How the Woke monster originated
To be a Christian was to be a pilgrim. This conviction, widely shared by Protestants, did not imply any nostalgia for the dark days of popery, when monks had gulled the faithful into trekking vast distances to bow and scrape before bogus relics. Rather, it meant to journey through life in the hope that at its end the pilgrim would be met by shining angels, and dressed in raiment that shone like gold, and led into heaven, a city on a hill…
New World, though, was not New England. South of Boston and Plymouth, there was no lack of places where dissenters might settle without fear of harassment. The most visionary of all was a colony named Philadelphia: ‘Brotherly Love’. William Penn, its founder, was a man of paradox. The son of one of Cromwell’s admirals, he was simultaneously a dandy with close links to the royal court, and a Quaker who had repeatedly suffered imprisonment for his beliefs. Philadelphia, the capital of a huge tranche of territory granted Penn by royal charter, was designed to serve as ‘a holy experiment’: a city without stockades, at peace with the local Indians, in which all ‘such as profess faith in Jesus Christ’ might be permitted to hold office. Just as the godly colonies of New England had been founded to serve the whole world as models, so too was Philadelphia—but as a haven of tolerance. By the early eighteenth century, its streets were filled with Anabaptists as well as Quakers, and with Germans as well as English. There were Jews…
In the autumn of 1718, when a Quaker named Benjamin Lay sailed for the Caribbean with his wife, Sarah, he could do so confident that they would literally be among Friends… One day, visiting a Quaker who lived some miles outside Bridgetown, Sarah Lay was shocked to find a naked African suspended outside his house. The man had just been savagely whipped. Blood, dripping from his twitching body, had formed a puddle in the dust. Flies were swarming over his wounds. Like the more than seventy thousand other Africans on Barbados, the man was a slave. The Quaker, explaining to Sarah that he was a runaway, felt no need to apologise. As in the time of Gregory of Nyssa, so in the time of the Lays: slavery was regarded by the overwhelming majority of Christians as being—much like poverty, or war, or sickness—a brutal fact of life. That there was no slave nor free in Christ Jesus did not mean that the distinction itself was abolished. Europeans, who lived on a continent where the institution had largely vanished, rarely thought for that reason to condemn it out of hand. Even Bartolomé de las Casas, whose campaign to redeem the Indians from slavery had become the focus of his entire life, never doubted that servitude might be merited as punishment for certain crimes. In the Caribbean as in Spanish America, the need for workers who could be relied upon to toil in hot and sticky climates without dying of the tropical diseases to which European labourers were prone made the purchase of Africans seem an obvious recourse. No Christian should feel guilt. Abraham had owned slaves. Laws in the Pentateuch regulated their treatment. A letter written by Paul’s followers, but attributed to Paul himself, urged them to obey their owners. ‘Do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.’ The punishment of a runaway, then, might well be viewed as God’s work. Even Lay, despite not owning slaves himself, had been known to reach for a whip when other people’s slaves stole from him. ‘Sometimes I could catch them, and then I would give them Stripes.’
Lay, when he remembered bringing down the lash on a starving slave’s back, did not reach for scriptural justifications. On the contrary, he felt only a crushing sense of self-abhorrence. His guilt was that of a man who had suddenly discovered himself to be in the city of Destruction. ‘Oh my Heart has been pained within me many times, to see and hear; and now, now, now, it is so.’ Las Casas, brought to a similar consciousness of his sin, had turned for guidance to the great inheritance of Catholic scholarship: to Cajetan, and Aquinas, and the compilers of canon law. Lay turned for guidance to the Spirit. When he and his wife, fearlessly confronting the slave-owners of Barbados, beseeched them to ‘examine your own Hearts’, it was with an inner certitude as to the ultimate meaning of Scripture. The God that Lay could feel as enlightenment had bought his Chosen People out of slavery in Egypt; his son had washed feet, and suffered a death of humiliating agony, and redeemed all of humanity from servitude. To trade in slaves, to separate them from their children, to whip and rack and roast them, to starve them, to work them to death, to care nothing for the mixing into raw sugar of their ‘Limbs, Bowels and Excrements’, was not to be a Christian, but to be worse than the Devil himself. The more that the Lays, opening their home and their table to starving slaves, learned about slavery, the more furiously they denounced it—and the more unpopular they became. Forced to beat a retreat from Barbados in 1720, they were never to escape the shadow of its horrors. For the rest of their lives, their campaign to abolish slavery—quixotic though it seemed—was to be their pilgrims’ progress.
Benjamin Lay, the four-foot hunchback who devoted his
life to an ultimately successful campaign to persuade his
fellow Quakers to condemn the slave trade.
The image and the text at the bottom of the image appear in Tom Holland’s book.
They were not the first abolitionists in the New World. Back in the 1670s, an Irish Quaker named William Edmundson had toured both Barbados and New England, campaigning to have Christianity taught to African slaves. Then, on 19 September 1676, writing to his fellow Friends in the Rhode Island settlement of Newport, he had been struck by a sudden thought. ‘And many of you count it unlawful to make slaves of the Indians, and if so, then why the Negroes?’ This again was to echo las Casas. The great Spanish campaigner for human rights, in his anxiety to spare Indians enslavement, had for many decades backed the importation of Africans to do forced labour. This he had done under the impression that they were convicts, sold as punishment for their crimes. Then, late in life, he had discovered the terrible truth: that the Africans were unjustly enslaved, and no less the victims of Christian oppression than the Indians. The guilt felt by las Casas, the revulsion and dread of damnation, had been sharpened by the sustenance that he knew he had provided to the argument of Aristotle: that certain races were suited to be slaves. ‘God has made of one blood all nations.’ When William Penn, writing in prison, cited this line of scripture, he had been making precisely the same case as las Casas: that all of humanity had been created equally in God’s image; that to argue for a hierarchy of races was an offence against the very fundamentals of Christ’s teaching; [bold by Ed.] that no peoples were fitted by the colour of their skins to serve as either masters or slaves. Naturally—since this was an argument that so selfevidently went with the grain of Christian tradition—it was capable of provoking some anxiety among the owners of African slaves. Just as opponents of the Dominican had cited Aristotle, so opponents of Quaker abolitionists might grope after obscure verses in the Old Testament.
Yet Lay’s campaign, for all that it drew on the example of the prophets, and for all that his admonitions against slavery were garlanded with biblical references, did indeed constitute something different. To target it for abolition was to endow society itself with the character of a pilgrim, bound upon a continuous journey, away from sinfulness towards the light… It was founded upon the conviction that had for centuries, in the lands of the Christian West, served as the great incubator of revolution: that society might be born again. ‘Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’
Never once did Lay despair of these words of Jesus. Twenty years after he had gatecrashed the annual assembly of Philadelphia Friends, as he lay mortally sick in bed, he was brought news that a new assembly had voted to discipline any Quaker who traded in slaves. ‘I can now die in peace,’ he sighed in relief… Benjamin Lay had succeeded, by the time of his death in 1759, in making the community in which he had lived just that little bit more like him—in making it just that little bit more progressive. [pages 379-386]