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John Wesley (1703-1791)

John Wesley (1703-1791)


John Wesley, the celebrated preacher and founder of the Methodist Church, was a life-long opponent of slavery. His biography is well known, and is told in many places, both on the web and in many published works, so this article will focus mainly on his activities as a campaigner against slavery. His opposition to slavery and the slave trade began long before the issue had received widespread attention, and was sustained throughout his life. Indeed, his attitudes to slavery were formed early. In 1736-7 Wesley visited the then British colony of Georgia in North America where he came into contact with slaves. At the same time, he read Thomas Southerne's play Oroonoko, which was based on Aphra Behn's novel of the same name, and which related the tragedy of Oroonoko, an African prince kidnapped and sold into slavery. On his return to England, he passed the time on the long transatlantic voyage by teaching a young black man, presumably a slave, how to read and write.

These experiences fostered in Wesley an abhorrence of slavery, but it was not an abhorrence he felt able to act upon. In his journal, Wesley records meeting with people involved in the slave trade - including the slave-ship captain John Newton, now more famous as the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace". Newton's conversion to Christianity was later followed by a conversion to anti-slavery, but it is not recorded if he and Wesley discussed the issue. In 1772, the Somerset case, brought before the courts by Granville Sharp, put slavery in the news. Wesley, putting aside Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey (a book he described as marked by: "oddity, uncouthness, and unlikeness to all the world") took up instead Some historical account of Guinea, a work of anti-slavery by the Philadelphia Quaker, Anthony Benezet. Wesley recorded his thoughts in his journal:

Wed. 12.-In returning I read a very different book, published by an honest Quaker, on that execrable sum of all villanies, 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.
Clearly Benezet's work, and Lord Mansfield's deliberations in the case of James Somerset, gave Wesley some disquiet for, two years later, in 1774, he issued a short pamphlet called Thoughts Upon Slavery which went into four editions in two years. The pamphlet follows Benezet's work in many respects, discussing African topology and society, the method of procuring and transporting slaves, and the brutality of plantation life before advancing legal and moral arguments against both slavery and the slave trade. Wesley shows "that all slavery is as irreconcileable to Justice as to Mercy" before concluding, first with a direct address to the slave-trader and slave-owner, and finally with a prayer. The direct address is worth reproducing at length, as Wesley attacks the slave-trader with considerable passion:
Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as Compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no Sympathy? No sense of human woe? No pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now? If you do not, you must go on, till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the Great GOD deal with You, as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your hands.
Wesley remained actively opposed to slavery until his death. In August 1787, he wrote to the Abolition Committee to express his support, and he pledged to reprint Thoughts Upon Slavery in "a new large edition". For some reason this fifth edition did not appear until 1792, a year after Wesley's death. In 1788, when the abolition campaign was at its height, he preached a sermon in Bristol, one of the foremost slave trading ports. In such a location, at such a time, an anti-slavery sermon could not have been preached without considerable personal risk to the preacher. Indeed, during the sermon a disturbance took place which Wesley recorded in his journal:
About the middle of the discourse, while there was on every side attention still as night, a vehement noise arose, none could tell why, and shot like lightening through the whole congregation. The terror and confusion were inexpressible. You might have imagined it was a city taken by storm. The people rushed upon each other with the utmost violence; the benches were broke in pieces, and nine-tenths of the congregation appeared to be struck with the same panic.
Wesley ascribed the confusion to "some preternatural influence. Satan fought, lest his kingdom should be delivered up." A more likely cause, perhaps, was a plot by slave-traders, anxious to disrupt a piece of abolitionist rhetoric being sounded deep in their territory. How strong this rhetoric was is impossible to tell as the 1788 sermon has not survived. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that it was based in some measure on his pamphlet Thoughts Upon Slavery which was strongly argued. Wesley maintained an interest in the abolition movement until the end: on his death-bed, he was reading the Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, a text which Wesley discussed in his last letter - to William Wilberforce - written six days before he died, on 2 March 1791.

  © Brycchan Carey 2002


Selected Works

  • Thoughts Upon Slavery (London: R. Hawes, 1774)

  • Full text of Thoughts Upon Slavery, with an image of the title page, from the Documenting the American South project.

  • Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., Bicentenary Issue, 8 vols, ed Nehemiah Curnock (London: The Epworth Press, 1938)

  • Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., 8 vols, ed John Telford (London: The Epworth Press, 1931)

  • Kitson, Peter, et al, eds, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999), 8 vols. (Contains Thoughts Upon Slavery)

  • The Political Writings of John Wesley, ed. Graham Maddox (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1998). (Contains Thoughts Upon Slavery) | Available from: Amazon.com (USA) | Amazon.co.uk (UK and Ireland) |

Secondary Works: Biography and Special Studies

  • Carey, Brycchan, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment,and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). I discuss Wesley at pages 145-51. Click here for more information

  • Carey, Brycchan, 'John Wesley's "Thoughts Upon Slavery" and the Language of the Heart', The Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 86:3 (Autumn 2004), 269-84. (Download this article in full as a PDF [1.5mb])

  • Green, V.H.H., John Wesley (London and New York: University Press of America, 1987). Useful, academic biography.

  • Hattersley, Roy, John Wesley: A Brand From The Burning: The Life of John Wesley (London: Little, Brown, 2003). By far the best biography of recent years. | Available from: Amazon.com (USA) | Amazon.co.uk (UK and Ireland) |

  • Pollock, John, Wesley the Preacher (London: Lion, 1989). Readable, popular biography. | Available from: Amazon.com (USA) | Amazon.co.uk (UK and Ireland) |


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