“Monday 14, I preached about noon at Warrington, and in the evening at Liverpool, where many large ships are now laid up in the docks which had been employed for many years in buying, or stealing, poor Africans and selling them in America for slaves. The men-butchers have now nothing to do at this laudable occupation. Since the American war broke out there is no demand for human cattle. So the men of Africa, as well as Europe, may enjoy their native liberty.”
Of course, we know that the Revolutionary War did not end the slave trade permanently. In the newly formed United States of America, the international slave trade continued until 1808. Slaves could be bought and sold within the borders of the United States thereafter, until the upheaval of the American Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution ended the institution of slavery completely.
American Methodists were originally as anti-slavery as Wesley, although that began to soften soon after the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. The compromise of American Methodists on slavery is one of the great failures—nay, sins—in Methodist history. That failure wasn’t due to anything Wesley said or did, though. The final letter John Wesley ever wrote was a note of encouragement to William Wilberforce in his long Parliamentary struggle to outlaw the slave trade in the British empire.
Wesley, in fact, was a vehement opponent of slavery and the slave trade, considering slavery to be contrary both to natural liberty and the Christian faith. His most thorough anti-slavery statement is expressed in his 1774 treatise, Thoughts Upon Slavery. In that essay, he exhorts slave owners, “Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary choice. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion! Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do unto every one as you would he should do unto you.”
Wesley ends Thoughts Upon Slavery with a prayer, worth quoting here: “O thou God of love, thou who art loving to every man, and whose mercy is over all thy works; thou who art the Father of the spirits of all flesh, and who art rich in mercy unto all; thou who hast mingled of one blood all the nations upon earth; have compassion upon these outcasts of men, who are trodden down as dung upon the earth! Arise, and help these that have no helper, whose blood is spilt upon the ground like water! Are not these also the work of thine own hands, the purchase of thy Son’s blood? Stir them up to cry unto thee in the land of their captivity; and let their complaint come up before thee; let it enter into thy ears! Make even those that lead them away captive to pity them, and turn their captivity as the rivers in the south. O burst thou all their chains in sunder; more especially the chains of their sins! Thou Saviour of all, make them free, that they may be free indeed!”
[This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights important themes that emerge in the Journal that John Wesley published throughout his adult life. For other posts in the series, go here.]