Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The abolition of reason slavery

I don't need to say very much about this, which comes from the Cambridge Papers of the Jubilee Centre, but here are some highlights:

The year 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament. The campaign for abolition was spearheaded by devout Christians, and it stands to this day as perhaps the finest political achievement of what would now be called faith-based activism.

Only gradually, from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, did a Christian abolitionist movement take shape. It began with American Quakers. As a perfectionist sect, the Quakers believed that true Christianity would be countercultural, but by the 1730s many owned slaves. Three remarkable figures, Benjamin Lay, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet , refused to accept this state of affairs. So tenacious were they in challenging their brethren that in 1754 the Philadelphia Quakers officially renounced the practice of slaveholding. Slavery was also coming under attack from Enlightenment philosophers like Montesquieu and Rousseau, but it was Christian activists who initiated and organised an abolitionist movement.

Once the British Abolition Committee was established in 1787, abolitionism quickly became a mass movement. In 1788–92, there was a media blitz and petitioning campaign timed to coincide with Wilberforce's Parliamentary bills...

In just one generation, there had been a sea-change in Christian attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Thirty years ago', wrote the American Jonathan Edwards Jr ., ‘scarcely a man in this country thought either the slave trade or the slavery of Negroes to be wrong'...

Clarkson and his allies succeeded because they produced compelling evidence of the cruelty of the trade, evidence presented to Parliament in a famous report and relayed to a wide audience in harrowing narratives of human suffering. But it is misleading to conclude (as does one recent account) that abolitionists realised that ‘the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings'. To say that ‘abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts, but in human empathy', [10] is to divorce two things that Christian abolitionists wedded together, and to ignore the evidence of antislavery texts. If religious argument did not stir people to action, why did abolitionists give it so much space? For in publication after publication, critics of the slave trade quoted Scripture and rooted their campaign in Christian values and ideals...

Christian social and political activism has made a major contribution to the culture of modernity. Too many opinion-makers today operate with a fundamentally erroneous picture of modern history – they assume that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment secularised society and constituted a clean break with a religious past. The reality is rather different [my italics and boldface]. As we have noted, a good deal of Enlightenment thought (especially in the Protestant world) still bore a Christian character, and Christian activism flourished during the ‘Age of Reason'. It has been a vital force ever since. The modern world can do without religious violence, but can it do without the Christian conscience?

I can't help but contrast this with what Richard Dawkins has to say:
It is more moral, [Dawkins] says, to do good for its own sake than out of fear. Morality, he says, is older than religion, and kindness and generosity are innate in human beings, as they are in other social animals. The irony is that science recognises the majesty and complexity of the universe while religions lead to easy, closed answers.

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