John Wesley and the Slave Trade (1) Introduction

On the 2nd February 1807, the House of Commons voted in favour of the abolition of the slave trade.[1]  The celebration of the 200th anniversary of this event generated substantial interest in the subject of slavery, the history of abolition and the particular individuals involved, especially William Wilberforce.  Biographies were written, museum displays opened and there was even a Hollywood film released.[2]

The history of the abolition movement is a subject worthy of interest in its own right, not least because of the part played in it by leading Evangelicals such as Wilberforce.  However, our particular interest is in the way that the Abolitionists have been adopted by those involved in contemporary ethical debates such as questions about homosexuality and the role of women in church, home and the workplace. 

The dilemma posed to contemporary Evangelicals is this: what should we do when the Bible appears to set out a position at odds with and even repulsive to the cultural norms of contemporary society? A number of authors[3] have argued that the abolitionist approach provides a hermeneutical basis from which to resolve these questions.[4]  William Webb has christened this hermeneutical approach as the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic. [5]

1.1. The Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic

Webb’s central thesis is that not every scriptural injunction is to be applied universally.  Whilst some injunctions invite trans-cultural application, others are limited in their scope to the particular context.[6]  The purpose of the hermeneutical model is to enable the reader to choose between the two.  Webb argues that the overall narrative of Scripture shows a movement in favour of redemption.  Included within the idea of redemption must be freedom from oppressive cultural environments.[7]

Therefore, the models start by looking at where the Bible text stands in relation to the culture of its time and the culture of the reader.  It may be assumed that in certain cases the scriptural injunction will result in better treatment of people than the culture of the day; however, that treatment may still be inferior to what is suggested by contemporary culture.[8]  If this is the case, then the application of the injunction is likely to be culturally constrained.  Webb then suggests a further set of clues from within Scripture that will confirm this to be the case.[9] Additionally, the reader should consider extra-biblical clues such as science and social science.[10]

In other words, morality can be portrayed as in the diagram above progressing with time.  Scripture contributes to that progression –indeed even escalating it.  However, the progression continues after the completion of the canon of Scripture.  This means that rather than simply looking at what the Bible says at any given point, we should attempt to trace out the trajectory of moral travel which Scripture places us on.

Webb is adamant that the abolitionists followed such a hermeneutic, arguing that:

“Whether the labels for the approach are the same or different, debates about slavery, polygamy, monarchy, etc, have always had one side of the church appealing to a redemptive-movement hermeneutic (call it what you like) and the other side appealing to a static hermeneutic.” [11]

1.2. John Wesley and Slavery

In 1774, John Wesley published “Thoughts upon Slavery”[12] which he based closely on the work of a Quaker, Anthony Benezet. [13]  The work divides into five sections.  After introducing the topic and setting its scope, the second and third sections provide an account of the history of the trade including a description of the socio-economic and political conditions in Africa in comparison to the treatment of slaves once captured.  The fourth and fifth sections provide the main argument responding first to the argument that the trade is justified with respect to reason, mercy and necessity before Wesley appeals to the hearts of those involved in the trade.

Further evidence for Wesley’s position on slavery may be gleaned from his journal, sermons and his Explanatory Notes on both Testaments. 

There are good historical reasons for conducting a study on Wesley’s argument for abolition considering his position in the Evangelical Awakening and his influence on Wilberforce, Newton and others.[14] However, I would suggest that Wesley has particular relevance for the hermeneutical question.

1.3. Wesley and the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic

Wesley has long been associated with a hermeneutical approach which sets Scripture alongside reason, experience and tradition as the four sources of authority.[15]  

If reason here means “what within your culture you consider reasonable”[16] then one can quickly see how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral might be compatible with a Redemptive-Movement-Hermeneutic.

Thus, if we wanted to argue for a Redemptive-Movement-Hermeneutic in Wesley’s approach, we might start with Wesley as one whom, it is claimed, “explicitly refrains from using the Bible as a basis for discussion”[17] when opposing slavery.

We would go on to argue that Wesley does this because he recognises the following things:

  1. Natural Justice, as understood in his contemporary culture, demonstrated the injustice of slavery.  Thus, his culture offered a solution better than the Bible’s toleration of some forms of slavery.
  2. The “overall tenor” of Scripture shows a redemptive movement, thus away from slavery.
  3. However, the Biblical data fails to support “the overall tenor.”

Therefore Wesley, realising that the general principles of Scripture take him to a position which he cannot argue from the detail of Scripture, argues instead from Reason.

I am going to argue against this thesis.  Instead, I want to suggest that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is anachronistic when applied to Wesley himself.  Wesley recognised Scripture as the sufficient and final authority. Wesley in his own words was “homo unius libri”  “a man of one book”[18] This was not, of course, in the sense of ignorance about other literature but in the sense that Scripture is the authority that everything else must take account of. 

 Thus, as Jones says, “the introduction of geometric metaphors is a mistake from the start.”[19] Scripture does not sit alongside other authorities; rather,

“For Wesley the elements are defined in such a way that they constitute one locus of authority with five aspects.  Christian faith and practice are governed by Scripture, which is reasonable in its claims, exemplified in antiquity, vivified in personal experience, and most fully institutionalized in the Church of England.”[20]

But this appears to leave us with a problem.  If Wesley was “homo unius libri” then assuming that Marquadt’s claim is true, why does Wesley argue from Reason, not Scripture?

Therefore, in order to prove our thesis, I would suggest that we need to answer the following two questions

  • Why does Wesley appear to base a significant element of his case on arguments from outside of Scripture?
  • What does Wesley actually do with Scripture in his argument? 

[1] See William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (London: Harper Perennial), 2008, xv-xviii.

[2] Amazing Grace (2007) Directed by: Michael Apted, Walden Media.

[3] See e.g. William Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press), 2001, Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Eerdmans 2007) and I Howard Marshall, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage,” in Discovering Biblical Equality (ed. Ronald W Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Grothuis and Gordan D Fee Downers Grove, Il.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 186-204.

[4] This is not to say that there is agreement between contemporary authors on what the results of such a hermeneutic would be in terms of the answers to the question.  Thus, there seems to be wide agreement that this hermeneutic offers support to egalitarian positions on womanhood.  However, Webb remains conservative on homosexuality, although a number of authors are willing to move further on this point. See for example Vasey, Strangers and Friends, a New Exploration of Homosexuality and the Bible  (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1995), 13-14.  See also, Via, Dan O.  “The Bible, the Church and Homosexuality.” Pages 1-39 in Dan O Via and Robert A J Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible, Two Views. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

[5] Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 16.

[6] Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 24.

[7] See Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 35-38.

[8] Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 31.

[9] See Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 69-70.

[10] See especially chapter 7. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 209-235.

[11] Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 35.

[12] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, (London: R Hawes, 1774).

[13] Manfred Marquadt, John Wesley’s Social Ethics:  Praxis and Principles.  Translated by John E Steely and W. Stephen Gunter. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 73.

[14] See e.g. Hague, Wilberforce, 9-14.  See also John Pollock, Wesley The Preacher, (Repr. Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1989), 240-242.

[15] For a good example of this account of Wesley’s Hermeneutics see Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2000), 112-113.  Johnston develops the hermeneutical approach for the purpose of contemporary cultural analysis in order to provide a framework for his analysis of the medium of film.

[16] Johnston, Reel Spirituality, 113.

[17] Marquadt, John Wesley’s Social Ethics, 74.

[18]  John Wesley, Sermons I: 1-33 (Vol 1 of The Works of John Wesley; Edited by Albert C. Outler, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1985), 105. Cited in Jones, John’s Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, 3.

[19] Scott J Jones, John’s Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon, 1995), 64.

[20] Note that Jones modifies the model slightly by the separation of Tradition into two parts; first ‘antiquity’ meaning the writings of the church fathers and then the position of the Church of England at the time, hence the reference to “five aspects” as opposed to four.   Jones, John’s Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, 64.