John Wesley’s anti-slavery broadside

John Wesley (1703-1791) is sometimes remembered as a pious university student who fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, as a “brand plucked from the fire” who survived a house fire at the age of five, as a fiery open air public speaker, or as an indifferent hymn writer, especially when compared to his musically prolific brother Charles. But you have to dig a bit to find out he was also an early opponent of slavery.

John Wesley started reading about slavery in 1772 when the court case of Granville Sharp came into the public eye. He read Some historical account of Guinea by the Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet. He also maintained a correspondence with the abolitionist William Wilberforce, and on his deathbed wrote to him about the Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano he was reading. One of the people John Wesley met and wrote about in his diary was the slave ship captain John Newton, who later converted to Christianity, became abolitionist, and wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.

As a bit of an aside, we also find that Wesley was a bit of a linguist. Wesley was a missionary in Savannah, Georgia for two years. Besides teaching French on the ship during the passage to America, we find that once in Savannah he apparently is swimming in Italian, German and Spanish as well:

In a solution to the problems of language differences, Wesley began to teach himself Spanish in order to converse with the Jewish parishioners. He would travel to the outlying villages of Highgate and Hempstead that were five miles southwest of the town and also to Vernonburgh and Acton that were ten miles to the south. Upon arriving at these rather remote hamlets, Wesley would read public prayers and counsel the French, German, and Swiss settlers living there. A typical Sunday as rector of the Church of Savannah went as:

5:00-6:30 English Prayers

9:00-10:00  Italian Prayers

10:30-12:30  English Communion and Service

1:00-2:00  French Prayers

2:00-3:00  Catechism of children

3:00-4:00  English Prayers

John Wesley’s  broadside pamphlet, Thoughts upon Slavery, was published in 1784 and in the first two years quickly went through several reprintings. The fifth edition was published in 1792, a year after his death. It is now available electronically  in “A Collection of Religious Tracts” here. This is a sample, a description of the “middle passage” from Africa to the New World:

5. Thus they are procured. But in what numbers and in what manner are they carried to America?–Mr. Anderson in his History of trade and commerce,
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observes, “England supplies her American colonies with Negro slaves, amounting in number to about an hundred thousand every year.” That is, so many are taken on board our ships; but at least ten thousand of them die in the voyage: About a fourth part more die at the different Islands, in what is called the Seasoning. So that at an average, in the passage and seasoning together, thirty thousand die: That is, properly are murdered. O earth, O Sea, cover not thou their blood!

6. When they are brought down to the shore in order to be sold, our surgeons thoroughly examine them, and that quite naked, women and men, without any distinction: Those that are approved are set on one side. In the mean time a burning iron, with the arms or name of the Company, lies in the fire, with which they are marked on the breast. Before they are put into the ships, their masters strip them of all they have on their backs: So that they come on board stark naked, women as well as men. It is common for several hundreds of them to be put on board one vessel; where they are stowed together in as little room, as it is possible for them to be crowded. It is easy to suppose what a condition they must
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soon be in, between heat, thirst, and stench of various kinds. So that it is no wonder, so many should die in the passage; but rather, that any survive it.*

*Thomas Philips in his account of a voyage he made to Guinea, and from thence to Barbadoes, with a cargo of slaves relates, “That they took seven hundred slaves on board. When they were brought in the vessel, the men were all put in irons, two and two shackled together, to prevent their mutinying or swimming ashore. The negroes, he says, are so loath to leave their own country, that they have often leapt out of the canoe, boat and ship, into the seas, and kept under water until they were drowned, to avoid being taken up, and saved by the boats which pursue them.”–They had about twelve negroes who willingly drowned themselves; others starved themselves to death– Philips was advised to cut off the legs and arms of some to terrify the rest; (as other captains had done) but this he refused to do: From the time of his taking the negroes on board, to his arrival at Barbadoes, no less than three hundred and twenty died of various diseases: Which the author says, “was to their great regret, after enduring much misery and stench, so long, among a parcel of creatures nastier than swine: No gold-finder, says Philips, can suffer such noisome drudgery as they do who carry negroes, having no respite from their afflictions so long as any of their slaves are alive.” How unreasonable was it in Philips, thus to reflect on negroes; could such a number be crowded together in so warm a climate, even if they had all been healthy, without being extremely offensive: How much more when so many lay sick, dead and dying. He speaks of the English people’s great sufferings by nastiness, stench, &c. but he forgets the sufferings of the poor blacks, which must have been incomparably greater than their’s; not to mention the painful sorrow, and anxiety of mind these distressed creatures must have laboured under.

Shape note version of Amazing Grace:


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