From Antislavery Thought to Antislavery Action:
The Impact of the Last Judgment and the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg on the Birth of the Antislavery Movement

Brian D. Henderson

Conference Paper
The World Transformed: A Conference Celebrating the
250th Anniversary of the Last Judgment
Sponsored by the Cole Foundation
October 5, 2007


The Heritage of European Slavery
Slavery and the "Science of Race" in the Enlightenment
The Emerging Debate over Slavery in the Eighteenth Century
The Eighteenth-Century Antislavery Movement in England
The Causes of the British Antislavery Movement and the Last Judgment
The Swedenborgian Influence on the British Antislavery Movement

Introduction top

In the American South, slavery was euphemistically referred to as the 'peculiar institution' during the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century, however, "freedom, not slavery," wrote Seymour Drescher, "was the peculiar institution" (Drescher 1986, x). Virtually every state in Europe practiced some form of enslavement, either at home or in some part of its territory. Britain and France had built their colonies on slave labor. Most of Russia, Prussia, and Austria lived under the yoke of serfdom. According to one estimate, close to three quarters of the world's population was in bondage of one type or another during this century (Hochschild 2005, 2).

Looking back across the expanse of history, the eighteenth-century man or woman would have seen the consistent presence of slavery as an accepted part of human history, stretching back virtually unbroken from ancient times. For more than four thousand years, from Ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria to Classical Greece and Rome, to medieval Europe, in India, China, and the Muslim world, the legal condition of the slave had remained virtually unchanged. The human slave was legal property to be bought and sold, required to work for the benefit of his master. So prevalent had the practice of slavery been throughout human history, many scholars consider those societies that did not practice slavery to be the anomaly.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that historian Adam Hochschild makes the following claim:

If . . . [in 1787] you stood on a London street corner and insisted that slavery was morally wrong and should be stopped, nine out of ten listeners would have laughed you off as a crackpot. The tenth might have agreed with you in principle, but assured you that ending slavery was wildly impractical: the British Empire's economy would collapse. (Hochschild 2005, 7)

Perhaps what is surprising is how quickly slavery as a legal institution was brought to an end. By the end of the nineteenth century slavery was legally abolished virtually everywhere in the western world. In slightly more than one generation, the antislavery movement that began in late eighteenth-century England accomplished its goal—the legal abolition of slavery in Europe, its possessions, and its former colonies.

In England, this abolition movement represented a group of people who fought for close to fifty years for someone else's rights—a feat all the more amazing when one considers that close to ninety-five percent of Englishmen and no Englishwomen possessed the right to vote (Hochschild 2005, 96). "Without this most basic of rights themselves," asks Adam Hochschild, "how could they be roused to care about the rights of other people, of a different skin color, an ocean away" (Hochschild 2005, 97)? Likewise, David Brion Davis asks: "Why was it that at a certain moment of history a small number of men not only saw the full horror of a social evil to which mankind had been blind for centuries, but felt impelled to attack it through personal testimony and cooperative action" (Davis 1966, vii)?

As we recognize not only the 200th anniversary of British Parliament ending the British slave trade, but the 250th anniversary of the Last Judgment, it is important for us to reflect on possible answers to these questions. It is universally recognized that antislavery movements arose almost simultaneously in Britain, France, and North America in the second half of the eighteenth century. What is less clear is why it was that these movements sprang to life precisely when they did. Why didn't they appear in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries? What was it about the second half of the eighteenth century that caused these movements to suddenly spring to life? While historians continue to struggle to formulate and agree on an answer to these questions, we can look to the nature of the Last Judgment and its effects on the natural world for answers. We can also look to see how the Lord's Revelation through the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg inspired individuals to take up the cause and play a vital role in the fight against slavery and the slave trade.

Before we can do that, however, it is useful to understand just how firmly rooted slavery was in western culture by the end of the eighteenth century and how widely accepted the arguments used to defend its existence were, as well to begin to see when and how criticisms against slavery turned into antislavery action. Only then can we begin to see how the spiritual effects of the Last Judgment affected the chain of events in the natural world. We will then look at the case study of how one individual, inspired by Swedenborg, played a critical role in the fight to abolish the British slave trade.

The Heritage of European Slavery top

The first textual evidence of slaves dates from the civilization of Sumer in 1200 B.C. (the Ur-Nammu tablet), and there is general agreement that slavery appeared independently in Europe, Asia, and Africa as early as 1000 B.C. In classical Greece, Athens possessed roughly an equal number of free male citizens and slaves. One estimate places the proportion of slaves in fourth-century Athens as high as that of the American South in 1860, with a higher percentage of Greeks owning slaves than nineteenth-century southerners (Davis 1966, 35). While most Greek slaves were non-Greeks purchased from traders, the vast majority of slaves in the Roman Empire were enslaved captives, brought back to Rome by their conquering legions. With an estimated two to three million slaves in Italy alone (Hochschild 2005, 2), Rome foreshadowed the American Deep South with its slave markets, where slaves were examined and forced to display their agility (Davis 1966, 36).

As the medieval period dawned, slavery disappeared in the interior of Europe with the emergence of the feudal system. But even as serfdom replaced slavery, the continuing heritage of Roman law, particularly its definition of slaves as personal property subject to the will of their master, blurred the line between slave and serf. Serfs in France, for example, were limited to virtually the same legal rights as Roman slaves (Davis 1966, 37, 46). Even by the end of the medieval period, when the labor shortages and rising wages resulting from the Black Death and Hundred Years' War "threatened to undermine the entire manorial system in the late fourteenth century," argues David Brion Davis, "the ancient principles of servitude justified severe laws to keep workers on the land." Davis goes on to argue that

. . . the legal principle of slavery survived as a weapon of social control. In 1547, for example, it was possible to enact a temporary law stating that vagabonds who attempted to escape from enforced service were to be branded on the forehead with the letter "S," which signified that they would be "slaves" for the rest of their lives. (Davis 1966, 40)

Throughout the Middle Ages slavery continued on the periphery of Europe, particularly in areas that maintained military or commercial contact with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world. By the late Middle Ages slave societies existed along virtually all of the main trade routes from Russia and Egypt to Venice and the south of France. In Spain, Christians and Muslims enslaved one another as they waged religious war for more than six hundred years. In the Mediterranean, the slave trade flourished from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. Venetian merchants, for example, sold slaves from the Dalmatian coast to the Muslim world, creating a trade that was, according to Henri Pirenne, "as vital to Venetian prosperity as was the later Atlantic slave trade to the economies of Britain and France" (Davis 1966, 42). According to Davis, during these centuries the Venetians and Genoese established a slave trade system in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean that would serve as a model for the Atlantic African slave trade:

Arriving on the coasts of the Black Sea in the thirteenth century, they ultimately established bases or factories which became thriving markets for the purchase of slaves. Like the Portuguese who built forts in West Africa, the Italians were not required to seize slaves on their own. . . . The Italians not only created stock companies, commercial bases or fondachi, and a highly organized slave trade, but in the colony of Cyprus they established plantations where imported bondsmen were employed in the cultivation of sugar cane. By 1300 there were Black slaves on Cyprus, which had become virtually a prototype for the West Indian colonies. (Davis 1966, 42)

By the end of the fifteenth century, however, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks had closed off the slave markets of the Black Sea, gradually extinguishing the trade of the Genoese and Venetian merchants and ultimately ending commercial slave trade in the Mediterranean (Davis 1966, 44). The chain of slavery would remain unbroken, however, as the Portuguese made contact with Africa, breaking the monopoly of Arab traders and importing the first African slaves. As early as mid-century, Portuguese merchants were shipping black Africans to Castile. By the end of the century, the slave trade shifted from the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to Africa and the coast of Portugal. The discovery of the New World and the establishment of sugar plantations in the West Indies brought an insatiable demand for African slaves.

While estimates vary, most place the number of slaves imported into the New World from the fifteenth to early nineteenth century somewhere between ten and fifteen million, or three to four times the number of white immigrants who made the voyage across the Atlantic (Pieterse 1992, 52). By the late eighteenth century nearly eighty thousand Africans experienced the Middle Passage each year (Hochschild 2005, 2). For three and a half centuries European nations competed with one another in the lucrative slave trade. While slavery, therefore, had continued virtually uninterrupted from the Ancient World to the settlement of the New World, what had changed by the sixteenth century was the addition of color to the institution.

Prior to the eighteenth century, there was little need for Europeans to establish an elaborate defense of slavery. The justifications for slavery that did exist were largely philosophical in nature, relying on a combination of classical tradition, medieval theological dualism, biblical authority, and an emerging view of the inferiority of those who were black.

The classical defense of slavery, particularly of foreign 'barbarians,' was that slaves were part of a fixed natural social order. According to Aristotle, "Humanity is divided into two: the master and the slave" (Hochschild 2005, 3). The masters possessed reason while the slaves, lacking reason, were inferior by nature and needed to be guided by their masters. Slavery, Aristotle argued, provided the only way for the enslaved to fulfill his or her function in life. In short, for some men, "slavery was natural to their being" (Outram 2005, 60). While skin color was not necessarily a determining factor in Greek and Roman slavery, both turned relatively quickly to enslaving foreigners, and evidence exists that both saw blackness as different and even inferior.

The theological notion of dualism, developed during the Middle Ages, emphasized the distinction between the physical body and the spiritual mind. This separation led to the argument that it did not matter whether the physical body was enslaved as long as the spiritual mind was free. As long as slaves were Christianized, their spiritual minds would be free, thereby minimizing the impact or significance of the enslavement of their physical bodies.

The Bible itself had proven to be a long-lasting source for the defense of slavery. Not only was slavery present in the stories of the Old Testament, but the curse of Ham had become widely accepted by the seventeenth century as not only an explanation for black skin color, but a justification for the enslavement of black Africans (Pieterse 1992, 44). In Genesis 9:18–29 Noah curses Ham's offspring for his sin in not covering his father's nakedness. By his words, "Cursed be Canaan a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren," Noah was seen to curse the sons of Ham to eternal obedience and slavery. While the Bible nowhere mentions that Ham's offspring were black, a connection between Ham and blackness developed during the Middle Ages, becoming a powerful argument for the enslavement of black Africans and other people who they considered to be 'less than white'.

It was commonly held, therefore, that slavery was sanctioned by God and that black Africans could be made slaves because of their inherent inferiority. Deirdre Coleman states:

European perceptions of the inferiority of Africans were so ingrained in this period that some went so far as to argue that Africans were "doomed by the almighty to the sufferings they underwent, and the [Europeans] were merely the instruments of the divine vengeance." (Coleman 2005, 97)

Slavery and the "Science of Race" in the Enlightenment top

Dorinda Outram argues that by the eighteenth century "assertions that black Africans formed a 'race' whose characteristics uniquely fitted them for slavery and justified its imposition as 'natural,' had become common" (Outram 2005, 67). One explanation for this tendency to "link slavery and race" is the fact that from the second half of the seventeenth century, as white indentured servitude declined and was all but eliminated in the British colonies, virtually all of the slaves being shipped to Europe's possessions in the New World were black Africans. But another factor must be given at least as much consideration—the growing interest during the Enlightenment in scientifically classifying all things in the natural world, including mankind (Outram 2005, 67). Over the course of the two previous centuries, European exploration had resulted in an outpouring of accounts of new lands, plants, animals, and human beings. These discoveries required some "logical framework" if man were, as Winthrop Jordan argues, "to continue to make sense of the world" (Jordan 1974, 99).

This desire to systematize and categorize the discoveries of new plants and animals, and ultimately to scientifically study the place of mankind in nature and the physical differences between the races, was indicative of the shift that took place during the eighteenth century away from religion and the issue of salvation toward scientific discovery. "Viewed in the broadest terms," Winthrop Jordan argues, "this growing interest in the physical distinctions among human beings was one aspect of the secularization of the west" (Jordan 1974, 99).

In Greek antiquity, human geographic differences had been divided into those that were 'cultured' and those who were 'barbarians' based on the capacity to reason. These distinctions continued into the Enlightenment. As Emmanual Eze notes:

Aristotle, for example, defined the human being as a rational animal, and supposed that the cultured people (such as the male, aristocratic Greeks) were capable of living in a reasonable way and organized their society accordingly (democratically), while the "barbarians," the non-Greeks, incapable of culture and lacking the superior rational capacity for the Athenian-style democratic social organization, lived brutishly and under despotism. European Enlightenment thinkers retained the Greek ideal of reason, as well as this reason's categorical function of discriminating between the cultured (now called "civilized") and the "barbarian" (the "savage" or the "primitive"). (Eze 1997, 4)

The accounts from the so-called 'New World' described people with 'strange' habits, reinforcing the European view of themselves as 'civilized' and those outside Europe as 'primitive.' The question of the differences between races, however, became increasingly important because in the eighteenth-century people still saw nature in terms of a great hierarchy, or 'Great Chain of Being', in which everything had a "naturally assigned position and status" (Eze 1997, 5)—from inanimate objects, to the lowest forms of life, to animals, to mankind, even up through heaven, and finally culminating in God.

As early as the late seventeenth century Sir William Petty (1623–1687) began to distinguish between the races on the basis of physical distinctions:

I say that the Europeans do not only differ from the . . . Africans in Collour, which is as much as white differs from black, but also in their Haire . . . [and] in the shape of their Noses, Lipps, and cheek bones, as also in the very outline of their faces and the Mould of their skulls. They differ also in their Naturall Manners, and in the internall Qualities of their Minds. (Jordan 1974, 102)

By the early eighteenth century Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) and Comte de Buffon (1707–1788) began to classify everything in nature, including not only plants and animals, but mankind according to the 'naturally' ordered hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being. Buffon believed that all of mankind had originally been white and that darker skin color was the result of climate, thereby implying that racial characteristics were not fixed by God in their creation, but could be altered through a change of environment (Outram 2005, 68).

By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, anatomists such as Peter Camper (1722–1789) and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) began to focus not only on skin color, but on the skeletal structures of various races, thereby providing scientific 'evidence' to the "notion of a natural hierarchy of the races on the strength of natural form, cranial angles and skin pigmentation" (Outram 2005, 69). In other words, the differences between the races could not be changed simply by altering the environment—they were distinct and unchangeable.

In 1781 Blumenbach distinguished five races of mankind—Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. Of the Ethiopian race he wrote:

Color black, hair black and curly, head narrow, compressed at the sides; forehead knotty, uneven, molar bones protruding outwards; eyes very prominent; nose thick, mixed up as it were with the wide jaws; alveolar edge narrow, elongated in front; upper primaries obliquely prominent; lips puffy; chin retreating. Many are bandy-legged. To this variety belong all Africans, except those of the north. (Pieterse 1992, 46)

While he argued that the five races were merely variations of the same species, he placed these 'variations' within the 'naturally' ordered hierarchy by "allott[ing] the first place to the Caucasian [whose] stock displays . . . the most beautiful race of men" (Eze 1997, 79).

Camper perhaps best illustrates the desire of eighteenth-century intellectuals to use science to categorize the races within the hierarchy of nature. By measuring the profile of the human head, Camper was one of the first to use scientific instruments to 'measure' racial differences. The so-called 'Camper facial angle' measurement determined that there was a spectrum from apes to black Africans to Europeans, with Africans placed lowest among humans because they possessed the smallest 'facial angle' (Pierterse 1992, 46). While categorizations such as Camper's clearly acknowledged that black Africans were human beings and not 'beasts,' the belief that they were on the borderline between animals and humans became widespread.

These anatomists, in essence, created theories explaining the difference between the races that defenders of slavery could use to argue that science supported, and even strengthened, the old Aristotelian argument that 'barbarians' were 'natural slaves' who, when enslaved, were living according to their own true nature. In short, they used these 'scientific' theories to argue that slavery could "be seen as maintaining the order of nature" (Outram 2005, 69).

The defenders of slavery also used the writings on race by such philosophers as David Hume (1711–1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) to strengthen their position. Eze argues that in these writings, "'Reason' and 'civilization' became almost synonymous with 'white' people and northern Europe, while unreason and savagery were conveniently located among the non-whites, the 'black,' the 'red,' the 'yellow,' outside Europe" (Eze 1997, 5).

David Hume (1711–1776) not only professed that blacks were inferior to whites, but argued that the African people demonstrated limited intelligence and ingenuity.

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences . . . there are NEGRO slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity . . . In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negro as a man of parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly. (Kramnick 1995, 629)

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) argued in his essay Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764) that different races or nations have "different aesthetic and moral sensibilities" (Eze 1997, 49), with Germans at the top and Africans at the bottom. In this essay Kant writes:

The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. . . . So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color. The religion of fetishes so widespread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird feather, a cow's horn, a conch shell, or any common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain but in the Negro's way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings. (Kramnick 1995, 638)

When speaking of a Negro who offered an opinion on how whites treated their wives wrote, "And it might be that there were something in this which perhaps deserved to be considered; but in short, this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid. (Kramnick 1995, 639)"

Edward Long (1734–1813), a British colonial administrator and planter in Jamaica, offers a description of African slaves in his book History of Jamaica (1774) that echoes the views of Hume and Kant:

We find them marked with the same bestial manners, stupidity, and vices, which debase their brethren on the continent, who seem to be distinguished from the rest of mankind, not in person only, but in possessing, in abstract, every species of inherent turpitude, that is to be found dispersed at large among the rest of the human creation, with scarce a single virtue to extenuate this shade of character, differing in this particular from all other men; for, in other countries, the most abandoned villain we ever heard of has rarely, if ever, been known unportioned with some good quality at least in his composition. It is astonishing, that although they have been acquainted with Europeans, and their manufactures, for so many hundred years, they have, in all this series of time, manifested so little taste for arts, or a genius either inventive or imitative. Among so great a number of provinces on this extensive continent, and among so many millions of people, we have heard but of one or two significant tribes, who comprehend any thing of mechanic arts or manufacture; and even these, for the most part, are said to perform their work in a very bungling and slovenly manner, perhaps not better than an orangutan might, with little pains, be brought to. (Kramnick 1995, 644–645)

It was through writings such as these, Eze argues, that these philosophers, "Played a strong role in articulating Europe's sense not only of its cultural but also racial superiority" (Eze 1997, 5).

The Emerging Debate over Slavery in the Eighteenth Century top

By the eighteenth century, these emerging scientific and environmental arguments began to replace the theological and biblical defenses of slavery as the authority of religion was eclipsed by that of science. The 'science of race' was not the only defense of slavery, however, as slavery forces drew on concepts of natural rights as well as legal, economic, and even humanitarian arguments to support their cause.

The very fact that slavery continued to exist largely unchallenged by any organized force during the first half of the eighteenth century when so many intellectuals were concerned with the issues of equality, freedom, and controls on arbitrary power seems a paradox. In fact, some of the leading figures of the period, while opposed to slavery in theory, stopped short of advocating for its elimination or acting to bring about its end. While many believed that slavery should not exist in an ideal world, they accepted it as a common fact given its importance to national economies and the material greed and lust for power that existed in the world. The Philosophical Dictionary (1764), for example, included the following: "The human race constituted as it is, cannot subsist unless there be an infinite number of useful individuals possessed of no property at all." Likewise, Adam Smith wrote, "[It] has been universal in the beginning of society, and the love of dominion and authority over others will probably make it perpetual (Hochschild 2005, 87).

John Locke (1632–1704) wrote, "Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation that it is hardly to be conceived that an 'Englishman' much less a 'Gentleman' should plead for it" (Greenidge 1958, 127–128). Yet, according to Hochschild, he invested £600 in the Royal African Company. Voltaire (1694–1778), who criticized slaveholders in Candide, "accepted with pleasure," writes Hochschild, "when a leading French slave ship owner offered to name a vessel after him" (Hochschild 2005, 87).

The defenders of slavery even made use of the words of Montesquieu (1689–1755), the first of the philosophes to offer a harsh criticism of the institution of slavery, to support their position. Montesquieu argued that slavery was an extension of despotism and that it was "against natural law, by which all men are born free and independent" (Merriman 1996, 405). However, he also wrote that slavery was more acceptable in despotic societies where everyone was already subject to tyranny, since one would lose little by willingly choosing enslavement in the face of despotism. Proslavery propagandists twisted Montesquieu's words to support their cause, arguing that since most African tribes were despotic, the slaves in European colonies were, in effect, better off. Addressing how defenders of slavery used the principles of the Enlightenment to defend slavery, Davis wrote,

A belief in progress and natural rights might lead, of course, to antislavery convictions; but if history seemed to be on the side of liberty, slavery had attained a certain prescriptive sanction as a nearly universal expression of human nature. Men who had acquired an increasing respect for property and for the intricate workings of natural and social laws could not view as an unmitigated evil an institution that had developed through the centuries. (Davis 1962, 214)

As the eighteenth century progressed, supporters of slavery began to develop more elaborate defenses of the institution based on legal, economic, and even humanitarian arguments. In England, defenders argued that slaves had been legally purchased under British law and were therefore the rightful property of their owners. Not only were slaves legal property, sanctioned by British law, they argued, but the entire slave system benefited the national economy. England could not remain competitive with the Spanish and the French if they freed their slaves. Without slavery, planters would not be able to provide England with its vital raw materials. More dangerous still, the entire colonial economy could collapse, endangering the welfare of the nation itself. They even argued that the slaves themselves would suffer from a collapse of the colonial economy.

Responding to growing humanitarian calls for more humane treatment of slaves, defenders of slavery argued that many enslaved Africans had in fact been saved from certain death in Africa and that by being brought to the Americas they were taught European 'civilized values' such as hard work. Some even went so far as to compare the conditions of slaves to those of English servants and workers, asking their opponents why their humanitarian principles appeared not to extend to their own countrymen.

Many of these arguments came in direct response to the growing criticism of slavery that, despite the pervasive acceptance of slavery, began to emerge from both sides of the Atlantic during the eighteenth century. By the second half of the century, intellectuals such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who argued that no man should "submit to a human master but rather to the common good" (Ackerman 2005, 5), began to condemn slavery as a violation of the natural rights of man. As Wayne Ackerman argues, "Along with new ideas about the worth of the individual and the rights of humanity came questions about the morality of slavery as an institution" (Ackerman 2005, 5).

As its foundation, however, most of the emerging criticism focused on the inhumane treatment of slaves and therefore the slave trade, rather than on slavery itself. If the slave trade could be ended, they reasoned, the supply of new slaves would be greatly reduced, thereby encouraging slave owners to treat their slaves more humanely.

This spirit of humanitarianism, which ultimately led to the emergence of antislavery activity, was born out of religion. Religious revival had begun in the previous century, as religious thinkers began to search for the true purpose of God's creation and the proper role and place of mankind. An important result of this religious revival, argues Ackerman, was the development of "new ideas about sin, salvation, God himself, and, later, slavery" (Ackerman 2005, 6). These ideas included the belief that God's Providence controlled the moral order and could "punish those that did not live according to God's standards" (Ackerman 2005, 6). Specifically, English evangelicals believed that Providence would punish Britain as a nation if it did not begin to address some of its moral issues, leading to an array of social reform efforts, including opposition to the slave trade. Evangelicals began to view slavery as 'detrimental to humanity' and 'incompatible with their religion.' At the root of the emerging religious opposition to slavery was the changing idea of sin.

In 1737, the Quaker Benjamin Lay called slavery a "Hellish practice," a "filthy sin," the "Capital Sin," and, "the greatest Sin in the World, of the very nature of Hell itself, and is the Belly of Hell" (Davis 1966, 291). Previous religious belief held that all men were condemned by original sin—that slavery was part of the punishment for Adam's sin and that by nature some men were required to work harder in their enslavement than others. It was the bondage to sin that mattered, not physical slavery. As Davis writes, ". . . men could not fully perceive the moral contradictions of slavery until a major religious transformation had changed their ideas about sin and spiritual freedom . . ." (Davis 1966, 292). Quakers and others began to emphasize the notion that man was created with free will, that is, with the ability to choose between good and evil. Mankind, they argued, could only achieve moral perfectibility through free choice, which was destroyed by slavery. All men were not enslaved as a consequence of original sin, and therefore slavery was not part of the natural order. Rather, it was "contrary to nature as well as to Scripture" (Davis 1966, 316). It was inconceivable to them that a good, loving God had condemned mankind, and particularly one particular race, to perpetual slavery.

Despite this emerging religious belief that slavery was a sin and the resulting humanitarian criticism of the treatment of slaves as morally wrong, most of the attacks against slavery remained individual calls for reform. It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century, and particularly after 1770, that organized efforts to end the slave trade began to appear.

Trying to capture the state of the slavery debate during this period, Hochschild writes:

No major thinker defended slavery, but few spent real effort attacking it . . . A latent feeling was in the air, but an intellectual undercurrent disapproving of slavery was something very different from the belief that anything could be done about it. (Hochschild 2005, 85)

While it should be noted that antislavery legislation was to appear in the young United States during the 1780s, as Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut and others began gradual emancipation, these efforts were limited to individual states that possessed very few slaves. Hochschild offers an interesting analogy between the issue of antislavery in England in the mid-eighteenth century and that of environmental awareness today:

An analogy today might be how some people think about automobiles. For reasons of global warming, air quality, traffic, noise, and dependence on oil, one can argue, the world might be better off without cars . . . Even if you depend on driving to work, it's possible to agree there's a problem. A handful of dedicated environmentalists try to practice what they preach, and travel only by train, bus, bicycle, or foot. Yet does anyone advocate a movement to ban automobiles from the face of the earth? Similarly, despite the uneasiness some people in late-eighteenth-century England had about slavery, to actually abandon it seemed a laughable dream. (Hochschild 2005, 85–86)

And yet, organized antislavery movements simultaneously appeared in the United States, France, and England in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and in less than one generation legislation was passed outlawing the slave trade in each of these nations.

The Eighteenth-Century Antislavery Movement in England top

To understand the monumental shift that occurred in the movement against slavery during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, it is important to pinpoint the moment of transition from individuals questioning the morality of slavery and even condemning the existence of the institution to organized groups working to abolish first the slave trade and then the institution itself.

Virtually all historians point to the events in England in the 1780s, and to the organized movement begun in the previous decade by the Quakers as the critical turning point. The Quakers in particular are given credit for serving as this vital link between the period of antislavery thought and antislavery action because of their ability to build a far-reaching organizational structure that could not only build broad-based popular support for legislative change, but provide the funding necessary to support such an effort. Prior to 1770, however, the Quakers faced the same contradiction as many of the other critics of slavery in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Quakers may have begun to see slavery as a sin, but many, especially those in the southern colonies of British North America, continued to own slaves. Even George Fox, who condemned the notion of slavery and urged masters to treat their slaves with love, felt "compelled to accept slavery as part of the natural order" (Ackerman 2005, 7). William Penn owned African slaves, Pennsylvania law included strict slave codes, Quaker merchants continued to import African slaves as late as 1730, and such notable Quakers as David and Alexander Barclay were members of the Royal African Company (Davis 1966, 304–305).

It was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that the Quakers, led by such men as John Woolman (1720–1775) and Anthony Benezet (1723–1784), began to take action first against the slave trade and then against slavery itself. Historians argue that this transition to action was surprisingly sudden. Interestingly, this shift seems to have taken place at the London Yearly Meeting of 1757, when the Meeting ruled that, "all members who bought or sold Negroes were to be excluded from business meetings or from making financial contributions to the Society" (Davis 1966, 330). By 1761, the London Yearly Meeting "announced that slave dealers merited disownment" (Davis 1966, 330).

By the 1770s, English Quakers had begun to express their opposition to slavery beyond the Society of Friends, printing and distributing their first antislavery pamphlets (Ackerman 2005, 9). In 1783 the Quakers established the structure necessary to carry out the protracted fight against slavery when a six-person committee was formed for the purpose of "agitat[ing] against slavery and the slave trade" (Hochschild 2005, 78). This committee submitted articles to newspapers, distributed pamphlets throughout the country, and sent a fifteen-page pamphlet to the king (Hochschild 2005, 78). In the same year they presented the first of what was to become many petitions to the House of Commons calling for an end to the slave trade. For antislavery supporters, this was an important first step. A society established for the purpose of attacking slavery had sent a petition calling for an end to the slave trade to Parliament. Politically, however, the petition had minimal impact. Not only did Lord North fail to support the petition, believing "it would not suit economic interest to push for a cessation of the trade" (Ackerman 2005, 9), but not a single Member of Parliament was "persuaded to take up the cause," with many discounting the effort out of hand since it came from the Quakers, whom they saw as 'powerless oddballs' and 'conspicuously different' (Hochschild 2005, 78).

Four years later, in 1787, the Quaker antislavery organization broadened its membership, welcoming non-Quakers for the first time, including abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp. This new group, which was to become the core of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, formed the first national, nonsectarian antislavery organization. With Clarkson and Sharp as its leaders, the Society brought together Quakers, evangelicals, members of literary and philosophical societies, academics, and other intellectuals to fight against slavery. No longer a Quaker-only organization, it could not be dismissed as being "controlled by a fringe sect" (Hochschild 2005, 95).

While the Quaker organization provided much of the initial force, the establishment of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, whose declared purpose was to "procure and publish such information as may tend to the abolition of slavery" (Greenidge 1958, 132), is universally seen as the true beginning of the organized antislavery movement. As Hochschild writes,

If we were to fix one point when the crusade began, it would be the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, when twelve determined men sat down in the printing shop at 2 George Yard, amid flatbed presses, wooden trays of type, and large sheets of freshly printed book pages, to begin one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens' movements of all time. (Hochschild 2005, 3)

While the members of the Society ultimately sought the abolition of slavery, they decided, however, to 'proceed with caution,' targeting first the slave trade. Their goal was to spearhead a popular movement that would ultimately pressure Parliament into passing legislation banning the slave trade, not be an easy task given the general acceptance of slavery and its perceived importance to the national economy. Perhaps more importantly, they faced the reality that a significant number of Members of Parliament were financially tied to the African slave trade.

To achieve their goal of antislavery legislation, the Society was going to need support within Parliament, which they soon received in William Wilberforce, Charles Fox, and William Pitt. Historians credit Clarkson's determined collection of evidence of the brutal realities of the slave trade, Wilberforce's relentless efforts to keep the issue alive in Parliament, and the Society's ability to build popular support against the slave trade for the ultimate success of antislavery legislation.

In 1788 the Abolition Society organized its first nationwide petition campaign, resulting in over one hundred petitions attacking the slave trade being presented to Parliament. Parliament refused to take specific legal action, as most members continued to fear the impact that ending the slave trade would have on the British economy, but on February 11, Parliament, at the request of William Pitt, appointed a Trade Committee of the Privy Council to consider the state of trade with Africa, with particular attention to the slave trade. In preparation for the council's hearings the Abolition Society, with Clarkson at the fore, sought out witnesses who could present hard evidence of the horrors of slavery. The testimony of these witnesses was effective. When the Privy Council's Report was published in April 1789, "its effect," according to historian Charles Greenidge, "was damning" (Greenidge 1958, 135). In March the House of Commons had resolved itself into a committee of the whole to inquire into the slave trade and on May 12, 1789, the inquiry commenced with Wilberforce standing before the House of Commons and, for the first of what would become many times, calling for a resolution to end the slave trade.

Unsuccessful, he pushed for the appointment of a select committee of the House of Commons to again hear further evidence against the slave trade in January 1790. After testimony and evidence was presented, Wilberforce proposed a bill to end the slave trade from the English world on April 18, 1791. All the while, the Abolition Society continued to build popular support, resulting in a campaign that sent 519 petitions, representing every English county, to Parliament. While Parliament voted down the bill 163 to 88, the antislavery forces appeared to have won a significant victory when a clear majority of the House of Commons resolved that the slave trade ought to be gradually abolished. However, Members of Parliament grew increasingly nervous about the potential radicalism of the growing popular movement against slavery, particularly given the violent turn of the French Revolution. As a result, when Parliament reconvened the following year, they declined to renew discussions on a gradual end to the slave trade.

In France, a group of liberals, including the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), had been corresponding with the English Society for the Abolition of Slavery and had established a similar society, Les Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Negro), in 1789. While Wilberforce had hoped to visit Paris to support the new society, it was determined that Clarkson should go instead, since it may not have been prudent for a member of the British government to travel to France given the growing unrest of the French Revolution (Greenidge 1958, 135).

Meanwhile, Wilberforce continued his efforts in Parliament, but it would take another six years for a notable victory—the passage of a bill in 1799 limiting the number of slaves per ton permissible on British slave ships (Ackerman 2005, 12). It would be another five years before Wilberforce made significant progress toward a legislative ban of the slave trade itself. The Abolition Society, dormant since 1795 largely as the result of Clarkson's ill health, was revived with the infusion of new members in 1804. With the support of the rejuvenated Society, Wilberforce introduced a new bill, which this time passed the House of Commons but lost by seven votes in the House of Lords (Greenidge 1958, 137). Wilberforce gained another victory, however, when both houses of Parliament passed a bill on June 24, 1806 that both abolished the slave trade to territories taken by the British during the Napoleonic Wars and prohibited British slave ships from taking slaves to foreign colonies (Ackerman 2005, 13).

The final step toward the complete abolition of the slave trade took place the following year. On January 2, 1807, Lord Granville introduced a bill stating that, "from and after January 1, 1808, all manner of 'dealing and trading in slaves' in Africa, or their transport from Africa to any other place, should be prohibited and unlawful" (Greenidge 1958, 138). On March 16, Members of Parliament rose and cheered Wilberforce, and by March 25, 1807, the English slave trade had been officially ended. Twenty years after its establishment, the Society for the Abolition of Slavery had achieved its first goal and by 1833 it achieved its second—the abolition of slavery in all English possessions.

Over the course of the 19th century, the institution of slavery, which had gone virtually unchallenged before 1757, was officially abolished throughout the western world. In France, colonial slavery was temporarily outlawed in 1794, although Napoleon's repeal of the law in 1802 caused slavery not to be permanently abolished in France and her territories until 1848. In the United States, the slave trade was ended in 1808 and slavery was abolished with the passage of the thirteenth amendment in 1865. Spain outlawed slavery in all of her territories by 1820 and the emerging independent republics of Latin America followed suit—Chile (1823), Mexico (1829), Bolivia (1831), Uruguay (1842), Equador (1851), Argentina (1853), Venezuela (1854), and Peru (1854). In 1861 Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia. By 1888, when Brazil officially abolished slavery, the efforts begun by twelve men gathered in a London print shop a hundred years earlier had been completed.

The Causes of the British Antislavery Movement and the Last Judgment top

Historians continue to struggle to find an answer for why an organized antislavery movement seemed to suddenly emerge in the second half of the eighteenth century. As Howard Temperley asks,

The problem is easily stated: What was it, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, that made men turn against an institution which, in one form or another, had existed since time immemorial? Why was slavery attacked then? Why not in the seventeenth century, or the sixteenth? Why, indeed, was it attacked at all? (Temperley 1981, 21)

The traditional answer has been that the eighteenth-century antislavery movement was the culmination of a long string of intellectual inquiry. That is, antislavery ideas, originally expressed in relative isolation by individuals beginning in the sixteenth century, finally coalesced and were channeled into a popular movement in the late eighteenth century. Describing this progression of ideas, Thomas Clarkson himself attempted to show in his History of Abolition (1808) how the "tiny springs and rivulets" of individuals in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries "converge[d] to become rivers, eventually swelling the torrent which swept away the slave trade" (Temperley 1981, 21). Ultimately, this approach argues that individuals acted against slavery, whether for religious or humanitarian reasons, because it was the morally right thing to do. In recent decades, however, historians have begun to question this approach. They argue that this view fails to connect the progression and development of ideas in a meaningful way to the realities and events of the period—it fails to explain, in other words, what it was about the late eighteenth century in particular that made men choose to adopt antislavery views and act upon them (Temperley 1981, 23).

The competing explanation is that the antislavery movement was the result of specific economic forces at work in the late eighteenth century. While these historians do not totally discount the role of morality, they argue that it was fundamentally an issue of economic forces—that slavery was abolished when it was no longer profitable. Eric Williams, for example, argues that it was greed and self-interest, not benevolence, that brought an end to slavery. By the late eighteenth century, he argues, slavery was not only "becoming less important to the British economy, but that it was inefficient and unprofitable" (Engerman 1981, 6). Critics of this view argue, however, that slavery was expanding and actually increasing in importance to the British economy, not failing, in the late eighteenth century. The number of slaves imported into the Caribbean, Brazil, and the British colonies in fact reached its height during the middle of the eighteenth century. Outram argues that slavery, and the slave trade in particular, were "essential to the increasingly integrated world economy of the Enlightenment," and that the abolition of the slave trade meant "the dismantling of a profitable, successful, and globally organized economic structure" (Outram 2005, 63–65).

A third approach, put forth by Howard Temperley, tries to reconcile these two fundamentally contradictory explanations (Temperley 1981, 22). For Temperley, the key to the answer is that people began, for the first time in the late eighteenth century, to believe that it was possible to eliminate slavery. Until this time, as we have seen, slavery was almost universally seen as a part of the natural order. "Before slavery could become a political issue—or even in the proper sense, a moral issue—," wrote Temperley, "what needed to be shown was that the world could get along without it" (Temperley 1981, 29). This evidence, he argues, presented itself in the rapid growth of the free-labor economies of England and New England. In short, people began to see that material prosperity and individual freedom did not have to be mutually exclusive. Slavery, which was already increasingly being seen as inhumane and morally unacceptable, could now been seen as 'removable,' and ultimately as an impediment to human progress.

As historians continue to search for a clear and meaningful answer to why an antislavery movement seemed to suddenly appear in the late eighteenth century, New Church men and women can offer critical insight into why this may have been the case. In particular, an understanding of the Last Judgment can shed light onto why people may not only have come to see slavery as a sin, but have been able, as Temperley argues, to begin to see slavery as 'removable.' It is significant that historians identify the second half of the eighteenth century as the critical turning point in the transition from antislavery thought and antislavery action. It is also intriguing that some point to the London Quaker Yearly Meeting of 1757 specifically as the beginning of this shift.

The Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg tell us that the Last Judgment took place in the spiritual world in 1757. Prior to the Last Judgment, "much of the communication between heaven and the world . . . was intercepted" (Continuation Concerning the Last Judgment 8), resulting in people losing the ability to both recognize and distinguish between truth and falsity and freely choose between good and evil. By means of the Last Judgment, the equilibrium between heaven and hell was restored, clearing the air, as it were, for the Lord's influx to flow freely again into the world and restoring man's freedom. The result was that people could once again be enlightened to see the truth around them, to recognize the false ideas that were in their midst, and to freely choose between them. As Swedenborg writes

For since communication has been restored by the Last Judgment, man can be enlightened and reformed; that is, can understand the Divine truth of the Word, receive it when understood, and retain it when received, for the interposing obstacles are removed. (Continuation Concerning the Last Judgment 12)

Swedenborg also states, however, that the Last Judgment took place in the spiritual world and that, "The future state of the world will be exactly the same as it has been up to now; for the mighty change which has taken place in the spiritual world does not cause any change in the external appearance of the natural world" (The Last Judgment 73). The changes that took place in the natural world were internal, and as such do not necessarily appear so obvious or immediate. One of the important effects of the Last Judgment, however, was that evils present in the world, such as slavery, could be more easily recognized and that people could freely chose what was true and good. Swedenborg tells us that the Last Judgment brought one era to an end and allowed a new era to begin. It was precisely at the end of the eighteenth century that man began to identify slavery as a sin and recognize that it could and should be removed. Within one century a new era was born—an era founded on free labor and not on slavery.

Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century slavery had gone virtually unchallenged. Even when individuals began to oppose slavery, most still accepted that it was an unchangeable part of the natural order. As historian J.M. Roberts writes

In the middle of the eighteenth century most people . . . could still believe that the world would go on much as it seemed always to have done. The weight of the past was everywhere enormous and often it was immovable. (Johnson 2007b, 8)

Yet, by 1787, only thirty years after the Last Judgment took place in the spiritual world, a society was organized in England for the express purpose of eliminating slavery and within a century it had been legally abolished throughout the western world.

The Swedenborgian Influence on the British Antislavery Movement top

While the nature of the Last Judgment and its effects can provide insight into the question of why the antislavery movement began when it did, it is also important to recognize the impact that the truths revealed in the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) had on inspiring individuals to play an active role in the fight against slavery. Marguerite Block notes that even though Swedenborg does not specifically address the institution of slavery, a significant number of his early followers found in his Writings the "inspiration for their attack upon it" (Block 1984, 55). One such individual was Carl Wadström (1746–1799), who came to play an important role in the English antislavery story.

Born in Stockholm on April 19, 1746, Wadström began his career working in Sweden's Government Surveying Office in 1766 before being appointed to the College of Mines three years later, where, like Swedenborg, he eventually served on the Board of Mines. An interesting chapter in Wadström's early career involved a covert mission to Prussia, where he was sent by King Gustav III (who was contemplating hostilities with Russia) to discover their secret of swordmaking. Caught and imprisoned, Wadström managed to escape and return to Sweden with twenty-seven swordmakers, earning him honors from the king (Acton 1943, 2–3). Two years later, Wadström traveled through Germany, France, Holland, and England as the tutor to Adolf Ulrik Grill, whose father Klas Grill had business connections to Swedenborg. During this trip Wadström took careful notes on the mines, factories, machinery, and farming of these nations (Acton 1943, 4). As a friend noted after his death in 1799, "As a scientist, Wadström had genius and deep insight, especially in mineralogy, mechanics, natural history, and political economy. He sketched with unusual ease and correctness, and was thoroughly familiar with English and French" (Acton 1943, 5). His insight in these areas, and particularly his talents for sketching, would come to play an important role in the antislavery story. Like Swedenborg, Wadström left his scientific pursuits and his career in the College of Mines to spend the rest of his life dedicated to a different path. For Wadström, this was the creation of a colony in Africa and an end to the slave trade.

While it is not clear when precisely Wadström was introduced to Swedenborg's Writings, Acton speculates that it was most likely late in 1778 or early in 1779 (Acton 1943, 5). It is clear from a letter sent by Augustus Nordenskjöld to his brother on March 30, 1781 that Wadström had become deeply committed to Swedenborg's Writings by that point. Nordenskjöld writes in his letter, "Director Wadström is one of the most solid receivers of whom I know, and engages in much activity and conversation in all companies, wherever he can bring up the subject. He also gives his testimony modestly and frankly" (Acton 1943, 6).

One such activity was the establishment of a group of men who shared his interest in Swedenborg's Writings. In a detailed account of the meeting of this group in the New Jerusalem Magazine (1790), Wadström clearly states that these men came together specifically as a result of Swedenborg's teachings regarding the African people. He writes:

In the year 1779, a society of affectionate admirers of the Writings of that extraordinary man Emanuel Swedenborg assembled at Norrköping in Sweden, in consequence of reflecting on the favorable account this eminent author gives, both in his printed works and in his manuscripts, of the African nation. (New Jerusalem Magazine 1790, 70)

While it is not clear which exact passages from Swedenborg's works drew the interest of these men, it is clear that, with regard to the nature of the Africans, Swedenborg differed markedly from the many philosophers of the century who had emphasized the racial superiority of the European and likened the African to beasts. As we have seen, Hume (1711–1776) not only believed "the negroes . . . to be naturally inferior to the whites," but wrote of one Black African in Jamaica, ". . . 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks few words plainly" (Kramnick 1995, 629). Kant (1724–1804) suggested that the religion of Africans was a type of idolatry and used color as proof of their lack of intelligence: ". . . this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid" (Kramnick 1995, 639). Likewise Long (1734–1813) wrote that Africans "are said to perform their work in a very bungling and slovenly manner, perhaps not better than an orangutan might, with little pains, be brought to" (Kramnick 1995, 645).

In stark contrast to these depictions, Swedenborg wrote that the spirits he visited with in the spiritual world who had lived in Africa were more capable of enlightenment than were Europeans because of their ability to think interiorly.

The African people are more capable of enlightenment than all other peoples on this earth, because they are of such character as to think interiorly and thus to accept truths and acknowledge them. Others, such as the Europeans, think only externally, receiving truths in their memory, but not seeing them interiorly in any light of the understanding—a light which they also do not acknowledge in matters of faith. (The Last Judgment 118)

Swedenborg also called the Africans "the most beloved" of the heathens in heaven because of their ability to "receive the goods and truths of heaven more readily than others" (Heaven and Hell 326), noting specifically that, "When the Word was presented to them, they understood it as to the internal spiritual sense" (The Last Judgment 123). He noted not only the Africans' willingness to receive the Word and their ability to see God as a Man, but their celestial nature:

. . . Moreover, the Africans are more receptive than others in this earth, of the heavenly doctrine. . . . These willingly receive, from the angels, the doctrine concerning the Lord. They, more than any others, have it implanted in themselves that the Lord must appear altogether as a man, and that it can by no other means happen otherwise. They are in the capacity of receiving not only the truths of faith, but especially its goods. They are of the celestial genius. (Spiritual Experiences 4783)

Addressing the state of the Church and Africa, Swedenborg wrote, "Hence the angels rejoiced that the coming of the Lord was now at hand, and that the Church, which is now perishing in Europe, should be renewed in Africa" (Spiritual Experiences 4777).

Inspired by Swedenborg's Writings, Wadström and the Norrköpping society determined to work to eliminate the African slave trade and to establish a new society on the west coast of Africa that was founded on "true Christian principles." He wrote of their intentions:

I esteemed it as one of the happy events of my life, the being present on this remarkable occasion. . . . Before this memorable meeting was dissolved, every one present expressed his warmest and most cordial assurance, to labor, each in his particular station, unceasingly to exert his utmost abilities in concerting and carrying into execution a plan, not only for the abolition of that execrable trade, but for the general civilization, founded on true Christian principles, of those uncultivated and hitherto abused nations. (New Jerusalem Magazine 1790, 70)

These followers of Swedenborg, whose primary objectives included the abolition of the slave trade, predated the Quaker antislavery society in England by four years and Clarkson's Society for the Abolition of Slavery by eight.

With regard to establishing a colony on the coast of Africa, the Norrköpping group sought to create a society founded on the principles of Swedenborg's Writings. This society, based on agricultural trade and free of slavery, would eliminate the 'Lust of Dominion' and 'Lust of Possession' that they believed had corrupted Europe (Coleman 68) and of which Swedenborg wrote, "Dominion from evil and falsity consists in desiring to make all slaves . . . [and] destroying all. From which it is evident that dominion from evil and falsity is of the devil . . ." (Arcanca Coelestia 1749[3]). These goals were later formalized by Augustus Nordenskjöld and published in A Plan for a Free Community upon the coast of Africa under the protection of Great Britain; but Intirely Independent of All European Laws and Governments (1789), which Wadström signed, along with two others.

Getting to the coast of Africa proved an arduous task for Wadström and his friends, however. Their first attempt came late in 1779, when they presented a petition to King Gustav III seeking support to establish "a commercial and farming colony" (Acton 1943, 10). While this effort failed because of the tensions surrounding the American Revolution, the king gave his consent on September 27, 1781, granting a charter by which "they were empowered to organize their own government, to enact their own laws, and to establish a society in all respects independent o[f] Europe . . ." (Wadström 1794, 185). This effort again failed, however, when they could not attract enough colonists, despite Augustus Nordenskjöld traveling to England and France to recruit volunteers.

With plans for colonization stalled, Wadström and Nordenskjöld decided to make an exploratory voyage to Africa. Again, their initial efforts did not come to fruition, this time of their own choosing. In May 1784, they had received an offer from French merchant Jacques Chauvel, who proposed sailing to the Senegal River, where they could transfer to a smaller ship and sail to Gallam, 700 miles up the river. Wadström and Nordenjköld refused the offer when it became clear that Chauvel planned to transport slaves as part of the voyage (Acton 1943, 12–14).

Finally, in 1787, Wadström achieved success when he received a subsidy from King Gustav III to travel to Africa, with instructions to investigate an appropriate site for a future colony with the hopes of establishing gold mines and developing trade with the Africans. King Gustav required that Wadström be accompanied, however, by Professor Anders Sparrman (1748–1820), a natural scientist, and Lt. Carl Axel Arrhenius, Sweden's most distinguished Swedish chemist and mineralogist (Acton 1943, 20). Wadström said of the expedition, ". . . the king loved gold, my worthy companions loved natural history, and I loved colonization" (Wadström 1794, 187).

They eventually secured passage on a French ship owned by the slave-trading Senegal Company (Acton 1943, 25). Having landed on the French Island of Gorée, near Dakar, Wadström and his companions made several trips to the mainland coast. It was there that Wadström witnessed the horrors of the African slave trade firsthand. One of the scenes Wadström describes in his work Observations on the Slave Trade (1789) was the brutal conditions of slaves he saw being unloaded from a sloop that had brought slaves from Sallum to Gorée.

The greater part of them were women and children. Notwithstanding this, they had been thrown into the sloop as if they had been articles of lumber, and devoid of feeling. Obliged, moreover, from too close a stowage, to lie on the inequalities and protuberances of the bare planks, without being able to change their position they had in the course of only eight days . . . been very materially hurt; for when I saw them brought out of the sloop, they had several contusions on various parts of their bodies, and in others their flesh was severely cut. A poor child in particular, about two years old, had a very deep wound in his side, made in the manner above stated. He lay afterwards, upon being landed, with the wound contiguous to the ground, so that the sand getting into it, put him to exquisite pain. I mention this instance, only to give an idea of what are thought to be rooms of accommodation for slaves, and of that inhumanity, which naturally springs out of the prosecution of this trade. (Wadström 1789, 14–15)

He goes on to describe another occasion in which a number of slaves had been brought by French soldiers to the coast.

These consisted of men, women, and children. . . . The women . . . vented their sorrow in shrieks and lamentations. The children, in a state of palpitation, clung to their mother's breasts. Their little eyes were so swelled with crying, that they could cry no more. During all this time, the captors, to shew their joy on the occasion, and to drown the cries of their unfortunate fellow-subjects, were beating large drums. To this was added, all the noise that could be collected from the blowing of horns, and the human voice. Taking in the shrieks and the agony of the one, and the shouts and joy of the other, with the concomitant instruments of noise, I was never before witness to such an infernal scene. (Wadström 1789, 11–12)

Finally, he describes the horrific conditions in the slave prisons.

They were confined in prisons or dungeons resembling dens, where they lie naked on the sand, crowded together and loaded with irons. In consequence of this cruel mode of confinement, they are frequently covered with cutaneous eruptions. Ten or twelve of them feed together out of a trough, precisely like so many hogs . . . (Wadström 1789, 29)

The hostility of the Senegal Company, which prevented them from gaining access the interior, and the outbreak of hostilities between England and France caused Wadström and his companions to leave Africa after only three months. Whether it was because of the antislavery developments beginning to take place there or word that followers of Swedenborg were taking steps to establish their own church, Wadström decided to return home to Sweden by way of England (Johnson 2007a, 2). Wadström arrived in London in March 1788 and on Christmas day he was baptized in the first New Church place of worship, a rented chapel in Great East Cheap (Acton 1943, 33).

He would soon meet the leaders of the English antislavery movement, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, and William Wilberforce, bringing him center stage in the Abolitionist Society's fight to end the slave trade. In 1789 Wadström published his now famous engraving of the slave ship Brooks along with a description of the inhumane seizure of African slaves. Of the engraving of the slave ship, Wadström wrote:

The plan and sections annexed exhibit a slave ship with the slaves stowed. In order to give a representation of the trade against which no complaint or exaggeration could be brought by those concerned in it, the Brooks is here described, a ship well known in the trade, and the first mentioned in the report delivered to the House of Commons by Captain Parrey, who was sent to Liverpool by Government to take the dimensions of the ship employed in the African slave-trade from that port. (Wadström, Description of a Slave Ship)

Later that year he also published Observations on the Slave Trade and A Description of Some Parts of the Coast of Guinea (1789), whose purpose he wrote in the preface was to expose "to the world the atrocious acts committed in that part of the globe to which I have been eye-witness."

He received his first chance to expose the horrors of slavery when he and Dr. Anders Sparrman were two of the eyewitnesses asked by Clarkson and Wilberforce to testify before the Trade Commission of the Privy Council in 1788. Clarkson wrote of Wadström and Sparrman:

It so happened that by means of George Harrison, I fell in unexpectedly with these gentlemen [professor Sparrman and Wadström]. I had not long been with them before I perceived the great treasures I had found . . . They showed me their journals . . . (in which were) a number of circumstances minuted down, all relating to the slave trade. I obtained a more accurate . . . knowledge of the manners and customs of the Africans from them than from all the persons put together whom I had yet seen. (Acton 1943, 28)

Wadström was called on again to testify in 1789, this time before the committee of the whole of the House of Commons in 1789, where he presented twenty-seven pages of testimony, including not only a description of the methods used by the Senegal Company for procuring slaves but the charge that the slave trade caused the natives to go to war with one another in order to sell slaves to the Europeans for goods. He described the Africans as, "quiet, inoffensive people, happy in themselves, and in one another, enjoying the comforts of life, without the intervention of toil and trouble." (Wadström 1789, 6). He went on to testify that, "They had a great inclination for trade and industry, and, without doubt, would farm their land well, if only the slaves dealers did not occupy all their thoughts" (Acton 1943, 34–35).

He was called yet again to give testimony a third time in 1790, when Wilberforce had succeeded in calling for a select committee of the House of Commons to hear further evidence. The following year, Wilberforce and Fox drew on Wadström's evidence in their critical speeches before the House of Commons on April 18, 1791. These speeches introduced the bill to abolish slavery from the British world, which, while officially voted down, helped convince the House of Commons, at least temporarily, that the slave trade ought to be gradually abolished (Acton 1943, 45).

Three times between 1789 and 1791 Wadström had been asked by Clarkson and Wilberforce to provide critical testimony before the Privy Council and the House of Commons. In addition, his engravings were displayed in the Parliament buildings, where they helped to build awareness and sympathy for antislavery among Members of Parliament (Acton 1943, 40). Clarkson had also taken 500 copies of one of Wadström's engravings with him in 1789 when he traveled to Paris to support the newly formed Society of the Friends of the Negro. It can be said with confidence that the eyewitness accounts of the inhumane brutality of the slave trade and the visual images of horrors of the slave ships helped sway a critical portion of Parliament to the antislavery cause and his reputation began to spread among the antislavery forces in France.

In 1793, Wadström wrote his famous two-part An Essay on Colonization, particularly applied to the Western Coast of Africa, with some Free Thoughts on Cultivation and Commerce (1794), which made him one of the most recognizable antislavery figures not only in England, but throughout Europe. His Essay, for which he had two hundred and eighty-five advance subscribers (Acton 1943, 50), included his first-hand descriptions of the cruelties of slavery; several engraved plates, including a reprint of his famous cross-section of a slave ship; a description of the possibilities for colonization on the coast of Africa; and an argument that the Africans were more valuable to Europeans economically as trading partners and free laborers than as slaves.

Unfortunately, the cost of printing far exceeded estimates, and Wadström was forced to turn over all proceeds to the printer. This, combined with heavy financial losses he suffered from a cotton mill he had established left him disillusioned and in financial difficulty (Acton 1943, 52). Refusing to abandon his original goal of establishing a colony in Africa (first established as part of the Norköpping group in 1799), he moved to Paris in 1795, where he, "Saw in the French Revolution the possibilities of a new freedom, and of a national spirit which would eagerly sympathize with his dreams of a colony where a truly free government would be established" (Acton 1943, 54).

Upon his arrival in Paris he addressed the French Directory, calling upon them to join with England to abolish all slavery (Acton 1943, 55). Two years later, he played an active role in reviving the Society of Friends of the Negro, which had been established in 1789, and to whom Clarkson had brought copies of his engravings. Sadly, Wadström would not live to see the fruits of his labor. He died in 1799, eight years before Wilberforce's victory in British Parliament brought an end to the English slave trade.

Having been made an honorary citizen, Wadström was given a French state funeral with ceremonial honors, and in 1861 the Royal Academy of Sciences struck a medal in his honor. On the reverse side of the medal was the image of an African, sitting under a palm tree reading with his cast-off chains at his feet, with the inscription, "Libertas meritas est mihi facta tuis [Liberty had become mine, by thy services]" (Acton 1943, 64).

Conclusion top

As we recognize the 250th anniversary of the Last Judgment in the spiritual world, it is important to inquire and reflect on the many changes that have occurred, and continue to occur, as the result of the Lord's influx being able to flow uninhibited once again into the natural world, restoring our freedom and with it our ability to recognize and choose between good and evil. Almost immediately following the Last Judgment, dedicated individuals suddenly began to recognize that the evil of slavery, which had remained virtually unbroken as an accepted part of human civilization for most of its history, was not immovable, but could be removed, and worked tirelessly to bring it to an end. The second half of the eighteenth century marks a critical shift from individual antislavery thought to organized group antislavery action, and ultimately the legal abolition of slavery. While New Church men and women cannot claim to have started the antislavery movement, there were individuals, such as Carl Wadström, who, inspired by the Writings of Swedenborg, played a critical role in the early antislavery movement. Wadström's testimony and printed, graphic illustrations of the cruelties and horrors of slavery provided leaders such as Clarkson and Wilberforce the evidence they desperately needed to turn the hearts, and legislative authority, of British Parliament.

There is important research to be done by New Church students and scholars to continue to discover the vital role that the Writings played in inspiring men and women to take up the fight against slavery, in England, in the United States, and elsewhere in the world. We need to continue to build on the foundations laid by previous scholars in their work on individuals such as Augustus Nordenskjöld, who worked so closely with Wadström; Thomas Goyder, the New Church minister in England who called on his parishioners to sign a petition in 1833 demanding the immediate end to slavery in the British Empire; Robert Carter, who freed his four-hundred and fifty-five slaves, more than any other American; Rev. John Hargrove, who in addition to preaching before members of Congress twice, delivered an antislavery poem to an abolitionist society; Lydia Maria Child, whose An Appeal in Favor of the Class of Americans Called Africans (1823) thrust her and the Swedenborgian argument against slavery into the antislavery debate in the United States; Alexander Muravyov, who helped orchestrate the emancipation of the Russian serfs; and many others.

It would be useful, too, to consider what the Writings have to say about the English people when considering the important role the fight to abolish the English slave trade played in creating the impetus for broader antislavery movements. Is it significant that the Writings speak of their freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought (True Christian Religion 807, The Last Judgment 40)? Did this play a role in why the antislavery movement found much of its origins in England?

But, we must also remember that the effects of the Last Judgment continue to be played out, even now, in the natural world. While slavery was legally abolished virtually everywhere in the western world within slightly more than a hundred years of the Last Judgment, it continues to haunt us today. iAbolish, an American antislavery organization, placed a recent estimate at twenty-seven million slaves worldwide, in countries on six continents, including as many as 17,000 being trafficked into the United States each year ( As we celebrate not only the 250th anniversary of the Last Judgment, but the 200th anniversary of the end of the British slave trade, we should all be cognizant of those who are still not free around the world and ask ourselves what can and should be done to ensure that slavery does not become, once again, a morally wrong, yet 'immovable' reality.

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