I’ve been listening to the excellent Yale lecture series on the American Revolution, and the Civil War. The latter is particularly affecting, since I had relatively scant detail on the lives of American slaves prior to abolition.
Slavery was abolished here in the UK in 1833 (though some parts of the British empire suffered from exemptions for some years). The campaign to bring this about (and the slightly earlier act that made the slave trade illegal), was championed by a broad range of social reformers, of whom the majority were Quakers: folks like Joseph Sturge, Sir Thomas Buxton, Elizabeth Pease and Anne Knight. In fact, the political momentum that lead to these breakthroughs can be traced fifty years before to the abolitionist petition of 1783. A petition promoted by 300 prominent Quakers.
In the fifty year battle from that point until abolition, some of the most determined voices against emancipation were the Anglican Bishops of the House of Lords, bolstered by many many conservative Christians from both houses of parliament. From pulpits, and political speeches, the bible was routinely used to justify slave holding, and to claim that the natural state of the black person was not to be free.
When I speak to Christians about that now, however, they trace their faith back to the abolitionists. Slavery was clearly wrong, and it was good true Christians like them who brought it down.
Today there is a new social justice struggle going on in the UK and across the world: the struggle over same-sex marriage.
This week, the Prime Minister publicly supported same-sex marriage (and indicated the government will move towards enacting it into law). A broad chorus of Christian ministers and Christian members of parliament released statements condemning the speech, and the prospective law. Using the bible to justify the current law, and to claim that the natural state of the homosexual person is not to be married.
And against them, on the right side of morality and history, stand the Quakers: unambiguously lobbying for full marriage equality. And as in 1783, the rest of British Christendom is conspicuous in its absence.
I have no doubt which side will win. Any defeats I’m sure will be temporary. And I suspect in 150 years even the most conservative Christian will trace their religious ancestry back to the Quakers of 2011.