Building Up Zion with Blood and Jerusalem with Iniquity: The Moral Clarity of William Wilberforce’s Career Against Slavery

William Wilberforce by John Rising, 1790 (source: http://tinyurl.com/pcoulo2)

William Wilberforce by John Rising, 1790 (source: http://tinyurl.com/pcoulo2)

Nearly four months after Parliament passed its Slavery Abolition Act in August, 1833 abolishing slavery in the British Empire, thanks primarily to the decades-long political campaign of the evangelical Christian Member of Parliament William Wilberforce, Joseph Smith recorded in a revelation on December 16, 1833 in Kirtland, Ohio, that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another” (Doctrine & Covenants 101:79). The Lord seems to have eagerly ratified Wilberforce’s lifelong fight against what any honest, informed observer must agree constitutes one of the greatest moral blights on humanity in the modern age: the African chattel slavery perpetrated by white Europeans and their American trading partners under the ostensible blessing of religious doctrines proclaiming the inherent inferiority of the African races and God’s supposed acquiescence in their bondage, servitude, and unspeakable abuse. Nothing condemned the professed Christianity of the day and European and American society more than this insidious and evil practice, built on such false religious justifications and the most vile commercial greed in the hearts of conspiring men.

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guard, “Amazing Grace,” The Spirit of the Glen (2007), by John Henry Newton (1779).

Had not Jeremiah long ago lamented, “Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work” (Jeremiah 22:13)? The Book of Mormon provides a stark example of the opposite in its depiction of King Mosiah, who embodied righteous governance. He had “established peace in the land, and he had granted unto his people that they should be delivered from all manner of bondage” (Mosiah 29:40). But for generations before August 26, 1833 in the British Empire, and for continuing generations after this date in the United States of America and a number of countries in Central and South America, it had to be said that the “wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). Slavery defrauds the moral law and bankrupts the soul.

The United States, in particular, was fundamentally morally compromised at its beginning because of slavery and especially the long-standing attempt to use religious doctrine to justify the underlying racism. Despite soaring prose about inalienable rights and freedom from tyranny in the Declaration of Independence, Americans including those who had drafted and signed that document deliberately and systematically denied such God-given natural rights not only to African slaves but also Native Americans. They utterly repressed any semblance of freedom or comfort for the slaves; they blatantly denied life, liberty, and property in any meaningful sense to Native Americans at every opportunity. Both of these long-term, systemic, and all-encompassing abuses were rationalized by the wicked justification that God’s righteousness demanded it because of the supposedly inherent inferiority of these peoples simply based on their skin color. White Americans denied both groups any chance for joy or rejoicing in their posterity or the ability to fulfill the measure of their creation for hundreds of years.

Both the religious and the agnostic among the American “Founding Fathers” generally thought of America as a Zion, a city built upon a hill that cannot be hid; yet the perpetuation of African slavery and genocides against Native Americans revealed it to be a Zion led by “prophets that make my people err, that bite with their teeth, and cry, Peace” (Micah 3:5), of whom Micah had prophesied, “They build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity” (Micah 3:10). How and why did this inexplicable evil happen?, we might ask of God. But for countless ages to come, in the contours of precisely this history “shall [our] seers be ashamed, and the diviners confounded: yea, they shall all cover their lips; for there is no answer of God” (Micah 3:7) except to hold a mirror to our own rejection of his Gospel and our worship of our own greed. Indeed, “there is no answer of God” to the pressing question of how an ostensibly pious people could have engaged in such atrocities, “righteously” excusing their actions precisely by their faith and the invented doctrines that they believed would justify them in perpetrating these abuses. This history now fades into the background like a nightmare but seems incredible when examined with the moral clarity that has come with time, knowledge, blessed pluralism, and the global familiarity of peoples.

In 1791, still at the beginning of his political career, Wilberforce was becoming more vocal about the moral clarity that his own recently acquired sincere religious faith was revealing to him about the plight of African slaves. In a now famous speech during a debate on the Slave Trade in the House of Commons on April 18, 1791, Wilberforce expressed gratitude for meager progress in the way abolitionists in the British Empire were beginning to view Africans: “we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied.”[1] But he also acknowledged the difficult road ahead in the struggle to abolish first the slave trade and then slavery itself:

“This is the first fruits of our efforts; let us persevere and our triumph will be complete. Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country.” (ibid)

Wilberforce was not only a prophet in his work to abolish slavery but also in this vision of the abhorrence with which his generation’s distant posterity would view the disgraceful and dishonorable practice of African chattel slavery.

The Constitution of the United States of America (source: http://tinyurl.com/nv4ghw6)

The Constitution of the United States of America (source: http://tinyurl.com/nv4ghw6)

Just four months earlier, in January 1791, the United States had finally concluded the process of ratifying their Constitution (with Vermont’s ratification), which ingeniously synthesized the loftiest ideals of the English and Scottish Enlightenments with the legacy of strong political institutions and commitment to the rule of law inherited from England in a single philosophy and framework of government. Despite this enlightened framework, however, the Constitution nevertheless specifically provided for the perpetuation of African chattel slavery, explicitly rejecting the humanity of the slaves by counting each as only three fifths of a person, and denying them all natural and civil rights. The ratification of the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — in December 1791 did not change this. In fact, as late as 1861, Congress passed the Corwin Amendment, an infamous attempt to persuade southern slave states to return to the Union by excluding any matters relating to the domestic institutions of the states, such as slavery, from the Constitutional amendment process and prohibiting Congress from legislating to interfere with or abolish slavery.[2] (President Lincoln spoke in favor of this Amendment in his first inaugural address,[3] but only three states ever ratified the Amendment.)

In the United Kingdom, 16 years after his famous 1791 speech to Parliament and following numerous political defeats of Wilberforce’s efforts, the bill to abolish the slave trade that Wilberforce had backed in the early 1790s was finally passed on March 25, 1807. The United States also technically abolished the slave trade in 1808, though the abominable practice of African chattel slavery continued in the United States until December 6, 1865, when the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was complete, outlawing slavery.

But though it took still another 26 years after 1807 of Wilberforce’s untiring — prophetic — work, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 occurred much earlier and without a devastating Civil War. In 1823, Wilberforce published his arguments in support of entirely abolishing slavery in the British Empire. He prefaced the 56 page tract with the following moral appeal:

“I call upon [all the inhabitants of the British Empire], as they shall hereafter answer, in the great day of account, for the use they shall have made of any power or influence with which Providence may have entrusted them, to employ their best endeavours, by all lawful and constitutional means, to mitigate, and, as soon as it may be safely done, to terminate the Negro Slavery of the British Colonies; a system of the grossest injustice, of the most heathenish irreligion and immorality, of the most unprecedented degradation, and unrelenting cruelty.”[4]

When the Act went into effect in August 1834, almost one million enslaved Africans became free in the British Empire, primarily in the Caribbean. Like the children of Israel before them, they heard the voice of the Lord saying “I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright” (Leviticus 26:13). On this issue, Wilberforce had been plugged in to an objective, universally valid morality; his lifetime commitment to this cause made him a Moses to the Empire’s slaves — “do ye suppose that they would have been led out of bondage, if the Lord had not commanded Moses that he should lead them out of bondage” (1 Nephi 17:24)? No. “Now ye know that the children of [Africa] were in bondage; and ye know that they were laden with tasks, which were grievous to be borne; wherefore, ye know that it must needs be a good thing for them, that they should be brought out of bondage” (1 Nephi 17:25). Indeed, “now ye know that [William Wilberforce] was commanded of the Lord to do that great work” (1 Nephi 17:26), a true latter-day prophet. From him we learn, at the very least, that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

Though many obstacles remain in the path of establishing Zion, slavery was a wickedness that absolutely blocked any possibility of the existence of Zion in its presence. Without it, “The Lord will reign for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146:10). Let us each seek the Lord’s guidance in accessing and abiding by the universal moral law, ignoring wicked traditions, teachings, doctrines, or practices that deviate from it, no matter how they are packaged. May William Wilberforce’s decades-long fight to abolish slavery inspire us to moral advocacy of that which is right, to stand up for the oppressed and abused, even if it requires us to go against the grain of local cultural practices or apparently received wisdom. Above all else, each of us should examine our lives and beliefs to ensure that we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, never become an obstacle to others’ inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, no matter how tempting it might be to do so to the natural man within us. Only in so doing can we truly learn that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

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MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

The Feast of William Wilberforce, 1833

Leviticus 26:12-13 (KJV), Psalm 146:5-10 (NRSV), Jeremiah 22:13 (KJV), Micah 3:5-12 (KJV), Matthew 25:31-40 (KJV), Galatians 3:23-29 (KJV), James 5:4 (NRSV), 1 Nephi 17:24-26, Mosiah 29:40, Doctrine & Covenants 101:79

The Collect: O Father, Thou who hast raised up Moses to lead Thy Children out of bondage, let us take inspiration from Thy servant, William Wilberforce, a latter-day Moses, to devote our lives in Thy Church to Thy righteousness in accordance with the universal moral law, becoming instruments in Thy hands to advocate the cause of those who are in bondage and learning that we must never become an obstacle to others’ inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; for the sake of Him who gave His life for us, Thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with Thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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[1] William Wilberforce, Speech to Parliament, April 18, 1791, in T.C. Hansard, The Parliamentary Debates (1817), pg. 278.

[2] The text of the Corwin Amendment provided as follows:

No amendment of this Constitution, having for its object any interference within the States with the relations between their citizens and those described in second section of the first article of the Constitution as “all other persons”, shall originate with any State that does not recognize that relation within its own limits, or shall be valid without the assent of every one of the States composing the Union. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corwin_Amendment#36th_Congress)

[3] In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln referred to the Corwin Amendment as follows:

I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution — which amendment, however, I have not seen — has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. . . . holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

[4] William Wilberforce, An Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies, London: J. Hatchard & Son, Piccadilly (1823), p. 2.

Comments

  1. Spectacular. As I read it this powerful piece my mind played images from the 2006 film Amazing Grace. It’s a story we can never tell to often. Blessed be William Wilberforce. And blessed be you, John, for returning him to our consciousness.

  2. A timely addition to the series. Thanks for this.

  3. Jonathan says:

    William Wilberforce! What a delight to see him as an inspired figure! Brilliant!

    That said, I’d like to ask for an explanation of much of the rest of the post. To wit:

    “The United States, in particular, was fundamentally morally compromised at its beginning because of slavery…”

    Why the U.S. “in particular”? Brazil imported far more African slaves, as did the Caribbean colonies. The Ottoman and Persian Empires imported at least as many African slaves as Europeans did, plus millions of Slavs, and an estimated million Southern and Western Europeans. And Islam, Hinduism, and Greek and Roman Paganism (among many, many others) were used to justify slavery.

    So why aren’t any of these “in particular…fundamentally morally compromised”? As Bernard Lewis said,

    “The Arab participation in the slave trade was very much the same as the European and the American participation with this difference, that it started earlier and continued later.”
    (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=152764539)

    And continues today, in Sudan and Mauritania, among other places. So, why aren’t the Arabs “in particular…fundamentally morally compromised”?

    India has more slaves today than any other country on earth; is it “in particular…fundamentally morally compromised”? Why or why not?

    You are obviously right that the practice of slavery is totally incompatible with the establishment of Zion. Could you explain why the United States is uniquely evil in its practice of slavery?

    “Despite soaring prose about inalienable rights and freedom from tyranny in the Declaration of Independence, Americans including those who had drafted and signed that document deliberately and systematically denied such God-given natural rights not only to African slaves but also Native Americans.”

    What is your standard of comparison? The Aztecs? The Chinese? India? Russia? Indonesia? Plenty slavery happened, and happens, there.

    It is the contradiction between that “soaring rhetoric”, and the conspicuous failure to practice these ideals it voiced, that has lead the U.S. to grant rights to its people far exceeding those of pre-modern societies.

    Most of the world continues to colonized and destroy the weaker cultures around them. Ask any Uigur, Tibetan, Mongolian, Zhuang, or Miao in China. Or the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the Rohinga of Burma, or thousands of others from State-persecuted groups.

    The ideals of the United States have improved its behavior, not made it a nation of hypocrites. The U.S. supports, protects, and defends minority groups better than any other historical empire.

    So why do you say that the U.S. is uniquely evil? Particularly, and fundamentally, morally compromised from its beginning?

    Worth reading:
    “The Barbary Slaves”, by Stephen Clissold
    “Race and Slavery in the Middle East: an Historical Inquiry”, by Bernard Lewis

  4. A number of reasons exist for the comparison of the US and UK in the abolition of slavery. For one thing, William Wilberforce was inspired precisely by his Christianity to oppose slavery. Some people in the United States received similar insights from their Christian faith but American chattel slavery — uniquely evil among comparative slavery regimes in its philosophy and the way it was administered — was specifically buttressed by “Christian” arguments about the inherent inferiority of Africans based on their skin color.

    Yes, it was hypocrisy to wax eloquent about all men being created equal and enjoying inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while at the same time owning slaves and justifying it on religiously grounded arguments, and enshrining that institution of slavery in the Constitution.

    Finally, this is a ready comparison because the question of the abolition of slavery was current at the same time in both the UK and the US — but the US didn’t have a William Wilberforce or the political will to follow such a parliamentarian as Wilberforce. Racism justified by pseudo-doctrinal religious arguments too fully eclipsed any other moral consideration in the United States to such an extent that a very destructive civil war was necessary to arrive at the place where Wilberforce steered the British Empire through pen and word.

  5. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, John, for this powerful post. You’ve chosen the scriptures exceptionally well (and I know from experience that such selection is a major challenge in writing these posts).

    Thank you, too, Jonathan, for reminding us that slavery is an evil that reaches beyond the Anglophone world. The world still needs us to follow Wilberforce’s courageous and prophetic example.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for the reply, john f. I’m glad you responded, though disappointed that you didn’t engage with most of what I wrote. Nonetheless, onward.

    I have no issue with — and indeed did not mention — any comparison between slavery as practiced in the British Empire and the United States. Since you brought it up, however:

    Parts of the United States abolished slavery long before Britain did: Vermont in 1777, Pennsylvania in 1780, and all other northern states by 1804. The reason for the Britain’s delay is its unitary system of government: a central body made law for the entire country. Federalism allowed the United States to abolish slavery earlier in some places (the North), but prevented earlier abolition in others (the South). Differences in government, rather than religion, seem better suited to explain the variations in timing.

    john f.: “…American chattel slavery — uniquely evil among comparative slavery regimes in its philosophy and the way it was administered — was specifically buttressed by ‘Christian’ arguments about the inherent inferiority of Africans based on their skin color.”

    Evidence, please!

    And the slaveholders in Brazil, Haiti, Hispaniola, Mozambique, Mexico, and so on: they justified slavery with what? Rastafarianism?

    The United States is unusual in :

    1- Abolishing slavery at all — compare it to any nation prior to 1776 — and,

    2- Abolishing it so early. Slavery was practiced well into the 1900s in the Ottoman Empire and China, among other places, and continues in some countries today, particularly in Africa.

    Finally, religion has been used to justify slavery everywhere it has been practiced. Your claim that the United States is (or was) uniquely evil is unsupported, and indeed contradicted, by the evidence.

    “Yes, it was hypocrisy to wax eloquent about all men being created equal and enjoying inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while at the same time owning slaves and justifying it on religiously grounded arguments, and enshrining that institution of slavery in the Constitution.”

    Not true. The contradiction between American ideals and American practices ultimately drove the U.S. to grant unprecedented civil rights to all the peoples of its empire. And some states abolished slavery decades before the British. To paraphrase William Gibson: the future was already there, it was just unevenly distributed.

  7. Jonathan: At the last and final judgment bar, let’s hope were graded on a curve.

  8. Jonathan says:

    hinduFriend: “wow–now even Mormons are cuckservatives”

    What on earth are you talking about?

  9. Patrick M. says:

    Great post celebrating a true moral hero.

    Let’s not forget that slavery in many forms continues to exist around the world today, including in the United States. The modern-day anti-slavery movement may not have the same hurdles that Wilberforce faced in convincing people of its moral evil, but with so many good and worthy causes (and so much violence and sin and corruption) in the world, it’s easy to throw up one’s hands and feel it’s impossible to make a difference. Achieving real change will require more than moral prophets, although they are important — it will take, as Wilberforce exemplified, shrewd politics, coalition-building, and sustained and focused activism.

  10. I love the MLP. William Wilberforce has been on my mind lately. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.

  11. Every time I attend an Anglican service, I think if I weren’t LDS, I’d be Anglican (and, oddly enough for a Mormon, a high-church Anglican!). MLP is just a delight because it brings some of the beauty of Anglican sermons and services into my little corner of Mormondom. This piece was even better than most. Truly enobling to read while that music played.

  12. Ten years ago I did a mission trip to Ghana for my church. I had an experience of visiting a slave castle. I was the only white person on the tour. Signs of encouraging African nature religions were all around.
    During the tour I was taken into a dark tunnel, there were groves cut out for the chained slaves urine to run to the sea. Over 1,000,000 shaves were processed through castle. As I departed the stony prison my guide said: ” look above this tunnel.” It was a chapel close to 300 years old. She said: ” while over a million lives were destroyed and tribes ripped apart, the slavers sang hymns, took communion and preached sermons. ”
    I have never felt more shame.
    Two years ago I was in Charlestown and stood where so many ships landed to unload its wares from that castle and I cried. Whatever our faith does it cannot make us superior to others in any way but rather connected to our common humanity.

  13. The Declaration of Independence calls Native Americans “merciless Indian savages”.

  14. it's a series of tubes says:

    Various objections to some of the over-the-top assertions in the OP have already been raised by other commenters, so I’ll just leave this: Those over-the-top assertions are tough to square with D&C 101:80.