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Abolitionists and Emancipators page 2


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Another of the Abolitionists brought anathemas on his head for drawing public attention to the fact that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel drew part of its revenue from the slave-cultivated Codrington Estates in the West Indies. Others preached and protested, the Rev. Andrew Thomson, D.D., and the Rev. S. C. Wilks amongst them.

But the Quakers and Methodists had led the way long before. To the Quakers belongs the everlasting honour of having been the first Christian community in England, as in America, to make a stand collectively and consistently against this negation of Christianity. As early as 1724 they passed a resolution condemning the Slave Trade and Slavery altogether. In 1758 they warned, and in 1761 disowned, all Friends who continued to participate in the Trade. The Wesleyans, meantime, had followed the lead of the Quakers. In 1739 Whitefield, who was then in America, had plainly hinted, though he had not declared outright, that the Slave Trade was anti-Christian, and in 1774 John Wesley himself entered the lists with his widely read 'Thoughts upon Slavery.' His support of the cause was unfaltering, and a week before his death in 1791 he wrote to Wilberforce, then preparing to move an Abolition Motion in the House of Commons: 'Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you, who can be against you?... Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might.'

But although for many years organised Christianity as a whole was predominantly either apathetic or hostile, when at last it was roused it was overwhelming.

Some of the poets and writers came to the aid of the Abolitionists. In America there was Whittier, the friend of Sturge. In Europe there were Pope, Defoe, Thomson, Wordsworth (with his magnificent sonnet to Toussaint l'Ouverture). William Cowper attacked the Slave Trade in 'The Task,' and later wrote three poems, of which the best known is 'The Negro's Complaint.'

The Abolitionists occupied too early a page in history to admit women to any prominent share in their task, for convention still kept them outside public questions. It seems surprising that until the year 1905 the Committee of the British Anti-Slavery Society did not even admit women members. Wilberforce apparently regarded public agitation by women as undesirable, although, as will be seen from a letter written to Buxton in 1820, he placed a high value upon their silent co-operation through prayer. 'In this way the ladies may help us more decorously and consistently than by petitionings or similar obtrusive exhibitions of patriotism. Don't forget this hint. I have a high sense of value of the prayers of real Christians.'

It was Lady Middleton who, when her heart was wrung by what she had heard of the horrors of slavery from the Rev. W. Ramsay, Vicar of Preston, brought him and Wilberforce together at her house at Barham Court, and adding her prayers to Ramsay's eloquence, helped to persuade Wilberforce to make the cause his life work.

Fowell Buxton's mother was a Quaker, and the Quaker women had long been warring, with unshakable quietude, but equally unshakable determination, against slavery. Buxton records that he used to laugh at his sister for refusing to eat sugar (slave-grown, as all sugar was then). 'But,' he added, 'her doing so made me think.' His beloved sister-in-law, Priscilla Gurney, was devoted to the cause of the slaves. She sent for him just before she passed away in 1821, and her last articulate words to him were, 'The poor, dear slaves.' He adds, 'I could not but understand her meaning, for during her illness she had repeatedly urged me to make their cause and condition the first object of my life, feeling nothing so much on her heart as their sufferings.' In 1833, when Buxton presented a petition to Parliament 'from the females of Britain,' 187,000 signatures had been obtained in ten days, and 'the Ladies' Committee had worked from ten in the morning till past nine at night.' Later, Harriet Martineau not only wrote vigorously, but visited North America to help on the cause there.

Thus under the leadership first of Wilberforce and then of Buxton, a phalanx of noble souls was welded together for the single purpose of combating the crime of trading in human beings. This minority, drawn mainly from the Parliamentary and the religious life of Great Britain, was destined to change the history of nations. They attacked first the Slave Trade; then, with the growth of public opinion, they led the movement triumphantly onward to an attack upon slave-owning in British Dominions. They reaped indeed a more abundant harvest than they had dared to anticipate, for, as the pages of this book show, they laid the foundations of a movement which for a hundred years has been alert to attack any semblance of a return to slavery in British Dominions, and within recent times has generated a powerful international movement against every form of slave-owning, slave-raiding and slave-trading throughout the world.

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