Wesley and the slave trade (4) What does Wesley actually do with Scripture?

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In the previous section, we noted three assertions that might be made about Wesley’s use of Scripture in support of a redemptive-movement position.  First, that Wesley would be willing to ignore texts if they didn’t fit his overall scheme.  Secondly, that he could change his view of Scripture based on experience.  Thirdly, that he was prepared to argue his case from outside Scripture.

We have already responded to the third assertion, indicating why Wesley might want to do this.  Later in this section, we will develop our response further by refining our understanding of how Wesley makes the extra-scriptural argument.  However, before we do that, we will consider each of the first two assertions in turn:

  • Does Wesley ignore those texts which do not fit his overall scheme?
  • Does Wesley change his understanding of Scripture in response to Experience?

4.1. Does Wesley ignore problematic Scripture verses?

The first assertion is based on Wesley’s preference to leave verses supporting predestination un-interpreted.[1]  It is worth noting, therefore, that, whatever we may think about his specific conclusions, when Wesley leaves the text un-interpreted; he is in line with the mainstream of Protestant hermeneutics in two respects

First, with regards to the “whole tenor of Scripture,” as Jones points out, this equates to the Analogy of Faith used by reformers such as Luther and is in line with contemporary assumptions that Biblical interpretation should be consistent the unifying narrative which the whole of Scripture tells.[2] We note in this respect that Wesley is concerned “not only [with] the whole scope and tenor of Scripture, but also to those particular texts which expressly declare, ‘God is love’.”[3]

Secondly, if by “had no sense at all” Wesley actually meant that some texts do not have a meaning then that might be problematic, not least because it would not fit with what else we know about his views on Scripture.  However, the wider context of the quotation shows that Wesley simply means that, in some cases, our present understanding may limit our ability to determine an accurate interpretation of the text.

This, then, is an approach of last resort.  Wesley’s preference as we see in “Thoughts” is to use appropriate methodology in order to ensure consistency between individual texts and “the overall tenor.” In so doing, Wesley shows the same concern for precision and careful definition associated with wider Protestantism.[4]

First, Wesley makes distinctions.  Early in the essay, Wesley states, “By slavery, I mean domestic slavery, or that of a servant to a master.”[5] This is an important distinction for the abolitionists so that Clarkson will also argue for “a general division of slavery into voluntary and involuntary.”[6] 

Wilberforce also makes such distinctions in his letter to his constituents arguing that the distinction between Jewish and Gentile slaves in the Old Testament was also relevant to the contemporary context.  It was only within the remit of the Jews to hold slaves on an involuntary basis.  They could do so because God intended to demonstrate the special nature of his relationship to his people.  However, the work of Christ on the Cross has removed the distinction between Jew and Gentile and therefore the permissibility of ever holding slaves.[7]

Secondly, he draws implications from one aspect of Biblical teaching.  1 Timothy 1:10 identifies “manstealers”[8] as among those who will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  In his explanatory notes, Wesley equates this term to the slave traders declaring them to be “the worst of all thieves, in comparison of whom, highwaymen and housebreakers are innocent.”[9]

Wesley treats this condemnation as not only applying to those who take slaves captive but rather to all those involved in the trade.[10] So, for example, he says that his appeal “equally concerns every merchant who is engaged in the slave-trade”[11]  because “it is you that induces the African villain to sell his countrymen”[12] and “every gentleman that has an estate in our American plantations; yea, all slave-holders, of whatever rank and degree.”[13]

 This is not about moving from a generic principle to specific examples but rather from one concrete situation to analogous ones.  The merchant and the buyer are as guilty as the original “manstealer”[14] who is mistreating his countrymen because they are encouraging and funding his activity so that they do what he does.  They are without excuse; they cannot claim even to turn a blind eye to what is happening – they are fully implicated.[15]

In other words, Wesley is using the faculty of Reason to interpret and understand Scripture in a coherent and consistent manner.

4.2. Does Wesley change his understanding of Scripture in response to Experience?

Earlier, we noted that when Wesley talks about experience, he normally means an objective outworking of Scripture, common to all believers.  However, this does not rule out the possibility that subjective experience plays some part in shaping his views.  For example, as we saw earlier, his own conversion experience influences his interpretation of Romans 8:15.

Then we have the problem of his explanation of Exodus 21:20 where he seems to treat the Jew-Gentile distinction as comparable to the Christian-Heathen distinction in a way that justifies slavery.  This interpretation would be both incompatible with his later opposition to slavery and with Wilberforce’s treatment of the Jew-Gentile distinction as outlined above.

There are, however, three considerations which should qualify our understanding of Wesley’s use of experience here.  First, we need to consider the circumstances in which his explanatory notes are produced.  After writing his notes on the New Testament Wesley came under some pressure to provide an equivalent for the Old Testament.  However, he was greatly reluctant because of “my insufficiency for such a work, of my want of learning, of understanding, of spiritual experiences.” [16]  It was not just that he saw the task as beyond his own knowledge, but he also complains of “the want of time,”[17] adding “not only as I have a thousand other employments, but as my day is near spent, as I am declined into the vale of years.”[18]

Although Wesley thinks that other existing works are more than suitable, he is persuaded that there is a need to make such knowledge available to the wider public at an affordable price.  Thus he goes ahead but relies heavily on the works of Matthew Poole and Matthew Henry[19].  The extent to which he relies upon Henry may be seen by setting Wesley and Henry’s comments on Exodus 21:20 side by side

WesleyHenry
Direction is given what should be done, if a servant died by his master’s correction. This servant must not be an Israelite, but a Gentile slave, as the Negroes to our planters; and it is supposed that he smite him with a rod, and not with any thing that was likely to give a mortal wound, yet if he died under his hand, he should be punished for his cruelty, at the discretion of the judges, upon consideration of circumstances. [20]  Direction is given what should be done if a servant died by his master’s correction. This servant must not be an Israelite, but a Gentile slave, as the negroes to our planters; and it is supposed that he smite him with a rod, and not with any thing that was likely to give a mortal wound; yet, if he died under his hand, he should be punished for his cruelty, at the discretion of the judges, upon consideration of circumstances.[21]  

It can be seen that Wesley has simply abridged Henry, providing a word for word reproduction of his first sentence.[22]

However, Wesley does not always follow Henry.  On Leviticus 19:20-22, Henry claims that the one who “has sexual relations with a woman who is a slave” is treated differently than in the case of a free woman

“for the honour of freedom that it should not be punished as the debauching of a free woman was, so great was the difference then made between bond and free.”[23]

Wesley clearly is unhappy with this and instead insists that

“The reason of this difference is not from any respect which God gives to persons, for bond and free are alike to him, but because bond – women were scarce wives, and their marriages were scarce true – marriages, being neither made by their choice, but their masters authority, nor continued beyond the year of release, but at her master’s or husband’s pleasure.”[24]

Therefore, Wesley does not slavishly follow Henry.  However, more often than not, he keeps his wording.   So first and foremost, the Explanatory Notes are another man’s work which has been abridged.  One of Wesley’s intentions in producing this was to make Henry’s work  more widely available to those who could not buy it themselves, which helps to explain why he fails to comment on so many relevant verses.[25] Where possible, he makes amendments but the constraints of time and his own perceived inadequacies mean that more often than not he simply reproduces Henry.

Secondly, thus far, we have not talked about the fourth aspect of the quadrilateral, Tradition.  The temptation, post John Henry Newman, is to think of this in terms of the Church developing theology in response to Reason and Experience[26].  However, we need to remember that Wesley writes pre-Newman so this is unlikely to be his understanding of tradition.  Instead, by Tradition he means ‘what is the mind of the whole church on this?’  He is particularly interested in what the Anti-Nicene Fathers said.  So what he is saying is that tradition is ‘what the church has always thought.’

Now look at what he does with regards to slavery.  Wesley insists that “after Christianity prevailed, [the trade] gradually fell into decline in almost all parts of Europe.”[27]  So Wesley sees slavery as something that the Church has historically been against.  His views here are in line with Clarkson’s, who argues that the doctrine of human equality before God is a Christian one which “could not fail of having their proper influence on those, who first embraced Christianity, from a conviction of its truth; and on those of their descendents afterwards.”[28]  He goes on to say “we have a positive proof that the feudal system had no share in the honour of suppressing slavery, but that Christianity was the only cause; for the greatest part of the charters which were granted for the freedom of slaves in those times.”[29]

Thus Wesley’s point is that the abolitionists are not the innovators.  This means that even insofar as his own experience impacts upon his understanding of Scripture, he expects this to be in line with the mind of the church.  Reason and Experience do not give him access to new knowledge which hasn’t always been available to the church.

Wesley and Clarkson have found support from contemporary historian, Rodney Stark who argues that it was Christianity that made significant contributions to the growth of modern civilization.  Stark says that: “Just as science arose only once, so too, did effective moral opposition to slavery.  Christian theology was essential to both.”[30]  He goes on to acknowledge that:

“This is not to deny that the early Christians condoned slavery.  It is to recognise that of all the world’s religions, including the three great monotheisms, only in Christianity did the idea develop that slavery was sinful and must be abolished.”[31]

The point is this. 

“Although it has been fashionable to deny it, antislavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe.”[32]

And in fact:

“When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently ‘lost’ from history until recently.”[33]

Although, it is also worth reflecting that the Medieval religious environment saw the church sought to exploit superstition and fear among people for profit, putting a monetary value on souls through the imposition of indulgences and such like.  Such an environment where against Wesley’s argument lives were valued in financial terms and where the church hierarchy in effect exercised ownership over others is exactly the sort of environment in which slavery could flourish.  A spiritual reformation was needed before Christians would be properly equipped to lead an ethical revolution.

Thirdly, even within his official definition of Experience, Wesley would not want to exclude the sense that this Experience will lead to a growth in knowledge of God and understanding of Scripture.  As he explains in “Christian Perfection,” “it should be premised that there are several stages in Christian Life as well as in natural.”[34]   Therefore, he himself would have no problem with acknowledging change and development in his position.  However, for Wesley this reflects the frailty of human understanding rather than some lack within Scripture itself.[35]  His understanding of Scripture, Reason and Tradition means that the insights of experience are not private to the individual; they do not result in a new perspective unavailable to the wider public, nor do they result in new knowledge not already available in Scripture for the discerning reader.  For Wesley, it remains true that Scripture governs experience and not the other way round.[36]

4.3. The Relationship of the Extra-scriptural argument to Scripture

We argued above that Wesley’s appeal to Natural Justice did not in itself imply a “Two Kingdoms” approach to the public sphere.  As stated earlier, this is demonstrated by the way that Wesley’s argument does interact with Scripture.

This interaction may not be immediately obvious.  The contemporary reader will search in vain for reference to chapter and verse.  However, because one of Wesley’s maxims was to “speak as the oracles of God,”[37] what we might find are frequent, un-signposted quotations and allusions.[38]

We have already seen such an example in the way that Wesley draws out the implications for those who purchase and own slaves; they benefit from and ‘induce’ those who “steal, rob, murder men, women, and children.”[39]  Indeed, Wesley’s final appeal is saturated in scriptural quotes and allusions.  To name but some:  First, he insists that those who have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of mercy, nor the revealed law of God,) render unto all their due.”[40]  Secondly, he warns that their wrongdoing will be punished, quoting Jesus when he says “that day it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for you!”[41] Thirdly, he appeals to their better conscience with the words “to-day, if you will hear his voice, harden not your heart.”[42]

Given that the final appeal is anchored in scriptural reasoning, this strengthens our argument that the setting aside of Scripture was a mere tactical move.  Even within that limited context, one may well argue that the appeal to justice and mercy are far from being Scripture neutral.  In a historical context where a rich Christian heritage remained in place and the very legal system was rooted in the Bible, it would be reasonable to argue that Wesley was assuming a common understanding of what those words meant, not by reference to Natural Law but to a sub-conscious awareness of Scripture.[43]

We may surmise, then, that Wesley’s personal experiences and reading do impact his understanding of slavery. He does change his position on slavery.  However, this is in the sense of Reason and Experience interacting with Scripture with Scripture as the final authority, not in the sense of four authorities together with Reason and Experience speaking separately to or controlling Scripture.


[1] Wesley provides no comment on a significant number of slavery related texts including:  Exodus 12:44; 21:5; 21:21; 21:26-27; Leviticus 22:11; 25:44-46; Deut 5:15 and 15:18.

[2] Jones, John’s Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, 46.

[3] Wesley, Sermons III, 552.

[4] Richard A Muller, Post Reformation Dogmatics VolumeOne: Prologomea to Theology  (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1987), 18.  The archetype example of such careful distinguishing would be Francis Turretin.  See, for example, how he sets out question 11 in his “Institutes” as “Whether there is a natural law, and how it differs from the moral law.  The former we affirm, the latter we distinguish.”  Turretin, Francis, Institutes, XI.1.1. (Giger, 2.1).  In addition, one may wish to consider Baxter’s approach in his Christian Directory where he explains that he will endeavour to be “competently exact in the directions” and to “speak to many cases because I speak to many families, where all are not in the same condition.” Baxter, Christian Directory, 7-8. 

[5] Wesley, Thoughts upon Slavery, (I.1), 3.

[6] Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, 3.

[7] Wilberforce, A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 318-319.

[8] Contemporary versions such as the NRSV actually use the word “slave-traders.”

[9] Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 772.

[10] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.4-V.6), 47-52.

[11] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.4), 47.

[12] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.4), 47-48.

[13] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.5), 49.

[14] Usually and conveniently for the apologists for the trade these were the slaves’ fellow Africans. See Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.4), 48.

[15] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.5), 49.

[16] He records his protest in the Preface to the notes.  See Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament (3 Vols.; London: William Pine, 1765) 1. iii.

[17] Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, 1.iii.

[18] Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, 1.iii.

[19] He comments on Henry that “It is too large a purchase but there are thousands who would rejoice to have it.”  Thus Wesley’s central motive for producing the “Explanatory Notes” appears to have been to put such works into the hands of the wider public at an affordable price. Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, 1.iv.

[20] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament, 1.272.

[21] Matthew Henry, An Exposition on the Old and New Testament, Volume 6 (London: James Nisbit, 1706), [No page Numbers].

[22] Henry, in his own unabridged version, continues to say “But, if he continued a day or two after the correction given, the master was supposed to suffer enough by losing his servant. Our law makes the death of a servant, by his master’s reasonable beating of him, but chance-medley. Yet let all masters take heed of tyrannizing over their servants; the gospel teaches them even to forbear and moderate threatenings, considering with holy Job, What shall I do, when God riseth up?” Henry, An Exposition on the Old and New Testamen,t [No Page Numbers].

[23]  Henry, An Exposition on the Old and New Testament.

[24] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament, 1.410.

[25] See Section 3.1 footnote 1.

[26] Newman’s approach to tradition is exemplified in his understanding of Apostolic succession leading to the clergy having the ability to innovate with regards to doctrine as demonstrated by them receiving the gift of “binding and loosing.” Newman, John Henry. “Tract 7: The Episcopal Church Apostolical.” in Vol. 1 of Tracts for the Times. 1833-34. (Ed by Members of Oxford University.   London: J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1840), 3. I am in agreement with Jones here.  See Jones, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, 64.

[27] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (I.3), 5.

[28] Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, 16.

[29] Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, 16.

[30] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch Hunts and the End of Slavery (Princeton University Press. 2004), 291.

[31] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 291.

[32] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 291.

[33] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 291.

[34] There, Wesley compares Christian development to child development: “some of the children of God being but new born babes, others having attained to more maturity.”  John Wesley, Sermons II: 34-70, 102.

[35]He states “No one is so perfect in this life as to be free from ignorance. Nor…from mistake. Wesley, Sermons II: 34-70, 101. And further “With regards to the Holy Scriptures themselves, as careful as they are to avoid it, the best of men are liable to mistake…Hence even the children of God are not agreed as to the interpretation of many places in Holy Writ.” Wesley, Sermons II: 34-70, 102.

[36]Jones, John’s Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, 100.

[37] On 1 Peter 4:11, see Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, 884-885.  Cited in Jones, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, 111. See also a letter dated 19th February 1777 to Mrs Barton. John Wesley, The Letters of John Wesley, 6.256.

[38] Jones, John’s Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture, 131.

[39] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.4), 48.

[40] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.6), 51-52.

[41] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.3), 47.

[42] Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery, (V.3), 47.

[43] This would be another example of the risks of anachronistically reading back into Wesley a contemporary treatment of Natural Law as independent from Revealed Law.  Rather, even for Aquinas, the existence of Natural Law does not exclude the need for revelation to enable men to understand God’s divine Law.  See e.g.  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae.  Volume 29.  The Old Law  (Translated and Edited by David Booke and Arthur Littledale; London, Blackfriars, 1969), 2.100.1-3 (Booke and Littledale, 29. 57-59).