The Saints Go Marching

The 18th century may seem like ancient history. But today's antislavery activists can learn a lot from the campaigners who, within a few short years, created a mass movement in Britain that swayed first public opinion and finally Parliament to abolish the slave trade and later slavery itself within the British Empire.

They overcame many of the obstacles faced by activists in our world: lobbying by elites invested in the status quo, a legislature that delayed action in favor of "further study," and a reactionary wartime political climate, to name a few. And, as Adam Hochschild points out in his lively abolitionist history Bury the Chains, antislavery organizers pioneered many tactics used today: speaking tours, mass boycotts, local chapters of national groups, and voter guides, all to fight an unjust economic system with global reach.

Throughout the 1700s, many thinkers were against slavery—in theory. Plays and other forms of popular culture milked the plight of slaves for sentimental drama. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote a tract called "Thoughts on Slavery" in 1774 that proposed a boycott of slave-produced sugar and rum. Quakers went the furthest, banning slave owners from their denomination.

But a concerted, large-scale movement to end slavery seemed out of reach. Other than Wesley, many evangelicals, inside and outside the Church of England, spent the first four decades after the Great Awakening more interested in converting slaves than freeing them. John Newton, who penned the hymn "Amazing Grace," worked as a slave ship officer for six years after his conversion and did not publicly oppose the slave trade until he had been a minister for decades.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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