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Romanticism and Slave Narratives:
Transatlantic Testimonies

by Helen Thomas

Chapter One: The English Slave Trade and Abolitionism

  1. From the earliest stages of its history, Methodism was a transatlantic phenomenon. Representatives of the evangelical movement, including John Wesley and George Whitefield, crisscrossed the Atlantic during a fertile period of exchange and reassessment. In 1729, Jonathan Edwards became a full minister in Northampton, New England. During the winter of that year his congregation experienced an extraordinarily intense crescendo of religious zeal, accounts of which spread to other communities throughout the American colonies and to Great Britain. [54] This religious fervour, which made Edwards something of a celebrity, was, however, short-lived. Its revival was reinstigated with the arrival of the enigmatic preacher, George Whitefield, who received his ordination in England in 1738 and who was inspired by the missionary labours of the Wesley brothers ( John and Charles) in the newly founded colony of Georgia, North America. Preaching in open fields, Whitefield criticised the national clergy and claimed that he himself was a recipient of direct guidance from the Holy Spirit. Whitefield's mode of itinerant preaching and persuasive powers of oratory influenced scores of ministers and established the revivalist period of `Great Awakening' wherein emotional outbursts were identified as the work of God's spirit and the harbingers of a millennial age. Whitefield, however, approved of black slavery and kept slaves himself. In 1748, he with others, urged the trustees of Georgia to introduce slavery into the colony, arguing that without it, Georgia would `never prosper'. [55]

  2. John Wesley, ordained in 1725, had served as his father's curate in Lincolnshire before taking over the leadership of a religious study group known as the `Methodists'. In 1735 he agreed to assume spiritual leadership of the new colony of Georgia and from the time of his own spiritual experience of May 1738, a moment during which he claimed he felt his heart `strangely warmed' (`An assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death'), Wesley's wide-ranging missionary zeal took him to Oxford, London and Bristol, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland and Ireland. [56] Although Wesley claimed that he had set out to revive the spiritual life of the Church of England, his `Methodism' quickly took on a character of its own and his preaching of `salvation by faith' succeeded in establishing an independent `connexion' of itinerant preachers and churches. [57] Wesley's style of preaching transgressed eighteenth-century taboos against extemporary prayer and lay-leadership and promoted a `plain-style' of oral preaching. [58] As he commented in a sermon of 1746, this mode of plain-speaking translated into text was an attempt to write `as I generally speak, ad populum, to the bulk of mankind'.

    I design plain truth for plain people . . . I labour to avoid all words which are not easy to be understood, all which are not used in common life . . . I am persuaded that, on the one hand, this may be a means of enabling me more clearly to express the sentiments of my heart . . . without entangling myself with those of other men . . . I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart . . . I am a spirit come from God and returning to God. [59]

    In terms of its immediacy and accessibility, Wesley's emphasis on plain oracy and self-reflection provided an important model for literary expressions of identity employed by Methodists, Romantics and slaves alike.


  4. The Religious Society of Friends, or `Quakers' as they were called by their first leader, George Fox, emerged in seventeenth-century England and America, during the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, as an inward intensification of the radical and spiritual forms of Puritanism. According to Fox, within all men, including heathens, there resided a principle of God capable of leading one to salvation. A central feature of Quakerism therefore was its concern with personal conviction and the possibility of `truth' inwardly revealed. For Fox, Quakerism embodied a `spiritual movement', a movement which highlighted the innate capacity of the human soul and advocated a belief in the purely inward nature of true baptism and communion, and the fulfilment of biblical events within the duration of an individual's lifetime. Influential Quaker theological texts included George Fox's Journal, or an Historical Account of the Life, Travels, Sufferings, Christian Experience and Labour of Love in the Ministry of George Fox (1694); John Woolman's Journal of the Life, Gospel Labours and Christian Experience (1776); William Penn's No Cross, No Crown (1669) and Robert Barclay's Apology for the True Christian Divinity, As the Same is Held Forth by the Quakers (1678). [60]

  5. Across the Atlantic, the Philadelphian Quakers John Woolman and Anthony Benezet played a crucial role in persuading the Friends to disassociate themselves from both the slave trade and slaveholding itself. In 1753, the tailor and scribe Woolman made the assertive gesture of refusing to transcribe wills for those Quakers who intended to bequeath slave property. In a letter to the Philadelphia Society Yearly Meeting, Woolman rearticulated his concern over the Quakers' increasing involvement in slavery and published his text, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (Philadelphia, 1754) accordingly. In this tract, Woolman extended the Quaker concept of the brotherhood in Christ to a critique of slavery—`To consider Mankind otherwise than Brethren . . . plainly supposes a Darkness in the understanding'—and in an even more radical gesture, coalesced the concept of salvation with that of the Divine's imminent deliverance of the slaves: `Negroes are our Fellow Creatures . . . The Parent of Mankind . . . gives deliverance to the oppressed'. [61] As a response to Woolman's text and his criticism, the Philadelphia Society sanctioned a motion prohibiting slaveholders from acquiring positions of authority within the Church, a move that was similarly supported by the London Quakers in 1761. This strategic severance from slave ideology in the context of spiritual guidance played an important role in Woolman's autobiographical A Journal of the Life, Gospel Labours and Christian Experience of that Faithful Minister of Jesus Christ, John Woolman (1776), a text in which the expression of identity was fused with literary and polemical tactics. In this text, Woolman described his personal spiritual development, including the visitations of what he termed his blessed `experience of the goodness of God', and elucidated his ultimate rejection of the slave trade in terms of its incompatibility with Christianity—`I said . . . that I believed Slave Keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion'. [62] More importantly perhaps, the author ascribed the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Friends' resolution to actively withdraw themselves from the trade as a direct manifestation of spiritual guidance:

    We . . . have found it to be our duty to cease from this national Contest productive of misery and Bloodshed, and submit our Cause to him . . . And we, through the gracious Dealings of the Lord our God, have had Experience of that Work which is carried in, `not by earthly Might, nor by Power, but by my Spirit', saith the Lord of Hosts. [63]

  6. In his tract, The Case of Our Fellow-Creatures, the Oppressed Africans, Respectfully Recommended to the Serious Consideration of the Legislature of Great Britain published in London in 1784, Anthony Benezet, speaking as a representative of the `People called Quakers', similarly stressed the Society's obligation to `bear a public testimony' against a species of oppression `long exercised upon the natives of Africa'. [64] Benezet condemned the commercial motives of the English nation's `system of tyranny' and argued that it would have been more in keeping with the `avowed principles of Englishmen' had they advanced a national programme aimed at establishing the heathen's conversion to Christianity: `to incline them to receive the glad tidings of the gospel'. [65] Although the underlying suggestion of Benezet's work prescribes an advancement of expansionist colonialism these `Quaker' texts demonstrate the emergence of a significant strain of antislavery ideology set within the framework of radical dissenting Protestantism. In May 1783, Quakers in London presented a petition against the trade to the Houses of Parliament. In 1787, with the aid of members from other dissenting groups, the Quakers founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, possibly because many Quaker families had profited substantially from their involvement in the trade and considered their participation in the abolitionist campaign a means of alleviating their guilt. [66]

  7. One splinter group of the Quakers, known as the `Shaking Quakers' or `Shakers', highlighted a more enigmatic form of the Quaker commitment toward `spiritual' regeneration. Led by two Quakers, Jane and James Wardley, who embraced the millennial teachings of the biblical prophets, the Shakers were established in Manchester in 1747. As their name implied, the Shakers encouraged uninhibited participation in their unstructured, emotional forms of worship and interpreted the spiritual visitation experienced during such meetings as confirmation of Christ's imminent second coming. Heralding celibacy as an essential requirement of salvation, the nucleus of the Shaker community moved to America in 1774. There, under the charismatic leadership of Anne Lee, a former Manchester factory worker who had joined the Shakers at the age of twenty- three, the Shakers set up a self-contained community in Watervleit, New York. Although they never specifically aligned themselves to any overt demands for abolition, the philosophical and practical ideologies of the Shaker communities were essentially founded upon a belief in sexual and racial equality and their belief in prophetic forms of spiritual manifestation provided a more extreme articulation of the self-conscious expression characterised by radical dissenting Protestantism. Anticipating feminist critiques of religious institutions, in 1778 Lee declared herself to be `the first Mother, or spiritual parent in the line of the female' within whom the `Word' dwelt spiritually, the `second Eve' and second heir in the `covenant of life': `I am Anne the Word!'. During the 1780s and 1790s, Shakerism developed from being a charismatic movement to a structured organisation, characterised by the tenets of communal ownership, celibacy, pacifism and the establishment of parallel men and women's orders. [67] By the time of the sect's peak in the 1800s, the number of Shaker communities in America reached a total of eighteen, each with approximately 6,000 members. [68]


  9. In August 1782, acting on behalf of the Quakers in that state, the Philadelphia Meeting for Sufferings dispatched a letter to its London counterpart, urging it to use its influence to bring about a cessation of the slave trade. In the summer of 1783, the London Meeting for Sufferings approved a petition calling on Parliament to declare the slave trade illegal. In an effort to advance this cause, the London Quakers set up two embryonic antislavery societies whose main task over the next four years was to promote the antislavery campaign. This they achieved through the distribution within the metropolis and the provinces of abolitionist material and the circulation of petitions and tracts, including Joseph Wood's Thoughts on the Slavery of the Negroes (1786), Anthony Benezet's A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies (1766) and the London Meeting for Suffering's own text, The Cause of Our Fellow Creatures the Oppressed Africans (1784). [69]

  10. Strategically limiting its attentions to the abolition of the slave trade rather than the abolition of slavery itself, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade sought to establish active auxiliary organisations throughout the country in order to supplement the financial support it received from the Quakers. [70] This strategy was championed by Thomas Clarkson's series of lecture tours during 1787-1788 and his collation of extensive information about the slave trade. Having interviewed over two thousand seamen and examined numerous shipholds and naval records, Clarkson presented his evidence to the Privy Council on 27 July 1788, thereby endeavouring to persuade the government to establish other forms of commerce in Africa. [71] Clarkson's lectures, together with the publication of An Essay on Slavery and the Commerce of the Human Species (1789) and An Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade in Two Parts (1788), launched the Abolition Society as a significant public campaign. [72] In his Essay on Slavery, Clarkson denounced the African trade as `injustice and inhumane' while his Essay on Impolicy undertook to demonstrate that such a trade was as `impolitick' as it was inefficient:

    I shall shew first, that it is in the power of the planters, if they please, to do without fresh supplies from the coast: I shall then shew, that if the importation of slaves is prohibited, no such want will be found, but on the other hand, that the number of cultivators will increase; and, lastly, that both the planters, the slaves, and the islands, will be benefited by the change. [73]

  11. Two essential elements informing the success of the Society's campaign were firstly, its internationalist agenda and secondly, its links with the increasingly popular tenets of radical dissenting Protestantism. The informal relationship which already existed between British and American abolitionists were consolidated by the Society's correspondence with the leading antislavery groups in Philadelphia and New York, and subsequently with the establishment of Les Amis des Noirs in Paris in 1788. [74] Hence the strength of the Society's parliamentary campaign lay essentially within its `international' spiritual agenda as advanced by well-educated religious enthusiasts and political philanthropists, such as the Clapham Sect. These `Saints', as they were also known, consisted of a group of Evangelical Anglicans led by William Wilberforce, who dedicated themselves to the urgent moral and spiritual issues ignored by institutionalised Anglicanism. Wilberforce's own religious conversion, inspired after his reading of Philip Doddridge's Rise And Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745), had occurred during his grand tour of the Continent in 1783. In that tract, Doddridge had defined religion as a spiritual `sense of God on the Soul', an aspect of conscious self-reflection which Wilberforce was to fuse with political activism. [75] Soon after his conversion, Wilberforce was introduced to Clarkson, a meeting which inspired Wilberforce's collaboration with the abolition committee and culminated in his representation of the African cause to Parliament. On 12 May 1789, therefore, having recovered from a serious illness, Wilberforce presented his first motion for abolition. During his three-hour long presentation, Wilberforce concentrated on the damnation effected by England's participation in the slave-trade, and thereby suggested that the nation's spiritual regeneration might be achieved by its severance from the trade:

    We are all guilty—we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others . . . When we reflect it is we ourselves that have degraded them [the Africans] to that wretched brutishness and barbarity which we now plead as the justification of our guilt . . . What a mortification must we feel at having so long neglected to think of our guilt, or to attempt any reparation! [76]

    This extension of the `discourse' of spiritual renewal, on both national and individual terms, was fundamental to the success of the abolition campaign. It formed a sophisticated progression of the focus upon self-examination and articulation popularised by radical dissenting Protestantism, yet maintained an infectious, zealous stance. It was, therefore, a complex strategy; and one consequence of this fusion of spiritual and liberationist discourse within a nationalist framework (a kind of national self-authentication) was the inauguration of a renewed zeal for missionary ideology.


  13. As the son of the Anglican vicar, Samuel Wesley, and grandson of the famous Presbyterian divine, Samuel Annesley, John Wesley's birth-right metaphorically reunited the severance between Anglicans and Dissenters which had occurred at the beginning of the eighteenth century. [77] Raised by his mother as an elect son of the Puritans and instilled with his father's Anglican fear of the excesses of enthusiasm, John Wesley was sent to Charterhouse, then Oxford, and was finally ordained as a priest of the Church of England in 1728. At Oxford, Wesley became a member, and subsequently the leader, of a religious society which assembled on a regular basis to read the Greek Testament. Because of the rigorous intensity with which these individuals pursued their studies and performed their religious observances, this group of individuals became known collectively as the `Methodists'. As a group, these Oxford Methodists did not advance any drastic reformation of the doctrines of the Church. They were, however, strongly opposed to the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and election. Moreover, and most important to the dissemination of the language and ideology of radical dissenting Protestantism, these Methodists placed a vital emphasis upon their belief in the individual's personal experience of God's perfecting grace, a trait which was to become a major structural feature of narratives (by slaves and others) which combined polemical tactics with literary expressions of identity.

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