Wed | Jul 18, 2018

The role of the Church in Emancipation - Part 1

Published:Saturday | July 23, 2016 | 12:12 AM

On August 1, Jamaica observes Emancipation Day. It was on that day in 1838 that the institution of slavery finally came to an end. The Apprenticeship system, the transitional period between slavery and freedom, was slated to end in 1840.

There are many reasons that system of untold human suffering and subjugation came to an end at that time and the debate rages on, after 178 years. Much credit is given to humanitarians and religious agitators. Thus, it is written in diverse volumes that the role the Church played in the release of enslaved Africans in the British West Indies (BWI) from the crucible that was slavery was significant.

But the notion that slavery was abolished because of the campaign against it by Christian humanitarians has been forcefully challenged. Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery, and many others, are of the view that slavery in the BWI came to an end when it did because of capitalism.

British capitalists, they argue, had been losing interest in sugar production in the BWI and were fanning the flames of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. It was in their best interest to turn their backs on sugar production, and face the fire at home.

Why then, would the Church be praised for bringing asunder that system of oppression and injustice that perpetuated for centuries, and to which it was a party? Some Christians were holders of enslaved Africans and benefited significantly from their servitude.

The Anglican Church, the Church of England, was widely known as the Church of slave-owners, and some writers maintain that some Anglicans themselves opposed the movement for the abolition of slavery. The dwindling population and the abandonment of some of their chapels in the decades following Emancipation is partly attributed to its reputation as the slave-master church.

Among the Christians in the fight for the abolition of slavery, it was the Baptists, led by William Knibb, Thomas Burchell, and James Phillipo, the Methodists and the Quakers, who were most active, and for their efforts they faced widespread persecution, and threats to their lives, limbs and property.

After the 1831 Chistmas Rebellion, also known as the Baptist War, orchestrated, but not started by the influential, yet nonviolent Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe, an enslaved African, the reprisal of the authorities was swift and brutal.

Martial law was declared. Many Africans, including Sharpe, were jailed and hanged. And the persecution of the Baptist missionaries went into overdrive. Five of them, including Knibb, were arrested and charged for their alleged involvement in the uprising.


See conclusion in next week's Family and Religion section.