Black lives seem to have begun to matter. The almost routine killing of African-American men by police is now front and centre, not just in the US, but across the world. Australians, some perhaps for the first time, are noticing the number of Aboriginal Australians who are dying in police custody. And people in Britain are finally beginning to find out what really went on in the name of Empire. This breakthrough, if that's what it is, has come at an immense price in human blood and suffering. We cannot afford to squander this chance to reset the rules of society.
June 19th is Juneteenth, the day when the news of emancipation finally reached the enslaved people in Texas. On this day in 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger proclaimed federal orders in the Galveston, that all slaves in Texas were now free. In fact, they had been freed two and a half years earlier, but Texas had been slow to liberate them. It wasn't even the end of slavery in the newly reunited States - that didn't officially happen until 6th December of that year with the ratification of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution:
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Churches have been quick to point out their own virtue in campaigning for the abolition of slavery and the equal treatment of all God's children. It is true that there is something to celebrate. It seems that John Wesley was an opponent of slavery for much of his life, even though he only went public with it as he neared death.
Francis Asbury, first bishop of the newly independent Methodist Episcopal Church in the US, often argued against the practice of slavery among Methodists, as a moral cause. He also took that message to President George Washington. Washington records in his diary and encounter on Thursday 26th May, 1785:
"Upon my return found Mr. Magowan and a Doctr. Coke & a Mr. Asbury here- the two last Methodist preachers recommended by Genl. Roberdeau- the same who were expected yesterday… After dinner, Mr. Coke and Mr. Asbury went away.”
Thomas Coke recorded the meeting in his journal:
“Thursday 26th, Mr. Asbury and I set off for General Washington’s. We were engaged to dine there the day before. The general’s seat is very elegant, built upon the great river, Potomac, for the improvement of which, he is carrying on jointly with the State some amazing plans. He received us very politely and was very open to access. He is quite the plain country gentleman. After dinner, we desired a private interview, and opened to him the grand business on which we came, presenting to him our petition for the emancipation of the negroes, and entreating his signature, if the eminence of his station did not render it inexpedient for him to sign any petition. He informed us that he was of our sentiments and had signified his thoughts on the subject to most of the great men of State: that he did not see it proper to sign the petition, but if the Assembly took it into consideration, would signify his sentiments to the Assembly by a letter. He asked us to spend the evening and lodge at his house, but our engagement at Annapolis the following day would not admit it. We returned that evening to Alexandria, where at eight o’clock after the bell was rung, I had a very considerable congregation.”
Asbury's journal entry was somewhat briefer:
“We waited on General Washington who received us very politely and gave us his opinion against slavery.”
But that's not the whole story with regard to Methodists and slavery. Whilst I knew about Wesley's support for William Wilberforce's campaign, and Asbury's opposition, it was whilst in a discussion about same-sex marriage that I first heard about the attitudes and actions of Revd George Whitefield, preacher and co-founder of the Methodist movement.
Possibly the clearest teaching on marriage in the New Testament is found in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 – the so-called Household Code. It doesn't make for easy reading, as it appears very much to endorse the power imbalances between husband and wife, parent and child and owner and slave. And we know that these text were (and still are) used as clear evidence of God's design for the subjugation of women, the physical punishment of children, and the practice of slavery among good Christian folk. That was certainly Whitefield's reading of the texts when he produced a theological and Scriptural defence of slavery.
According to his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, he increased his number of slaves, using his preaching to raise money to purchase them. It describes Whitefield as"perhaps the most energetic, and conspicuous, evangelical defender and practitioner of slavery." Whitefield left everything in Georgia to his patroness, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, including 4,000 acres of land and 50 slaves.
Historian Stephen Stein's judgement is perhaps the most damning: "The Letter to the Negroes links Whitefield inseparably to the developing proslavery movement. Its advocacy of slavery was more in keeping with his character than the critical attitude expressed his open letter of January, 1740. He helped erect the theological defense for slavery and thus participated in a tragic chapter of the nation's experience."
This same Whitefield was a preacher of extraordinary gifts under whose ministry many came to Christ. This encapsulates the dilemma that I reckon faces us as Methodists today. For we are as prone as anyone else to looking for heroes who are uncomplicatedly virtuous and therefore for villains who are entirely devoid of humanity. Twitter and demonstrations are not places for nuance, but somewhere this fuller complexity must be faced.
During the time I worked with Israelis and Palestinians in the Olive Tree Programme, one question repeatedly demanded a response:
‘Can monstrous things be done by people who are, themselves, not monsters?’
For me, the Methodist Church, like other institutions, must be courageous enough to face all of its legacy, and to do it humbly, honestly and openly. Alongside our pride in the justice work of John Wesley or Francis Asbury, or thousands since, we must find a way to think about and talk about George Whitefield, not as an aberration, but as one among many Methodists then and now who still believe that people of colour (and women and LGBTQ+ folk and Muslims and Jews) are somehow less than human. A history that does not acknowledge Methodism’s part in underpinning colonialism with a theological rationale at least as abhorrent as Whitefield’s defence of slavery, is not authentic. We cannot think that we can amend some of our language or accentuate the positive and all shall be well.
In every part of our Connexion, we must locate the presence of Empire theology and root it out. And we must do it now - it is time for judgment to begin with God's household (I Pet 4:17)