by Gillian Cooke
from Signs of the Times No. 35 - Oct 2009

The Windsor process advocates centralising authority within the Anglican Communion. It considers that unity helps the Church's mission in the world, and cites the campaign against racial slavery as an example of this. Sadly history tells another story.

Wilberforce, Clarkson and Sharp (all Anglicans) had important roles to play, but that is a small part of the picture and the role of the CE, notably its Bishops, was a more dismal one.

The public campaign in Britain was started when the Quakers, led by a Philadelphian Quaker, William Dillwyn (my third great-grandfather), presented the first petition to Parliament against the trade in May I783. But the story does not begin there. A century previously Quakers were persecuted for their beliefs, including 450 who died in prison. (Since the Church of England and the State were more closely intertwined than today, it is fair to say that Anglicanism played a significant part in this.) Many, including William Dillwyn's grandfather, fled to the newly founded Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. No doubt their experience of exclusion and persecution helped sensitise the Quakers to the needs and suffering of slaves. In America many saw slavery at first hand.

Slavery in the American colonies was already well established when the British established their colonies and the new settlers, including those who emigrated for religious reasons, were soon involved in slaveholding and trading. Sadly Quakers also joined in, but since a fundamental belief for Quakers is that ALL are made in the image of God and are equal, involvement in slavery was always a controversial issue. Finally in 1761 the Society of Friends banned slave owning and slave trading, and any Quaker in Britain and the American colonies who did not comply was excluded from membership.

So where were the Anglicans during this time? To counter the growing criticism in Britain of slave owners in her colonies, a CE clergyman Robert Robertson produced the first publications (1730-40) defending the 'misunderstood' slave owners. His argument claimed that slavery was an economic necessity to compete with French and Dutch planters; they deserved pity, not criticism, for having to engage in such an unpleasant task.

Missionary efforts were almost exclusively aimed at Christianising slavery and increasing the influence of Anglicanism, in the face of the more successful dissenters' missions. Clergy often shared the values and priorities of the planters on whom they were dependent to carry out their work; those who were critical faced impossible opposition. Slave owners were encouraged to make provision for slaves' spiritual welfare and were assured that slaves who converted to Christianity would become better slaves, even more willing to obey their Christian masters. Slaves were offered salvation in the life to come, not emancipation from slavery. Better treatment was encouraged to help Anglican missionary efforts. Slave owners were also encouraged to promote marriage among slaves to put an end to the sexual immorality that took place in slave quarters and offended British sensibilities.

Granville Sharp, grandson of an Archbishop of York and a high Anglican, believed slavery violated God's laws but he made little attempt to publicise the horrors of slavery, although he corresponded regularly with the American Quaker antislavery campaigner and writer Anthony Benezet. Sharp had some success in getting the legal ruling in 1772 'that as soon as a slave sets foot on English territory he becomes free.' But in 1779 his attempts to lobby the Bishops to introduce an abolition bill fell on deaf ears. Even if they disliked slavery, the Bishops regarded slavery as a commercial question so their public pronouncements were more likely to concern 'sinful amusements' in England. Indeed one writer states:

'The bench of bishops, with several important exceptions stood in support of the British slave trade until the date of its abolition'. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who was on the governing body of the CE's missionary arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, bemoaned the high death rate among the slaves in the Society's Codrington plantation (slaves were branded with the word Society) which necessitated the need for replacements, but did not ask 'why?'. Instead he wrote to a fellow bishop that 'we must take things as they are at present.'

However, some clergymen were getting the anti-slavery message. Dr Peter Peckhard, who had preached against the 'most barbarous and cruel traffic' in 1784, was made Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge in 1785 and set the title for the prestigious Latin essay prize, 'Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?' This was the famous competition won by Thomas Clarkson who, having little time to prepare the essay, drew almost all his information from Anthony Benezet's writings.  Clarkson, now a deacon in the CE, had found his vocation. The Quaker antislavery committee paid for the publication of Clarkson's essay.

At the same time another Anglican clergyman, James Ramsay, wrote and published an 'Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies'. As a former ship's doctor who then spent 2 decades in the colonies, he could speak from first hand experience. His work caused outrage. Slave owners countered by quoting the Bible and accused Ramsay of not being a Christian, of 'preaching his people out of church and mocking God's judgement', yet he inspired those who were to start the Evangelical campaign, which was to join with the Quakers and create an active campaign.

The Quaker anti-slavery committee recognised that they were still regarded as a fringe sect, and together with Clarkson aimed to recruit others. Hence the formation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which had on its founding Committee 9 Quakers and 3 Anglicans, Clarkson, Granville Sharp as Chair and one other. William Wilberforce joined later as parliamentary spokesman. The coming together of these people and groups represented the essentials for a public campaign. William Wilberforce's parliamentary contribution is the best documented, but could only have succeeded when joined with the others. Granville Sharp was a valued figurehead chairman, but in the language of today 'not a team player' and he rarely attended meetings. Clarkson travelled widely, collecting information about slavery and speaking out against it, a role which took considerable courage since he received many threats to his life. The Quakers ran the day to day business of the Society and produced much written material, often used by others such as William Wilberforce but unattributed. This may not have been an unfortunate oversight, but a political necessity as Quakers were still treated with a certain amount of suspicion. However, the Quakers' major role is still often ignored or undervalued today.

When the slave trade was abolished in British territories in 1807 it still left the institution of slavery very much alive. Many of those involved in the campaign against the slave trade felt slavery itself would now gradually erode, but this did not happen. In 1823 the core of the old Abolition Committee, including Clarkson, set up the 'London Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing Slavery throughout the British Dominions'. Clarkson again mobilised support and soon realised that the public was impatient for immediate abolition. Quakers were still as active as before, but the more democratic Methodists and other dissenters overtook the Anglican Evangelicals in active participation.

Finally the emancipation bill was passed in 1833 and the slave owners received compensation worth about 2.2 billion dollars today. The CE's Codrington plantation received nearly 1 million dollars in today's money - the slaves, of course, received no compensation for their bondage and suffering.

Quakers, whom the CE once persecuted as heretics, led the way in the abolition of slavery, and they are leading the way today in relation to sexuality. If the campaign against the slave trade teaches anything, it is not that Anglican unity brought abolition, but how dissenters and some Anglicans worked together to achieve change, while the CE leadership was inactive. The Windsor process would have blocked, not promoted, abolition.


Gillian Cooke is an Anglican priest who has worked as a chaplain in higher education,  industry, prisons and Rampton Hospital.