ESSAYS | MY CHAINS FELL OFF
A Wesleyan View of Slavery
“My Chains Fell Off, My Heart was Free”
Cadet Robert Jeffery
UW 7220 History and Faith of a Selected Church Tradition: Wesleyan Distinctives in Theology
Major Ray Harris, D. Min.
Over the last decade we have seen in our society a renewed interest in the topic of slavery. From the rise of black authors such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison (both of whom have garnished critical acclaim), the production and release of multimillion-dollar films such as “Amistad” and “Amazing Grace”, to the election of America’s first black president, our North American culture has experienced a desire to better understand the sordid, and complex history that was the African transatlantic slave trade. While prominent leaders in the Abolitionist movement like Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce have been extensively studied, religious Abolitionists (though it should be pointed out that Lincoln and Wilberforce were both Christians) have often escaped historical recognition. One such Abolitionist, though well studied in Methodist circles, who receives little attention from secular scholarship is John Wesley, the founder of Wesleyan theology and the principal creator of the Methodist Church.
Wesley (1703-1791) was an ardent Abolitionist who found the practice of slavery abhorrent to anyone who professed faith. What separated him from the Abolitionists of his day and those who would come later, was not the extremeness in which he protested slavery but his establishment of a theological framework that future Abolitionist Christians could borrow from and build on. John Wesley created a theological foundation on which slavery could be opposed, which one could well argue is more lasting than the short-ditched efforts of a pragmatic rebel.
This paper will examine African slavery from a Wesleyan perspective and will explore those factors that contributed to Wesley’s own thinking on the subject, and the impact his convictions had on the society of his day. Also, a truly Wesleyan perspective draws on the work of not only Wesley himself, but of other Wesleyan voices: Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, and Thomas Coke. Sometimes these voices are in complete harmony with one another – sometimes they are not. This paper will not provide much in the way of a detailed history on slavery, nor will it include many biographical details of the Wesleys or the Methodist movement; it will try to promulgate a Wesleyan view of slavery that is true to the convictions of John Wesley and the movement he created. Lastly, it will attempt to answer whether there is anything in a Wesleyan view of slavery that we can take forward today, both as the people of God and as responsible citizens in a free society – a society that some say makes its fortunes off the backs of oppressed peoples in developing countries. It will be shown that the notion of slavery should not be viewed by us as an historical curiosity but as a force that is painfully still present, though its form and shape have changed.
A Word on the Quadrilateral
The theology community is as indebted to the works of Albert Outler, as it is to John Wesley, for his conception of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The four pronged approach to doing theology of scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, was not a concept created by Wesley but by Outler, who saw Wesley’s use of the quadrilateral not in an explicit sense (in that he worked his convictions through all four prongs, thereby creating a systematic theology), but as a way to “…emphasize that Wesley relied more on ‘standards of doctrine’ in his theological approach than on theological Systems or juridical Confessions of Faith.”1 As Maddox observes, Wesley himself rarely, if ever, conjoined all four prongs of the Quadrilateral, often combining only two (or at the most three) components in order to press home a theological conviction.2
One such grouping of the quadrilateral that Wesley used – experience, scripture, and reason – will be employed by this paper as a lens to examine Wesley’s convictions concerning slavery. By employing the quadrilateral we will be better able to see the process that Wesley and his followers used to formulate the conviction that slavery was wrong, and ultimately, unchristian.
Though slavery was practiced in England during Wesley’s lifetime, it is unlikely that Wesley encountered it in its rawest form on English soil. It was not until Wesley’s missionary trip to Georgia that we hear of his first experiences with the slave trade and its brutality. Brother Charles Wesley recounts a particularly disturbing experience that he was witness to in Georgia, sometime in the 1730s:
It were endless to recount all the shocking instances of diabolical cruelty which these men (as they call themselves) daily practice upon their fellow-creatures; and that on the most trivial occasions. I shall only mention one more…He [the slaveowner] whipped a she-slave so long, that she fell down at his feet for dead. When, by the help of a physician, she was so far recovered as to show signs of life, he repeated the whipping with equal rigour, and concluded with dropping hot sealing wax upon her flesh. Her crime was overfilling a tea-cup.3
Such episodes would undoubtedly have left an unforgettable impression on both of the Wesley brothers, offending not only their English sensibilities but their Christian ones as well which saw love for neighbour as paramount.
Probably unique for an abolitionist of his time, Wesley went so far as to study the home culture of African slaves. His findings on Senegalese tribes were flattering and complimentary, recognizing the inherent goodness in a culture that would have been decried by most Anglo-Americans as pagan and barbaric. Wesley notes:
Their 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…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.4
Such a high regard for a people that were viewed by the dominant culture as mere chattel, reveals Wesley to be a man quite ahead of his time. And yet, just as equally, it must be said that Wesley was very much a man of his time, reflecting many of the sensibilities and experiences that were typical of the age.
Wesley’s identification as a loyalist – loyal to both Crown and Country, was typical of the majority of Anglo-Americans in the eighteenth century. Thus his experience was formed by his Anglican tradition in that he had a very high view of the Monarch who was also the ecclesiastical head of the Church of England. In Wesley’s experience, all good Englishmen and English Christians were loyal to their King because such order mirrored the divine order of God and human relations. Strangely however, it was Wesley’s pro-monarchy stance and his subsequent aversion to the freedom-loving ideals of the Americans that cemented his dislike of the institution of slavery. One would think that adherence to a form of government that had at its head an unelected king, would lend itself to a position of being proslavery rather than antislavery, but historically, this was not the case. On the contrary, the pro-liberty position taken by the American leaders who felt threatened by a despotic king, ruling them through a corrupt parliament thousands of miles away in Britain, actually lent itself to being more supportive of the slave trade than a monarchical system.
In Wesley’s view, those at the top of the imperial structure were responsible for the happiness of those beneath them. This obligation, or noblesse obliges, was an inherent component in the divine right of kings. Wesley writes in 1767: “King George is the father of all his subjects; and not only so, but he is a good father. He shows his love to them on all occasions; and is continually doing all that is in his power to make his subjects happy.”5 This is not naiveté, nor is it mere flattery of a ruler who on more than one occasion certainly failed to live up to this high ideal. It was a statement of John Wesley’s conviction, in that for society to function well there had to be a clear delineation of authority, with those on the top doing their utmost to keep those beneath them happy. Those who governed were responsible for creating a system whereby everybody flourished. Thus slavery was evil because of its debasement of the people at the very bottom of the social ladder – the Africans. Slavery, rather than a system which demonstrated natural authority, would have been for Wesley and others a system that demonstrated anarchy – the complete absence of lawful authority.
The American take on slavery was different. Though the majority of the Founding Fathers were nominally Christian, the Christianity they espoused was closer to Deism: a belief in an impersonal God or “Supreme Being” who was largely uninvolved in the affairs of humans.6 Though one cannot say for certain why the early American patriots did not seem overly uncomfortable with the notion of slavery, it is probable that on some level, black people were not thought of as humans, thus the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, guaranteed to white Americans, did not apply to them.
While the English Methodists condemned slavery wholeheartedly, American Methodists had a somewhat different experience. Prevailing cultural attitudes among Americans made it difficult for Methodist leaders to condemn the slave trade. Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Wesley’s American lieutenants, initially condemned the slave trade, but when the Deep South proved to be fertile grounds for the spread of Methodism, the question arose whether or not to continue the practice of denying slave owners entry into the societies unless they emancipated their slaves. This practice was bravely enacted in the Christmas Conference of 1784, but within five short months, the minute to actively oppose slavery was rescinded. Notes Thomas Coke, “We thought it prudent to suspend the minute concerning slavery, on account of the great opposition that had been given it, our work being in too infantile a state to push things to extremity.”7 Asbury remained opposed to slavery throughout his life, but agreed in the interest of Methodist polity that it would remain a nonissue. One writer speculates that Asbury rationalized his decision by falling back on the Wesleyan principle of internalism. “True religion resided in the heart of the individual, not the social institutions of a nation. Thus, Asbury was willing to sacrifice Methodist abolitionism in order to have continued access to the souls of the South.”8
So while slavery remained an abomination to both English and U.S. Methodist leaders, the degree to which it was protested varied greatly from country to country, and within the U.S., from state to state. It is clear however that John Wesley’s initial encounter with slavery on his trip to Georgia, forever impacted him and helped form his conviction that slavery was wrong and could not in any way be considered Christian.
Perhaps as fascinating as Wesley’s experience with slavery, was his reasoning for why it was to be condemned and not practiced. The great world event of the 1700s which had global implications in terms of politics and governance was the American Revolution. As actual conflicts go, the Revolutionary War was rather inconsequential. There were no battles that future students of the military arts would hearken back to as benchmarks of tactical and strategic brilliance, as in the Napoleonic wars. The largely ‘fight and run’ style of the American Continentals, while no doubt challenging to the British Regulars, was not enough to defeat them – a vastly superior military force. The saving grace of the Americans came in their ability to draw out the conflict, thereby tiring their enemy substantially. If the British could have commited all of their forces to the American colonies, the results of the war might have turned out quite differently; but a simultaneous war with France prevented Britain from gaining the upper hand. America was lost. The significance of the American Revolutionary War was that it would serve as a social and political blueprint for the other nations of Europe who were beginning to question the natural order of things. The events that unfolded in America – the people’s rejection of their sovereign, caused the Hanovers, the Orleans, the Hapsburgs, and all the great Houses of Europe to fear for their survival.
All this to say that the debate on slavery, though important, was caught up in the greater debate on liberty and what it meant for a people to say that they were free. The early American patriots were masters at communicating the message that a people under the rule of a king, were in fact, slaves. Wesley believed this line of reasoning to be utter nonsense. Though initially sympathetic to the colonists’ grievances, he felt their protestations to be without merit. Consider his words in a pamphlet entitled, Calm Address to Our American Colonies (1775):
After all the vehement cry for liberty, what more liberty can you have? What more religious liberty can you desire, than that which you enjoy already? May not every one among you worship God according to his own conscience? What civil liberty can you desire, which you are not already possessed of? Do you not sit without restraint, every man under his own vine? Do you not, every one, high or low, enjoy the fruit of your labours? This is real, rational liberty.9
Recognizing that the American Revolution was more about political independence than it was about liberty, Wesley quipped, “Nay, if all who are not independent are slaves, then there is no free nation in Europe: Then all in every nation are slaves, except the supreme powers.”10
But beyond a mere affront to his loyalist sensitivities, the way that those in authority both in American and Britain, justified slavery, was also an affront to Wesley’s reason. In his tract entitled, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (based on material originally written by a Quaker writer named Anthony Benezet) Wesley seeks to answer whether “…the end (telos) of slavery, e.g., colonial advancement, Christianization, enlightenment from ‘ignorance,’ economic considerations – all of which are used to legitimate slavery – justify the means (enslavement of persons in the service of others)?”11 Wesley came to the conclusion that the supposed ends of slavery could never justify the means. The ends or arguments of the day that legitimated slavery were as follows: 1). That slavery is necessary for colonial advancement; 2). That slaves are somehow naturally inferior; and 3). That slaves are needed to work in tropical climates.12 Against the first argument Wesley counters, “I deny that villainy is ever necessary”; and to the argument that slaves are needed to work the tropical climates of southern America, Wesley argues, “Better no trade than trade procured by villainy…Better is honest poverty, than all the riches bought by the tears, and sweat and blood, of our fellow creatures.”13
One contemporary scholar cites three additional arguments made by Wesley and his followers, on why slavery was problematic. Firstly, he argued against the widely held view that blacks were not authentic human beings. In Wesley’s view, all people possessed an individual soul, created by God, for the purpose of experiencing eternal life. Whites therefore could not credibly claim that only they defined humanity. Secondly, the cruel atrocities enacted against slaves by their captors, and later by their masters, were an affront to those who bore the image of God. Such actions degraded not only the slaves, but the slave owners themselves who took part in the abuse. Anyone responsible for such cruelties must in the end expect God’s punishment. And thirdly, Wesley reasoned that slavery was an assault against justice; justice in this sense, refers to the Enlightenment notion of natural law.14
Quoted at length, Marquardt explains the construct of natural law. From it, one is able to see how Wesley formed his anti-slaving convictions primarily through the lens of reason:
This perception of natural law…gained an importance in underlying the emergence of modern democracy in the early eighteen-century Enlightenment. Surpassing all positive law in rank and validity; natural law was endowed to every person, of whatever race, religion, or nationality. Slaveholding could not be brought into harmony with this law in any way.15
From this perspective, slavery did not make sense; that is to say, it simply was not reasonable since natural law applied to everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. Nor in Wesley’s view could anyone advance a reasonable defence of slavery. Unfortunately, not all Methodists regarded the issue the same way. George Whitefield, a Calvinist-Methodist not only tolerated slavery, but owned 50 slaves himself.16
So because of Wesley’s fundamental views on liberty (which he saw as practical, rejecting its more abstract implications), and his view that slavery degraded the humanity of both slave and slaveholder, we see an antislavery framework largely built on the two-tiered prongs of experience and reason. The last tier that assists us in promulgating a Wesleyan view of slavery is the Scriptures – God’s written revelation.
Few churchmen of his day probably knew the Scriptures as well as John Wesley. The Methodist movement was true to the earlier movements that founded the Protestant Reformation. Protestant churches true to the reformation had a ministry that revolved around two things: the sacrament of the word, and the sacrament of baptism. Knowing the word of God through a personal knowledge gained from reading the Scriptures, became a vital aspect of Protestant mission and ministry. Methodism followed in this grand tradition; like Wycliffe’s Lollards, Wesley’s itinerant preachers traversed the English and American landscape, preaching and teaching to all who would listen. The daily reading of the Bible and a whole host of other books was a requirement for these preachers, who though not educated, conducted a form of theological training that was arguably as rigorous as seminary.17 In all the great theological treatises that Wesley is known for – treatises such as Responsible Grace, Sanctification, and the Order of Salvation, Scripture plays a vital role in his forming of these concepts. Yet strangely enough, many scholars agree that on the subject of slavery, Wesley seldom uses Scripture as a defence. In fact, in much of the literature he wrote on slavery, he hardly makes any appeal to Scripture at all.
Why is this so? In Wesley’s aforementioned anti-slavery tract, one commentator notes that while he alluded to the Bible in a few places, “…Wesley appealed more to justice, mercy, and truth, virtue, or even ‘heathen honesty.’ Three times he offered a disclaimer on use of the Bible: ‘setting the bible out of the question’; ‘even setting Revelation aside’; and ‘to say nothing of mercy, nor the revealed law of God’.”18 Knowing that Wesley’s target audience was the general public, and perhaps even the slaveholders themselves, Hynson theorizes Wesley knew that the religious convictions these men had would at best be surface values. By appealing directly to their conscience, primarily by means of reason, he could hopefully get them to admit they were wrong – which he was sure that in their heart of hearts they already knew. “Wesley was too hopeful that appeals to justice, mercy, truth, and virtue would change the slavers’ attitudes but he evidently considered these the proper instruments of persuasion.”19
Let us then depart from the character of Wesley for a moment, and examine the issue of slavery from the perspective of the broader Wesleyan movement. Scripture has provided Wesleyan leaders, both past and present, with a mandate to pursue justice. Slavery, as a form of injustice would have been opposed on the grounds of Scripture alone. One contemporary Methodist leader declares: “The Wesleyan passion for justice comes directly from the biblical witness.”20 Citing the biblical story beginning with God’s covenant to the children of Israel, to the message of the prophets, and finally to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross, inspires Wesleyans and those of the Wesleyan tradition to live their lives in the pursuit of justice. The same Methodist leader writes:
The greatest biblical witness comes in Jesus. From the beginning of his life he was a threat to the established and unjust political orders. It was a politician who sought to kill him shortly after his birth. It was politicians who finally succeeded in crucifying him. Jesus did not die because he talked about the lilies of the field and the birds in the air. He went to the cross because he talked of thieves in the marketplace, rascals in the statehouse, and a God demanding total allegiance.21
Wesley did not seem overly concerned with proving, in a hermeneutical sense, that slavery was wrong and in opposition to the teachings of the Bible. He does not deal with the controversy modern biblical scholars wrestle with, concerning Paul’s perceived endorsement of slavery in Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22, and Titus 2:9, verses that Christian slaveholders often cited to justify the practice. Perhaps the reason why Wesley is seemingly unconcerned with finding biblical proof that the practice should be prohibited is because of his sincere conviction that slavery was absolutely wrong; he did not need any other means or proof to convince him of this! His Christian worldview and experience with slavery taught him, as well as his own sense of reason, that because black people had within them a soul, they could not be held in captivity and made to suffer the evils of bondage by their fellow human beings. Not the least by human beings who claimed to be believers, and who claimed to have received the blessing of sanctification. The three pronged theological framework that Wesley may have used to formulate his convictions simply told him that slavery was wrong. Therefore exhaustive appeals to Scripture simply were not needed.
Wesley’s Influence on the Society of his Day and his Relevance for Today
It has been this paper’s contention that Wesley was an important Christian Abolitionist that is frequently overlooked by secular historians. But did John Wesley really impact the debate on slavery in any meaningful way? Did the movement he created truly take a stand against slavery, considering Coke and Asbury’s ‘capitulation’ to the Southern Methodists? Let us reiterate that it was not Wesley’s extreme antislavery actions that qualify him for this broader recognition. It was his creation of a theological framework that future Abolitionists could draw on in order to eventually dismantle American slavery. It must also be stated that the majority of the literature on slavery concerns itself primarily with American slavery. Let us remember that slavery was also a blight on the national consciences of Britain, Continental Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Latin/South America. American historians may not give enough credit to Wesley, simply because of the perception that he does not factor into their story.
One such historian writes that the notion that Wesley “…was in the antislavery vanguard [should be] seriously challenged by the largely derivative nature of Thoughts Upon Slavery.”22 He then goes on to describe Wesley as more of a camp follower, (in terms of his campaign against slavery) rather than a leader.23 It is important to hold in tension some of the truths in such an assessment, lest we do an injustice in our study of Wesley, creating hagiography instead of history.
Surely however we can agree that Wesley engaged the subject of slavery in a way that had never been done by clergy, or certainly by anyone in the political realm. It is not so much the individual actions of Wesley we celebrate, but his influence on a “…broad movement that worked toward fundamentally changing the great social injustice of slavery, using every available means of agitation as well as partial emancipation and education.”24 It was truly an issue that he followed throughout his life, even in the midst of his problems with the Methodist movement on his native soil over their longing to separate from the Church of England. The very last letter written by Wesley was to William Wilberforce, the lone English Member of Parliament who fought to abolish slavery in Britain and the Colonies. He encouraged Wilberforce with the words, “Be not weary in doing well.”25 Though we may debate the long-term impact Wesley had on the discourse of slavery, there is little doubt that Wesley always “lived well”, or at least he always sought to do so.
The Wesleyan view of slavery as held by John Wesley and the Abolitionist Methodists did impact the 18th century; followers of Wesley, along with many other Christians, eventually brought slavery to an end, and the children of the Wesleyan movement today are still freeing people from oppression. In both the mainline and evangelical churches there is increased awareness of the necessity for God’s children to engage in social justice. Church leaders and lay people are holding their politicians accountable for hurtful government policies that unfairly take advantage of poorer nations. The debate on whether to engage in Middle Eastern conflicts such as the Iraq war has intensified, with the United Methodists taking an especially strong stand. In 2005, the senior bishops from the denomination denounced the war in Iraq and America’s involvement in it. The great irony is however that President George W. Bush, whom the response was dictated to, is himself a United Methodist. Rather than engage in political pandering or staying silent for fear of offending those in power, the United Methodists took a bold, yet respectful stand against a war that in their view was fundamentally unjust.26 Whether one agrees with this stand or not it clearly demonstrates that leadership in the Wesleyan tradition involves a strong bend for justice. One question we might ask ourselves today is how we are contributing to modern day forms of slavery such sex trafficking, child labour, or exploitative labour. Is there a need for repentance? Is there a need for action? Engaging these issues with the same vigour that Wesley and his followers engaged slavery would have significant ramifications for our world. It would fundamentally leave us changed as well, both as the people of God and as North Americans – a privileged people giving some of our privilege away in order to loose the bonds of oppression from others.
This paper has attempted to demonstrate that a Wesleyan view of slavery was built on the three components (or prongs) of the quadrilateral: experience, reason, and Scripture. It has also shown that Wesley contributed a lot to the debate on slavery, and though the honour would go to future generations of Abolitionists who would be credited with dismantling the institution, it has been argued that they were better able to do so because of the theological framework left to them by John Wesley and the Methodists. And lastly, John Wesley’s efforts to abolish the slave trade had a lasting impact on the Methodist Church today, citing as proof, the recent movement by the United Methodists to declare their opposition to the Iraq War, to a President who is himself a Methodist.
One wonders in the experiences both the Wesleys had with slaves, whether they equated their bondage with the bondage of sin that weighs down the soul of the one who has yet to experience the joy of salvation? This may cause us to read Wesley’s verses in a new light.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke; the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.27
Hanshaw, Mark E. “Wesley and Liberty: Embracing Poles.” Methodist History XL, no. 1 (2001): 52-60.
Hattersley, Roy. A Brand from the Burning: The Life of John Wesley. London, England: Little, Brown Book, 2002.
Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
Hynson, Leon O. “Wesley’s ‘Thoughts Upon Slavery’: A Declaration of Human Rights.” Methodist History XXXIII, no. 1 (1994): 46-57.
Maddox, Randy L. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville, Tennessee: Kingswood Books, 1994.
Marquardt, Manfred. John Wesley’s Social Ethics: Praxis and Principles. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.
Rudolph, L.C. Francis Asbury. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966.
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language: Updated 2nd Edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.
Smith, Kaukab Jhumra. “Methodist Bishops Repent Iraq War ‘Complicity’.” Fox News, 10 November 2005. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,175245,00.html (accessed 24 February 2009).
SoRelle, James M. “Book Review: John Wesley and Slavery.” Journal of Church and State 30, no. 3 (1988): 605.
Weems, Jr., Lovett H. Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.
Wood, Timothy L. “‘That They May Be Free Indeed’: Liberty in the Early Methodist Thought of John Wesley and Francis Asbury.” Methodist History XXXVIII, no. 4 (2000): 231-241.