What does the British Methodist Church have to do with slavery?

by David Clough.

I find it a good rule of thumb to avoid writing in public about things I don’t know very much about. But a recent blog post by my friend and colleague Ben Fulford has reminded me of the question in my title, and I’m keen to pursue it. Ben reports on attending the Sam Sharpe Lecture, which is named after an enslaved Baptist deacon who was executed by British colonial authorities in Jamaica for his part in the Baptist rebellion of 1831–1832. The lecture series is part of a wider project of the Jamaican Baptist Union in partnership with the British Baptist Union and others with the aim of encouraging church engagement with racial justice.

This year’s lecture was given by Professor Verene Shepherd who spoke about the enslaved women who responded to Sam Sharpe’s call to rebellion and the punishments they suffered in response. She also challenged her audience with the case for the payment of reparations to address the continuing consequences of the legacy of enslavement in Caribbean nations. In response Professor Robert Beckford remarked that it’s no surprise that the Church of England fails to attract black and brown people when it fails to apologize or make reparations for its participation in genocide.

The British Baptist Union is not alone in taking steps to engage with its history in relation to the practice of slavery: in the UK Glasgow, Cambridge, and Bristol Universities have begun work to investigate their institutional complicity. Ben notes the uncomfortable challenge to the Church of England. I’m prompted to ask how far the British Methodist Church has examined its legacy in relation to slavery.

There’s some good news to tell here. Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797) was a freed slave who converted to Methodism and was the first political leader of Britain’s black community. He was the author of the influential work The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) and spoke widely in England on the need for the abolition of the slave trade. Equiano’s story is summarized in Paul Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press, 2010), and elsewhere. Fryer also reports the story of Francis Barber, who was born around 1735 in Jamaica, brought to England at the age of 15 or so, was freed and became secretary to Samuel Johnson. Barber’s son Samuel, named after Johnson, became a Primitive Methodist preacher in Staffordshire.

John Wesley met enslaved people for the first time when he visited Georgia in 1736–7. In 1774 he published ‘Thoughts on Slavery’ describing the cruel ways in which slaves were treated and calling for slavery to be abolished. He preached against slavery in Bristol — one of the leading slave ports — at the height of the abolition movement and had to be protected from the disturbance that followed. Decades later, the abolitionist commitment was still evident in the church: in 1860, English Wesleyans protested to their American counterparts against their holding of slaves, after the holding of slaves had led to the split of the American Methodist Church in 1844.

Beyond these snapshots, I’m aware that I’m not well-informed about how the Methodist Church in Great Britain engaged with slavery. Perhaps there is more to celebrate; perhaps there are more complex and compromised parts of the story. Whether one or both of these is the case, I’m convinced that getting better acquainted with our history in this area is an important part of what is necessary for the church to work to resist the racism that unhappily is still a feature of our church life. If you’re aware of places where this conversation is happening, or resources to inform the conversation, please respond in the comments. It seems to me that there’s work to do here.

2 thoughts on “What does the British Methodist Church have to do with slavery?”

  1. I’m grateful to Anthony Reddie via Twitter for pointing me to an article he wrote about the experience of Black British Methodists in this article: Anthony Reddie, ‘Not Just Seeing, But Really Seeing: A Practical Black Liberationist Spirituality for Re-interpreting Reality’, Black Theology: An International Journal, 7(3) (2009), pp. 339-365.

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