Wesley and the Slave Trade (2) Wesley’s argument against Slavery

As we have already seen, Wesley’s thoughts on the Slave Trade are essentially a close re-working of a tract by the Quaker, Anthony Benezet.  Wesley records in his Journal how he first came to read Benezet’s tract on Wednesday 12th February 1772.

“In returning, I read a very different book, published by an honest Quaker, on that execrable sum of all villainies, commonly called the Slave Trade.  I read of nothing like it in the heathen world, whether ancient or modern: And it infinitely exceeds in every instance of barbarity, whatever Christian slaves suffer in Mahometan countries.”[1]

Wesley was clearly struck by the force of the argument and so wanted to lend his name to it in order to ensure its wider dissemination.  The argument that Wesley and Benezet make is as follows.  First of all, they set out the historical background to African slavery.  They tell us that:

The beginning of this may be dated from the remotest period of which we have an account in history. It commenced in the barbarous state of society, and in process of time spread into all nations. It prevailed particularly among the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and the ancient Germans; and was transmitted by them to the various kingdoms and states which arose out of the Roman Empire. But after Christianity prevailed, it gradually fell into decline in almost all parts of Europe. This great change began in Spain, about the end of the eighth century; and was become general in most other kingdoms of Europe, before the middle of the fourteenth.”[2]

So, Wesley argues that Christianity had in effect already abolished slavery but then something changed:

“From this time slavery was nearly extinct till the commencement of the sixteenth century, when the discovery of America, and of the western and eastern coasts of Africa, gave occasion to the revival of it. It took its rise from the Portuguese, who, to supply the Spaniards with men to cultivate their new possessions in America, procured Negroes from Africa, whom they sold for slaves to the American Spaniards. This began in the year 1508.”[3]

Wesley then goes on to describe the situation in which the Africans lived prior to their enslavement.  He describes the natural condition of their homelands; Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast in glowing terms.  For example:

the soil is in general fertile, producing abundance of rice and roots. Indigo and cotton thrive without cultivation; fish is in great plenty; the flocks and herds are numerous, and the trees loaden with fruit.”[4]

Then he describes how the slaves were procured.  He tells us that fraud was often used with potential slaves being tricked onto the boats where they were then detained.[5]  He accuses the traders of stirring up trouble and violence in order to profit:

“by prevailing upon them to make war upon each other, and to sell their prisoners. Till then they seldom had any wars; but were in general quiet and peaceable. But the white men first taught them drunkenness and avarice, and then hired them to sell one another.”[6]

Notice two important subtexts here.  First of all, Wesley is arguing that tradition is against the slave-traders.  This type of slavery is a recent innovation.  The myth that we are rescuing the Africans from barbaric suffering is nonsense.[7]  Secondly, he seeks to destroy the myth that slavery was in a sense some kind of salvation for those bought and sold because they are rescued from barbaric conditions.  In fact, they are portrayed here as being removed from a pleasant, almost idyllic life to face humiliation, illness and the threat of death as they are branded, stripped naked and shipped in suffocating conditions.[8]

From there, Wesley goes on to deal with a central argument in favour of slavery, namely that it is supported by natural justice.  The basis for this argument is that it is legitimate to keep people captive as prisoners of war.  However, Wesley responds:

Slavery is said to arise from captivity in war. The conqueror having a right to the life of his captives, if he spares that, has then a right to deal with them as he pleases. But this is untrue, if taken generally, — that, by the laws of nations, a man has a right to kill his enemy. He has only a right to kill him in particular cases, in cases of absolute necessity for self-defence. And it is plain, this absolute necessity did not subsist, since he did not kill him, but made him prisoner.”[9]

It had also been suggested that slavery was legitimate because people had sold themselves into service.  Wesley comments

It is said, Secondly, slavery may begin by one man’s selling himself to another. And it is true, a man may sell himself to work for another; but he cannot sell himself to be a slave, as above defined. Every sale implies an equivalent given to the seller, in lieu of what he transfers to the buyer. But what equivalent can be given for life or liberty?”[10]

Finally, Wesley appeals to their consciences:

May I speak plainly to you? I must. Love constrains me; love to you, as well as to those you are concerned with. Is there a God? You know there is. Is he a just God? Then there must be a state of retribution; a state wherein the just God will reward every man according to his works. Then what reward will he render to you? O think betimes! before you drop into eternity! Think now, “He shall have judgment without mercy that showed no mercy.[11]

And further:

If, therefore, you have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of mercy, nor the revealed law of God,) render unto all their due. Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature.”[12]

Wesley’s motives were underpinned by Gospel imperatives so that he closes with a prayer for the slaves:

“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;”[13]


[1] Wesley, Journal Volume III, 453.

[2] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, I.3.

[3] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, I.4.

[4] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, II.5.

[5] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, III.1.

[6] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, III.2.

[7] So also in section IV.4. He challenges the suggestion that the Slave traders and owners are in some way acting mercifully towards the slaves.  John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery,IV.4.

[8] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, III.5-6.

[9] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, IV.3.

[10] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, IV.3.

[11] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, V.3.

[12] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, V.3.

[13] John Wesley Thoughts Upon Slavery, V.7.