him on the cross. They believed in an atonement that was a substitutionary atonement, that Christ died in the place of us. Their eschatology grew out of their views on man's condition, on anthropology and salvation. Some were Amilennial but most were pre-Millennial. That is why they had positive views towards Israel and were involved in missions to Jews being established in England.
Their motivation grew out of grace orientation and humility. They weren't trying to perfect society, they didn't believe it was the government's job to bring about a utopic and perfect society, but it was the role of the government to suppress evil and criminality and that the Bible was the ultimate authority in defining what evil and criminality is, not man.
In 1788 a hundred petitions were signed attacking the slave trade and this went before the House of Commons. The next year, in 1789, Wilberforce gave his first speech in the House of Commons, but he knew he didn't have enough information, he hadn't done enough homework yet to build his case. In 1792 the House of Commons voted in favour of the principle of abolition of the slave trade but the next year there was the episode across the channel called the French Revolution. That upset everyone in England who thought they were headed for anarchy, so they reversed themselves in 1793, because they were afraid that something like the anarchy of the French Revolution would take place in England. In 1791 Wilberforce had again addressed the House of Commons and he was beginning to gain more and more support. It was finally some 15 or 16 years later on 23rd February in 1807 that the House of Commons voted. At that time the opposition to the principle of abolition had their back broken and they voted in favor of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the British empire. But that did not end it, there was another 20 years of battle, and finally the Emancipation Act was passed on 25th July, 1833, just four days before William Wilberforce was to die.
Professor G. M. Trevallian in his work, The British History in the Nineteenth Century, says, "On the last night of slavery in the British empire the negroes in our West Indian islands went up on the hilltop to watch the sunrise bringing them freedom as its first rays struck the waters. But far away in the forests of central Africa, in the heart of darkness yet unexplored, none understood or regarded the day, that it was the dark continent that was most deeply affected of all. Before its exploitation by Europe had well begun the most powerful of the nations that were to control its destiny had decided that slavery should not be the relation of the black man to the white."
What is interesting is that that was 1833, but that doesn't end the slave trade in Africa. There were Arabs still carrying on their historic slave trade, capturing black Africans and selling them into slavery. This reached another peak in the 1870s and it was necessary for England to loan one of its more brilliant military men and more eccentric Christians, a man by the name of Charles Gordon. He had gotten a lot of fame because he had been used earlier in China to put down one of the longest rebellions that had ever taken place, and he received the title "Chinese Gordon" as a result of that. He is also known in the history of Christianity because he had a tendency to go to all the great historical sites in the Middle East and would reject the traditional sites of Calvary, the tomb, Ararat, and many other places. He had his own view. He was rather mystical and would go out and have these mystical insights. He was eccentric but was a tremendous military leader. He was put on loan to the Egyptian government and was sent down in to the Sudan in order to stamp out the slave trade in the heart of Africa, which he did. He gained great fame for that.
Some ten years later in the middle of the 1880s—once again, note it is another evangelical believer—Gordon was sent down because of his background in the Sudan when the radical Islamo-fascists claimed that the 11th Makti [sp?] had arisen. He was martyred but he delayed the radicals long enough to get a British army together and go down to defeat the Moslems. All of this happened as a result of the abolition of the slave trade. The abolition of the slave trade engineered by Wilberforce had all these ramifications throughout history. Moslems have been angry about Khartoum and what the British did in the 1880s, and that is what fuels a lot of the stuff going on today.
Notice something. When they abolished the slave trade and slavery in England, did they have a civil war? No. Did they have any civil unrest. No. Do they continue to have racial problems generated by that in English society today? No, they don't. They have racial problems like everybody does, but for other reasons, not out of the slavery situation. It could be argued that the reason they don't have these problems is purely theological. The movement to reform society was generated by men of humility, men who understood man as he was, a totally depraved sinner. They weren't trying to perfect society, they were trying to bring in the Millennium, they weren't trying to impose anything on anybody, they were simply trying to end an evil. But over in America … in the 18th century was the first "great awakening" which happened in the 1740s. In this historical setting Calvinism is good. Everybody who came to America in the 1600s and 1700s was Calvinistic in his theology to one degree or another. The Pilgrims and the Puritans had a Calvinistic view of theology and a very high view of God and a very low view of man because they understood man to be a sinner.
Sometime after the first great awakening towards the end of the 1700s there was a controversy that came up within Calvinism called new light-old light Calvinism. The new lights were what we would call the liberals. One of the shining stars in the galaxy of new light Calvinists was an evangelist who came out of the second great awakening, which began in the early 1800s, by the name of Charles Finney. There are a lot of people who think that Finney was one of the great evangelists, but there is doubt that Finney was saved. There was nothing biblical about the man's theology. He was born in Connecticut, raised on a farm, entered into the legal profession, and claimed to have a religious conversion in 1821. He entered into the St. Lawrence presbytery in 1823 and was mentored by a pastor in the study of theology, probably heavy on new light Calvinism.
Let's compare the theology with the categories we have seen about the theology of the evangelicals in Britain with Finney. Finney: Adam sinned, it only affected Adam Everybody else gets born just like Adam was originally created, pure as the driven snow. Everybody has pure free will, just like Adam had pure free will. Everybody is born good and can theoretically make the right decisions and never sin and never fall. Man is basically good. People by nature, then, are improvable on their own. Society, then, will be perfectible. In new-school Calvinism people have the ability to repent and to give themselves new hearts. They basically save themselves by their own morality. That fits with his view of salvation. He held to a governmental view of the atonement, that salvation is by morality, so people just have to be encouraged to want to be saved. So it boils down to emotion. If you want to make a decision for eternity, then you just walk the aisle. But I have to motivate you, so we're going to sing 27 verses of Just As I Am, or something else, and we're just going to keep singing it until everybody is out of the pews and up front. All of this had its roots in Finney's theology, because man can save himself and make himself favourable. So if man can save himself and make himself favourable and man is improvable, then society is improvable and it is the goal of the Christian to improve society. Why? Because he is post-Millennial; Jesus comes back at the end of the Millennium. That means the church has to bring it in. So the church has to morally improve society in order to bring in a utopia so that Jesus can come back. Well, we can't have a perfect America unless we solve our big social sins, and the first social sin was slavery, the second was alcohol, the third had to do with labor and union rights, the fourth to all the poor women who couldn't vote, the fifth with child labor. (Doesn't that just describe American history for the last 180 years!) That was their goal. If we can just end all of these social sins we will, have a utopic society and Jesus can come back. That has been made secular in the years since, but that was Finney's motivation. What is the underlying motivation which thinks that man can save himself? Arrogance. Arrogance always polarizes people.