Tag Archives: Late 18th century

Review: Thoughts upon Slavery

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: John Wesley (1703-1791) was an English preacher best known as the leader of a revival movement that came to be known as Methodism, which began within the Church of England. John and his brother Charles also revolutionized church music by writing and disseminating thousands of hymns. It is believed that John preached 40,000 times in his lifetime, and rode 250,000 miles on horseback in doing so. He was extremely prolific as a author, hymnwriter, publisher, and preacher, and quite lived up to his own motto:

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

Overview:

William Wilberforce, the political champion of British abolitionism, was only 15 when Wesley wrote this pamphlet (1774), which shows how far ahead of his time Wesley was. This little booklet is written for a broad audience—that is to say, Wesley did not just write it for Christians.

The booklet includes:

  • Facts and dates about Europe’s slave trade to the Americas
  • Personal accounts about life in Africa before and after slavery
  • Personal accounts from those involved in trafficking slaves
  • Figures and estimates of slaves killed aboard ship and upon arrival

That is just the historical research. Topics addressed for the people of his day also include:

  • Alleged “stupidity” or inferiority of African slaves
  • Arguments alleged to justify slavery
  • Every man and woman’s right to liberty
  • Your involvement in the slave trade

This book would be relevant today for history education, a study of early European abolitionism, or anyone that wants to know more about human trafficking, its roots and results.

Bones:

Wesley deals here with the modern slave trade and does not deal with a wide-lens view of slavery that can help enlighten the biblical texts related to slavery. As such, there are some arguments missing from this book, which are worth mentioning. There are times and cultures (such as the Pentateuch) in which a “slave” is a person bound to work to pay a debt, as opposed to be cast into a debtor’s prison. There are also those peculiar stories of slaves bound in love to their masters as benefactors, among which we can group the story of Philemon in the New Testament. Until all social classes are abolished, there will be poverty and systems of “serfdom”, and people are even today shackled by poverty, even in the richest nations on earth. I think that we can hone Wesley’s argument to make it clear that what we are talking about is owning human beings as chattel:

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 either justice or mercy. (loc. 233)

What modern writers on this topic have to realize is how dangerously close to slavery are many of the world’s economic systems. Take for instance the migration of Asian laborers to the Arab Gulf, where they often go into debt to obtain a work contract, their passports are routinely held by their employers, and they are not free to come and go as they please. And yet the stern reality is that millions of South Asians continue to flood into that region for the opportunity to feed their families—while this is, for them, a boon, for those who perpetrate this horribly racist labor system, it is a wretched and deplorable evil. Like a beautifully decorated tomb, it is not so far removed from the European slave trade, and we should keep in mind that many Arab nations only prohibited slavery after 1950—Mauritania officially criminalized slavery in 2006, and Chad followed in 2017.

Quotes:

The Christians, landing upon their coasts, seized as many as they found, men, women, and children, and transported them to America. It was about 1551 that the English began trading to Guinea; at first, for gold and elephants’ teeth; but soon after, for men. (loc. 135)

No circumstances can make it necessary for a man to burst in sunder all the ties of humanity. (loc. 284)

Indeed you say, “I pay honestly for my goods; and I am not concerned to know how they are come by.” Nay, but you are; you are deeply concerned to know they are honestly come by. Otherwise you are a partaker with a thief, and are not a jot honester than him. Now, it is your money that pays the merchant, and through him the captain and the African butchers. You therefore are guilty, yea, principally guilty, of all these frauds, robberies, and murders. (loc. 394-399)

Review: Olney Hymns

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: John Newton was the Anglican minister at Olney after being cast away as a mutineer on the African coast and sold to black slave-traders. He later became one of the champions of the abolition of the British slave trade.

William Cowper became famous in his own right through his long poem The Task. Although Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” the most famous hymn ever written, Cowper wrote many of the more famous ones. Several of these are still regularly sung today, whether in older or modern forms.

When: Olney Hymns was published in 1779 in the context of an (local) revival of religious fervor and commitment in England. This revival, with the abolitionist Clapham Sect at its center, led to many of the most well known Christian efforts against the British slave trade.

Overview: Olney Hymns is one of the most famous hymnbooks ever created, and is connected to an evangelical revival that was occurring with John Newton, William Wilberforce, and William Cowper in the middle of it. Most famously, it is the hymnbook that introduced “Amazing Grace” (and several other classics) to the world.

(An aside: Hymnbooks were used differently back then; the tunes were memorized, and any hymn could be sung to any melody with the same number of notes. So the original tune used for “Amazing Grace,” for instance, is not the one we sing now. If you want to prove this, try singing the first hymn in the book to the same tune as “Amazing Grace.”)

Meat: I have read several classic hymnbooks in recent years, but this is easily the best. The poetry is simple and exemplary, and for the most part, it makes great devotional reading.

Many hymns that we still sing in one version or another are traced back to this classic book. I had been singing “There is a fountain filled with blood” for years before I knew it was written by one of my favorite poets, William Cowper.

Bones: Interwoven with what we consider classic hymnody are expressions of self-loathing and near despair. Newton and Cowper were prone to “worm theology” and sometimes make very little of themselves. (“Save a wretch like me.”) This is concomitant with their Calvinism and was part of the worship of several centuries of Calvinists; today, though, we find this self-deprecation to be self-focused and destructive to the atmosphere of worship.

I should add, the original index, with a title, and the first line, and a paired Scripture, is pretty confusing to modern readers. (This requires three indexes!) And different editions number the poems differently to boot.

Best Poems: 

Walking with God (“Oh! for a closer walk with God,” Gen. 5:24)

Joy and Peace in Believing (“Sometimes a light surprises”)

Light Shining out of Darkness (“God moves in a mysterious way.”)

Praise for the Fountain Opened (“There is a fountain fill’d with blood,” Zech. 13:1)

Old Testament Gospel (“Israel, in ancient days,” Heb. 4:2)

Faith’s Review and Expectation (“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound,” 1 Chron. 17:16-17)

William Carey Enquiry Book Cover

Review: An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens

 Rating: ★★★★★

Who: William Carey, British missionary to India, known as “the father of modern missions.” He is also noted for his linguistic works and Bible translations in Bengali, Marathi, and several other languages.

When: 1792, one year before William Carey left for his mission field in India.

Overview: Encyclopedia Brittanica calls this pamphlet “the charter of Protestant missions.” This pamphlet led directly to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society. While it’s not so widely read today, Carey’s arguments are surprisingly current and readable.

Carey argues first that the Great Commission is Christ’s mandate to all his disciples, not just the Eleven (Section I); then he gives a summary of how Christianity grew through missions work, in the Book of Acts as well as over the centuries (Section II); the third section summarizes the state of missions in his day; the fourth section debunks a series of objections in the way of missionary service; and, the last section explains the duties of all Christians to further missions work by prayer and finances.

Meat: The first part of Carey’s pamphlet argues persuasively that the commissions of Jesus apply to all Christians, not just the apostles. His arguments in this section are timeless and should be discussed even at the present time. Jesus has not repealed or amended the Great Commission; it stands binding on all his followers.

Carey also has some great reminders about missionary hardship. (He encourages his readers that the invention of mariner’s compass has made travel much more certain!) He points out with conviction—Livingstone noted the same in Africa—that traders will undergo any hardship for the single goal of riches; Christians with a single goal should likewise “act with all their might,” without fear, in the pursuit of this all-encompassing goal. (See quote below from p. 82.)

Bones: It is difficult to make heads or tails of Section III, Carey’s survey of the state of world missions, which is replete with obsolete place names; even the data itself is questionable. Section II might also seem superfluous to many readers, although the history itself is well done.

Quotes: “Where a command exists nothing can be necessary to render it binding but a removal of those obstacles which render obedience impossible, and these are removed already.” (On the Great Commission, p. 11)

“After all, the uncivilized state of the heathen, instead of affording an objection against preaching the gospel to them, ought to furnish an argument for it.” (p. 69)

“It is inconsistent for ministers to please themselves with thoughts of a numerous auditory, cordial friends, a civilized country, legal protection, affluence, splendour, or even a competency. The flights, and hatred of men, and even pretended friends, gloomy prisons, and tortures, the society of barbarians of uncouth speech, miserable accommodations in wretched wildernesses, hunger, and thirst, nakedness, weariness, and painfulness, hard work, and but little worldly encouragement, should rather be the objects of their expectation. ” (p. 72)

“When a trading company have obtained their charter they usually go to its utmost limits. … They cross the widest and most tempestuous seas, and encounter the most unfavourable climates; they introduce themselves into the most barbarous nations, and sometimes undergo the most affecting hardship. … Christians are a body whose truest interest lies in the exaltation of the Messiah’s kingdom. Their charter is very extensive, their encouragements exceeding great, and the returns promised infinitely superior to all the gains of the most lucrative fellowship. Let then every one in his station consider himself as bound to act with all his might, and in every possible way for God.” (p. 82)