|Ioan Gruffudd (left) as William Wilberforce in 2006 movie Amazing Grace|
By Hendrik van der Breggen
July 29, 2020
I’ve written previously about my experience of students’ lack of common knowledge, but it seems that today, in general, many young people (and not-so-young people) seem unaware of the history of slavery. This is disturbing. I hope what follows helps set the record straight.
Here is a transcript that provides a historical overview of slavery and some philosophical-theological insight concerning its demise. It’s from a short video by Dennis Prager of PragerU: “Every Society in History Had Slavery” (July 26, 2020):
Every society on Earth in all of history had slavery. Every single one. The Europeans/ Americans had slavery. The Arabs had slavery, massive slavery. The word for black person in Arabic is “abeed” which means slave. That’s how common slavery was. Slavery in Asia, obviously. Slavery in Black Africa. Black Africans had Black Africans as slaves. Indigenous Native Americans had slaves. Every society in history had slavery. So the only question that is honest is not “who had slavery?” It’s “who abolished slavery?” That’s the only important question. And then you come up with the answer—woah people in the West. Western civilization with its Judeo-Christian values abolished slavery. It was a Christian movement. Now I’m a Jew telling you this. It was a Christian movement in Britain. Wilberforce was the man’s name, who led this movement, seeing that it was evil and it violated biblical principles.
And you know how many Americans died to end slavery? That was the Civil War that was about slavery. It’s one of the only things [about which] left and right agree. It was caused by slavery. Southern states wanted to maintain slavery; northern states wanted to abolish it, so the southern states seceded and that’s how you got the Civil War. And when it ended slavery was abolished. Abraham Lincoln was regarded until this very morally perverse present as one of the greatest humans we’ve ever produced. And now every statue was taken down. Washington and Jefferson had slaves. So therefore what? Who didn’t have slaves in the 18th century? But they made a country that abolished slavery.
Pause and let Prager’s points sink in (skip the bit about statues for now; I’ve written about statues here). Prager’s first point is that, historically, slavery was widespread, even universal. That’s true, it’s terrible, and it’s often missed by many today. Also often missed by many is Prager’s crucially important second point: A hugely significant feature of the West is that it abolished slavery.
I would add that the West also planted and nurtured the philosophical-theological seeds needed to continue to fight slavery.
Prager mentions the English politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833). While the world was for centuries awash with slavery, Wilberforce and his friends fought long and hard—peacefully, for about 50 years—to abolish slavery in Britain. Why? Because they held to the view that all people were created in the image of God and therefore had great worth—and equally so.
Wilberforce and company got this view from the New Testament, which includes the letters of the Apostle Paul. Significantly, as historian Tom Holland points out, Paul’s writings are a “kind of depth charge deep beneath the classical world” that has had “ripple effects” throughout the modern Western world, resulting in concepts such as international law and human rights, which we now take for granted.
Sadly, slavery continues today, even in the West. It’s called human trafficking. Happily, people of good will—people who respect international law and human rights—continue to work hard to end it. In fact, July 30th is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.
I hope that an accurate historical and philosophical-theological understanding of the battle against slavery/human trafficking will help us persevere over the long haul, as we follow Wilberforce's example. An accurate understanding and taking to heart of the Gospels and the letters of Paul (and letters of others in the New Testament) will probably help, too.
Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada.
For further thought:
- Africa’s Role In Slavery
- 'After All, Didn't America Invent Slavery?'
- Amazing Grace
- ‘Christianity gave women a dignity that no previous sexual dispensation had offered’: Tom Holland
- 'My Nigerian great-grandfather sold slaves'
- Slaves of a different color
- The Native Americans Who Owned Slaves
- The Real History of Slavery