Senior bishop criticises evangelicals and other Christians over slave trade abolition

By staff writers
21 Mar 2007

A senior Church of England bishop has criticised evangelicals who backed the campaign to end the transatlantic slave trade and highlighted how his predecessors justified the trade and opposed William Wilberforce's attempts to end it.

The evangelical Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, made his comments during a lecture last night (Tuesday). They come ahead of a 'march of witness' this weekend to be headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which will express sorrow for the part Christians played in the trade.

Last year's the Church of England's general synod was told how what became one of the church's voluntary missionary arms, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Foreign Parts, owned the Codrington plantation in Barbados where slaves had the word "society" branded on their chests.

"In spite of or maybe because so much attention has been given to the Bicentennial Anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade I sense that many in our society are still wondering what all the fuss is about", the Bishop of Liverpool James Jones, said.

"Much of my own ministry has been in Bristol, Hull and Liverpool and my own Diocese is united with Virginia in America and Akure in Nigeria in a partnership which replicates the Slave Trade Triangle. The people and places have opened up my imagination to the realities of racism so inextricably chained to trade in black slaves. Slavery in one form or another has always been and remains even to this day a feature of human society. What was distinctive about the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery was its overt racism. The millions of slaves were African and black."

"The roots of racism cannot be disentangled from the history of slavery. Racism is the legacy of the transatlantic trade" he said.

"Those who wonder what all the fuss is about fail to see this connection and underestimate the destructive power of racism in the modern world. In Liverpool we came face to face with its ugly manifestation when the young, talented and black Anthony Walker was murdered with an axe in a hideously brutal racist attack. The taunting and bullying of a person because of the colour of his skin has its antecedents in the dehumanising treatment of black people who were traded in their millions from Africa to America in the vilest of barbaric conditions and in ships that sailed out of London, Bristol and Liverpool.

"The fact that William Wilberforce became a committed Christian and championed the passing through Parliament of the Bill to abolish the Slave Trade could be, and indeed has been, taken by Christians to be both evidence and example of how Christianity inspires radical social action and transformation. Although that is an attractive thesis and has within it seeds of truth, the fuller picture is much more complicated.

"The Establishment countenanced both slavery and the trade fearing that abolition would threaten the British Empire with economic ruin. The Bishops, with the notable exception of the Bishop of Chester, Reilly Porteus, who later went on to become 'Bishop of London' sided with the Establishment.

The bishop also quoted a former Archbishop of Canterbury who said in 1760; “I have long wondered & lamented that the Negroes in our plantations decrease, & new supplies become necessary continually. Surely this proceeds from Defect, both of Humanity, & even of good policy. But we must take things as they are at present.”

He also criticised the evangelicals who backed Wilberforce's campaign.

"And even the evangelicals who eventually emerged as a driving force of the abolition movement were possessed of a personal piety which sought principally the conversion of others so that slave owning converts in the Colonies would lead more upright lives and their converted slaves would become more industrious!" he said.

His comments were delivered at a meeting of the Conservative Christian Fellowship marking the 200th anniversary of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, at the Emmanuel Centre, Marsham Street, London.

William Wilberforce spent much of his time in Parliament as an independent MP.

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