“Oh, God! we thank Thee, that thou didst condescend to listen to the cries of Africa’s wretched sons, and that Thou didst interfere in their behalf.”
The abolition of the slave trade was a hotly contested issue in the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States. Slavery had for centuries provided unpaid physical labor crucial to the production and trade of goods that helped to shape the economic landscape of the world. Though many who owned slaves prospered, slaves themselves were forced to endure difficult labor, harsh treatment, and separation from spouses and children, with little hope of freedom.
The atrocities of slavery became widely known by the nineteenth century, and it was during this period that abolition came to the forefront of political, regional, and global discussions about the moral and ethical implications of the institution. Although slavery would not be fully abolished until after the American Civil War, the importation of slaves was made illegal in the United States in 1808, a measure that gained the support of outspoken abolitionists such as the Reverend Peter Williams Jr. of New York.
Africa had been subject to the large-scale exportation of slaves since the fifteenth century, when Portuguese traders made contact with the continent in their quest to develop colonies with inexpensive labor. In addition to introducing expansive slavery to the New World, these early colonizers also sent missionaries to the African populations with whom they came into contact. Africans transported to the United States as slaves were encouraged to convert to Christianity, as many white Christians believed that conversion was the only means by which their souls could be saved. Conversion was not universally supported by slave owners, however, as some feared that a centralized, organized practice of Christianity would unite the slaves—who were often from different regions of Africa and had different languages, cultures, and religious beliefs—and give them a sense of group power that could lead to rebellion. By the nineteenth century, black and white Christians alike questioned the ethical and moral implications of slavery, using their faith as a key component in their arguments against the inhumane treatment of slaves brought to American soil.
The Reverend Peter Williams Jr., a staunch advocate for the rights of African Americans both free and enslaved, was an influential force in the movement toward abolition. For Williams, abolition was not merely a matter of social or economic impact but one of great religious importance. Williams, like many others of his era, cited the equality of all men as children of God. In his “Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” delivered in 1808, Williams expresses not only his joy in the end of the slave trade but also his hope for an imminent end to the very institution of slavery. While total abolition would not come about in the United States for several more decades, Williams’s speech clearly illustrates the trajectory cited by abolitionists of his time.
Peter Williams Jr. was born around 1780 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to Peter, a slave freed in 1796, and Mary, an indentured servant of African descent. As his mother was not a slave, Williams was born free. His father was a founding member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City, one of the first African American churches. Williams was educated within the Episcopalian tradition and was ordained as a priest in 1826. A strong believer in African American freedom and advancement, Williams was a supporter of many causes and institutions that promoted black education, religious life, and opportunity. One of his most notable endeavors was his cofounding of Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper. An ardent abolitionist, Williams delivered a stirring oration on January 1, 1808, the day on which the importation of slaves to the United States was formally banned.
Though at one time interested in the work of the American Colonization Society, an organization that promoted the immigration of freed slaves to Africa, Williams later denounced the intentions of the organization, the membership of which was largely white, as being rooted in racism rather than in a genuine interest in assisting freed slaves who had been displaced from their countries of origin. Williams instead felt that African Americans should be free to stay in the United States and fight for equal citizenship. In the 1830s, Williams became involved with the American Anti-Slavery Society, an organization promoting the rights and freedoms of African Americans. After a riot targeting the group and Williams in particular, he withdrew from the organization. He died, still a prominent figure, in New York in 1840, leaving behind his wife and a daughter.
As a clergyman, Williams was interested not only in the economic and social impact of slavery but also in its religious implications. This is clearly demonstrated in his 1808 speech on the abolition of the slave trade, in which he first considers the historically barbaric conditions of slaves’ lives and then goes on to suggest that the prohibition of the slave trade is a direct answer to the prayers of abolitionists. Williams therefore frames the questions of his era about the morality of slavery within the Christian tradition in which he was so deeply involved.
When considering the history of the slave trade, it is important to bring to light both atrocities on the African continent and those in colonized areas such as the Americas. As Williams notes in his brief history of slavery at the beginning of his oration, one of the most tragic aspects of slavery was that some Africans profited from the exploitation and sale of other Africans into the trade. The Atlantic slave trade enabled Africans to make money from the sale of slaves, who were often captured during political, military, and ethnic conflicts on the continent.
Individuals such as Williams believed that it was only after Europeans engaged Africa in the slave trade that Africans began to behave in such a manner. Williams suggests that prior to contact with Europeans, Africans were inhabitants of a peaceful continent characterized by “simplicity, innocence, and contentment.” While this idyllic view of Africa and its inhabitants is one that many used to support the abolitionist cause, slavery had in fact existed in Africa before contact with European and American traders.
The slave trade flourished between the late fifteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, an era of rapid colonization and increasing trade. Slavery provided a relatively cheap labor force for the production of new commodity items, from sugar produced in the Caribbean to cotton and tobacco cultivated in the United States. As a result, the slave trade grew exponentially as trade and demand for such commodities grew with it. Williams argues that the widely expanding slave trade caused further conflicts between Africans and African nations, the increasing demand for slaves prompting even more widespread kidnapping and war on the part of Africans who wished to capitalize off of the system.
It is important to consider both the African practice of slavery and the European and American slave trade when reading the historical segment of Williams’s oration, for in later centuries of the slave trade, owners of slaves often justified their enslavement of Africans through the idea of paternal authority. This was in part because some slave owners believed that the presumed simplicity and innocence of Africans, attributes lauded by Williams, in fact left them unsuited to take care of themselves. Many supporters of slavery therefore believed that a slave owner’s duty was to ensure that his or her slaves worked, lived, and worshiped in a fitting manner. This tension between slave and free understandings of the innate internal state of Africans would indeed pose problems for the abolitionist cause, as parties on both sides used the same criteria to argue for very different understandings of slavery.
Widespread disparities in understandings of the slave trade also extended into religious life during this period. The Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, led to an increase in the membership of many Protestant congregations, and it was during this period that the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church was established as an institution separate from other Methodist churches in the United States. While Williams’s father was influential in the founding of the AME Zion church in New York, Williams’s education was within the Episcopalian tradition, and it was in this church that he was ordained. As the number of black churches increased, it became more probable that an African American who had converted to Christianity would join such a congregation and worship alongside and under the guidance of fellow African Americans.
With the increasing involvement of African Americans in the religious community, it is no wonder that religion became so entwined with the abolitionist cause. By the outbreak of the Civil War, slavery and religion were considered by many to be wholly incompatible, yet to others, the institution was both compatible with and justified by Christian teachings. Those in favor of slavery often cited the New Testament directive that slaves should obey their masters, while those against it typically emphasized the Exodus narrative of the Old Testament, which details the liberation of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. Williams’s speech incorporates similar biblical themes. With the masterfulness of one accustomed to delivering sermons to eager audiences of like-minded individuals, Williams transitions from his dark history of Africa’s relationship with slavery to a narrative of hope in which the future holds much brighter things for those who have been taken into captivity and shipped to the New World and their descendents. Williams begins this second section by likening preslavery Africa to the biblical Garden of Eden, describing the continent as the “garden of the world” and the “seat of almost paradisiacal joys.” Though slavery has destroyed this image of a peaceful and innocent Africa, Williams tells his audience to despair no longer, for the abolition of the slave trade has secured a more prosperous future for Africans on the continent and in the United States. The abolition to which Williams refers was the result of the 1807 Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves, which forbade the further importation of slaves to the United States as of January 1, 1808, the day of Williams’s oration.
Having gained this victory, abolitionists such as Williams were hopeful that total abolition would soon be achieved. For Williams, this victory was won by both God and humanity. He suggests that the abolition of the slave trade was a divine response to the prayers of many and the “cries of Africa’s wretched sons.” To support this, Williams quotes from the Declaration of Independence, noting that the document proclaims freedom, equality, and independence not for only the nation’s white inhabitants but for all men in the United States. Williams thus links African Americans to the nation’s founders and the abolition of slavery to the United States’ most revered principles.
Williams and his fellow abolitionists were also indebted to the antislavery work of early Americans such John Woolman, an eighteenth-century Quaker abolitionist. Though Quaker teachings emphasize pacifism and equality, some eighteenth-century Quakers nonetheless owned slaves, which made Woolman’s views unusual in his time. Williams implores contemporary abolitionists to recall Woolman’s efforts to move Quakers away from slaveholding and suggests that the battle against slavery has been won only in part. The continued efforts of those opposed to slavery, he argues, will be critical to the continuing struggle for abolition. These continued efforts proved to bring about the reform for which Williams and his fellow abolitionists so ardently hoped—the total abolition of slavery in individual states (for example, New York in 1827 and Pennsylvania in 1847) and ultimately in the United States as a whole.
Williams’s speech emphasizes the ways in which religion was a crucial part of both African American life and the abolitionist cause in the early nineteenth century. Slavery left an indelible mark on the American religious landscape. From European slave traders’ first contact with Africa, slaves were exposed to Western religious traditions. Although some have argued that this Christianization eliminated African religious practices among slaves, various aspects of these practices mingled with Christian customs and teachings and remained a significant component of slave religion. For instance, slave religion often incorporated styles of African music, dance, and drumming. Elements of slave religion made their way into African American churches, which proved to be significant centers of community support and abolitionist activism in the early nineteenth century. These churches became increasingly important after the Civil War, as freed slaves worshipped and worked to form new communities in which generations of now mostly American-born slaves were free to express their faith.
The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 brought an end to the practice of slavery in the United States, but it did not end the struggles of African Americans, many of whom, because of the conditions of slavery, had little education or training in skilled labor. Moving to northern cities in search of work, former slaves often found themselves relying on benevolent societies and other community and religious organizations dedicated to helping such individuals transition into their new lives. Black women faced especially significant challenges during this period, as they were often marginalized because of both their race and their gender. Because of these difficulties and the discriminatory treatment faced by many African Americans, themes in the work of .Williams and other nineteenth-century abolitionists remained relevant into the twentieth century, in which African American leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. cited similar biblical concepts about slavery and freedom in an attempt to gain equal rights. Just as they had been in the nineteenth century, black churches were central to political action in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and remained fundamental to the endurance of African American community and culture into the next century.
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