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Feature essay

Evangelicals and the origins of anti-slavery in England

The bicentennial of the abolition of the British slave trade presents an opportunity to revisit the history of the early abolitionists in England. Until quite recently the history of the British anti-slavery movement centred on the actions of its leaders, William Wilberforce and the other Clapham Sect evangelicals in particular. In the last three decades, however, the focus has shifted. Now there are assessments that emphasize the importance of extra-parliamentary agitation and the influence of slave revolts in the colonies, and consider the pertinence of social and economic change in England and the empire. These more recent interpretations improved upon the accounts that presented abolition in 1807 and emancipation in 1834 as the work of a noble few. But they left unresolved the central question begged by an earlier generation of scholars—why, in the late 1780s, did certain evangelicals within the Church of England decide to promote and lead the new crusade to abolish the Atlantic slave trade?

Evangelicals and slavery

  George Whitefield (1714–1770) by John Wollaston, c.1742 George Whitefield (1714–1770) by John Wollaston, c.1742
During the first half-century of religious revivalism, from the 1730s to the 1780s, evangelicals showed little interest in the Atlantic slave trade or the enslavement of Africans. The mid-century progenitors of Anglican evangelicalism—figures such as Samuel Walker, William Grimshaw, William Romaine, and Thomas Adam—left no record of opposition to slavery in their deeds or words. Several important evangelicals, in fact, had a vested interest in human bondage. Profits from his Caribbean plantations enabled the Revd Martin Madan to build a chapel for London evangelicals at the Lock Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. George Whitefield endorsed the introduction of slavery in Georgia and later employed slaves in the colony's Bethesda orphanage. The slave-ship captain John Newton continued in the Atlantic slave trade several years after his first conversion to vital religion.

Typically those evangelicals who took an interest in the enslaved focused exclusively on the African's spiritual welfare. Anne Dutton, a devoted follower of Whitefield, urged slaves to accept their bondage and dedicate themselves, instead, to the improvement of their souls. Whitefield's patron, Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon, more than doubled the number of slaves at the Bethesda orphanage in the years after Whitefield's death, even as she promoted the published words of free black converts like Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, and Phillis Wheatley. For the early revivalists, the commitment to rescuing the wayward from sin did not lead to a similar commitment to liberating the enslaved from bondage.

Briefly, in the era of the American War of Independence, it did seem as if the Methodists might emerge as an organized anti-slavery lobby. John Wesley displayed conviction and resolve in his Thoughts upon Slavery, which went through three printings in 1774. Three years later, John William Fletcher, one of Wesley's lieutenants, described slavery as a national sin that brought God's judgment upon the nation. Yet the Methodists in the British Isles made no attempt to make these moral concerns the basis for an organized anti-slavery campaign. The Wesleyans, like other evangelicals, aimed to save souls, not change laws. Only with the establishment of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, and not before, did the Wesleyans lobby actively for anti-slavery measures.

  John Marrant (1755–1791) by unknown engraver, pubd 1795 John Marrant (1755–1791) by unknown engraver, pubd 1795
The inclination to accept the established political and social order reflected a more general pattern in British religious revivals of the eighteenth century. It was the domain of the Lord, not the powers of the state or the private claims of individuals, that concerned the pious until the late 1780s. The evangelicals who guided slave trade abolition through parliament, therefore, differed from their predecessors. They possessed political influence. And they exploited their position in ways that the small number of evangelical statesmen before them would not.

Who were these Anglican evangelicals? The Clapham Sect did not exist in 1787, when the abolition society in London took shape. At the time James Stephen and Zachary Macaulay still resided in the West Indies. Charles Grant and John Shore still served the East India Company in Bengal. Of those subsequently linked to the Clapham Sect in the early nineteenth century, only the aged evangelical patron John Thornton resided in Clapham in 1787. His son Henry Thornton would not purchase Battersea Rise, the estate that became the Claphamites' headquarters, until 1792. Granville Sharp, a long-time advocate for blacks in the British empire, and the first chairman of the abolition society, held only the most tenuous connection to the Clapham Sect, then or thereafter.

The Teston circle

More important to the early history of evangelical anti-slavery was the coterie of devout Anglicans gathered at Barham Court, the principal estate in the village of Teston in Kent, more than two dozen miles south-east of Clapham. In Teston in 1784 James Ramsay completed his influential pamphlets on slavery in the British West Indies. In Teston, in the autumn of 1786, Thomas Clarkson pledged his energies to a national campaign for slave trade abolition. And in Teston, weeks later, William Wilberforce first agreed to bring the subject before parliament.

Much of what we know about the Teston circle in these years comes from the correspondence of Hannah More, who, there, in the midst of her transformation from dramatist to didact, first found religious fellowship. Barham Court belonged to the charitable recluse Elizabeth Bouverie, who shared the estate with Sir Charles Middleton and his wife, Margaret, parents of Diana Noel and grandparents of Gerald Thomas Noel and Baptist Wriothesley Noel, all of whom became leading evangelicals during the first half of the nineteenth century. Their intimate friend Beilby Porteus, bishop of Chester, and incumbent of the nearby parish of Hunton, though not an evangelical, patronized and promoted the evangelicals' emerging reform projects.

  James Ramsay (1733–1789) by Carl Fredrik von Breda, 1789 James Ramsay (1733–1789) by Carl Fredrik von Breda, 1789
The disaster of the American War of Independence persuaded the Teston circle, and some others, that impiety had cost Britain an empire. Military defeat abroad, discontent at home, and uncertain leadership in parliament were regarded by the pious as symptoms of rampant infidelity, proof that the nation had lost its spiritual moorings. In its aftermath, the Teston circle, like other aspiring reformers at the time, launched schemes to promote moral and social renewal. They established and sponsored charity and Sunday schools. They vigorously promoted the keeping of the sabbath. Charles Middleton, as an administrator at the naval board, looked for ways to reform the moral character of British sailors. Porteus would join with William Wilberforce in 1787 to persuade George III to issue a proclamation against vice and immorality, a proclamation intended to encourage magistrates to prosecute such pedestrian vices as vagrancy and blasphemy with more vigour.

A preoccupation with slavery in the British West Indies distinguished the Teston circle from their contemporaries. It was a concern that originated in their long association with James Ramsay, vicar of the parish from 1781. Ramsay owed his career to the patronage of Sir Charles Middleton. And he had developed his critique of slave society in the British Caribbean through an extended correspondence with Lady Middleton, who long had thought planters should take more interest in the spiritual welfare of the enslaved. In 1784 the Teston evangelicals guided to press Ramsay's Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, which launched the public debate on the morals and justice of colonial slavery. The next year Bishop Porteus and Elizabeth Bouverie helped fund the first Anglican charity schools for slaves in the British West Indies. And, shortly after his transition to the diocese of London in 1787, Porteus required the West Indian clergy to report on the spiritual welfare of the slaves in each parish.

It was James Ramsay's opinion that ‘The Negro has two classes of friends, one that looks chiefly to liberty, while the other regards only religion’ (Ramsay, 11). The Quakers and a few isolated activists like Granville Sharp had expressed an interest in more radical solutions to the problem of slavery. The Teston circle, like many evangelicals before them, had initially shown more concern with the promotion of religion than the cause of liberty. If left to their own devices, it seems likely that they would have pursued an ameliorationist programme, rather than the abolition of the slave trade. When they came to embrace abolition in 1786, therefore, they took up a cause conceived and defined by others, by the Society of Friends and the young Thomas Clarkson in particular. None the less, they saw in that programme a way to achieve their most cherished goals.

A means to moral reform

In the early nineteenth century the Clapham Sect earned a reputation for almost limitless self-assurance. However, the sect's peculiar brand of evangelical politics, as conceived by their Teston predecessors, had a more tentative beginning, a point of special importance for understanding their eventual commitment to slave trade abolition.

There looked to be no place for evangelicals in British politics during the first half century of the revival. Aristocrats who embraced ‘vital Christianity’ exposed themselves to contempt and ridicule. Satirists made frequent sport of the countess of Huntingdon. Sir Richard Hill, for several years the lone Methodist in parliament, inspired only derisive laughter when he quoted scripture on the floor of the House of Commons. Few laymen worked more assiduously than William Legge, second earl of Dartmouth, in advancing the careers of ‘serious clergy’ within the Church of England. Yet, during his long and significant career in parliament, he chose not to use his office to promote religious causes.

  Hannah More (1745–1833) by John Opie, 1786 Hannah More (1745–1833) by John Opie, 1786
The spiritual awakenings of William Wilberforce and Hannah More, therefore, threatened to sacrifice their public standing and respectability. When Wilberforce set off on a transformative tour of Europe with the evangelical divine Isaac Milner in 1785, he was the newly elected member for the largest constituency in England and the close friend of the king's new first minister, the younger William Pitt. When she met John Newton in 1787 Hannah More was a renowned figure in London literary circles. What would be the social and political consequences of their turn to ‘Methodistical’ religion? Each wrestled with conflicting impulses. They could turn away from the temptations of the world to nurture their emerging spiritual commitments. Or they could keep their position in society and, potentially, compromise their religious scruples.

What might a Christian politician do to alter how polite society looked at the devout? The question preoccupied William Wilberforce and the Teston clan in the same months that the abolition society first took shape. At the heart of the Teston programme stood an attempt to make piety fashionable, to ‘do within the Church, and nearer the throne,’ as Wilberforce would put it, ‘what Wesley has accomplished in the meeting and amongst the multitude’ (Armstrong, p. 133). This was the purpose of Hannah More's Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society. More not only advised aristocrats to avoid sin. She aimed as well at assumptions prevailing among those she regarded as nominal Christians, at the notion that communicants need only abide by the letter of the faith, and need not embrace its spirit. This text, like James Ramsay's Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves, emerged from an extended conversation then taking place within the Teston circle. This tight-knit group—More, Wilberforce, Porteus, Bouverie, the Middletons—wished to enlarge faith's dominion in private and public life, harness the secular to the sacred, and, in the process, recast godliness as respectable and appropriate for the well placed and polite. This would have the additional benefit, they believed, of instilling in both the higher and the lower ranks an attendance to their reciprocal duties.

Evangelicals and abolition

This commitment to advancing evangelical protestantism gave the developing campaign against the slave trade special value to the Teston circle. They expected that abolition of the slave trade would force planters to treat the enslaved with greater care, perhaps opening the way to Christian instruction in the colonies. The research of Thomas Clarkson showed the commerce in captured Africans to be a national vice, a perspective that could help them connect the Atlantic slave trade to the other sins they thought beset the nation. Because few in Britain participated personally in the slave trade, vilifying the practice would prove less threatening than asking the public to reconsider how they spent their Sunday afternoons. Abolitionism could establish an appetite for moral reform without first requiring the sacrifice of familiar pleasures.

Most of all, the campaign against the slave trade allowed the evangelicals a chance to win over those otherwise suspicious of campaigns against vice. Anti-slavery sentiment had grown fashionable by the 1780s. It had become associated with politeness, sensibility, patriotism, and a commitment to British liberty. By leading an abolition movement, the evangelicals could draw on those more positive associations to give a benevolent, less repressive cast to their broader crusade for moral reform. They could align themselves with the promotion of justice, mercy, humanity, and virtue as well as the promotion of religion.

Abolition of the slave trade for the evangelicals was always an end in itself, never merely an instrument. Their horror at the trafficking and enslavement of African men and women was genuine. Yet what gave the issue particular appeal to them were the moral lessons they hoped men and women would draw from fighting public sins. The evangelicals' turn against the slave trade was not simply an eruption of benevolence. It was also a considered, strategic choice, an opening salvo in a wider campaign against nominal Christianity. From the beginning, among themselves, this was how they evaluated their labours. Ultimately their fundamental aim was not abolition of the slave trade, the promotion of free labour, or social control—though they came to embrace these causes, too. Above all they wanted to make the British people sincere Christians without making themselves pariahs.

Christopher Leslie Brown


C. L. Brown, Moral capital: foundations of British abolitionism (2006) · J. Ramsay, An inquiry into the effects of putting a stop to the African slave trade (1784) · A. Armstrong, The Church of England, the Methodists, and society, 1700–1850 (1973)


J. Wollaston, oils, c.1742, NPG; George Whitefield [see illus.] · J. Opie, portrait, 1786, Girton Cam.; Hannah More [see illus.] · C. F. von Breda, oils, 1789, NPG; James Ramsay [see illus.] · mezzotint, pubd 1795, AM Oxf.; George Marrant [see illus.]