Detestation of the Diabolical Slave Traffic (Cowper)

The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper Most of us have heard about the great work of William Wilberforce who used his God-given gifts and talents to work towards ending the evil practice of the slave trade.  There were others, of course, who worked so diligently with Wilberforce in attaining the goal.  In fact, William Cowper was one of those who spoke early on against the “diabolical traffic” (as he called it).  Cowper wrote and published several poems describing the evils of the slave trade.  Here’s one called “The Negro’s Complaint” (1788/1793):

Forc’d from home, and all its pleasures,
Afric’s coast I left forlorn;
To increase a stranger’s treasures,
O’er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though theirs they have enroll’d me,
Minds are never to be sold. 

Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England’s rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task?
Fleecy locks, and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature’s claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same. 

Why did all-creating Nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think, ye masters, iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial boards;
Think how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords. 

Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there one who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means which duty urges
Agents of his will to use? 

Hark! he answers—Wild tornadoes,
Strewing yonder sea with wrecks;
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
Are the voice with which he speaks.
He, foreseeing what vexations
Afric’s sons should undergo,
Fix’d their tyrants’ habitations
Where his whirlwinds answer – NO!

By our blood in Afric’ wasted,
Ere our necks receiv’d the chain;
By the mis’ries we have tasted,
Crossing in your barks the main;
To the man-degrading mart;
All sustain’d by patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart: 

Deem our nation brutes no longer
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted pow’rs,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours!

William Cowper, 1788 (The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, 371).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Christ Has Set You Free

Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ (New Studies in Biblical Theology) One very rich NT theme is the freedom that Christ has gained for his people in his death and resurrection.  In fact, because Paul talks about this freedom so frequently, he has been called “the apostle of freedom.”  Here is Murray Harris’ summary of the NT’s teaching of the freedom that Christ has won for us:

1) Freedom from spiritual death (John 5:24, Eph. 2:1, Col. 2:13).

2) Freedom from ‘self-pleasing’ (2 Cor. 5:15).

3) Freedom from people-pleasing (Gal. 1:10, 1 Cor. 7:23, 9:19).

4) Freedom from slavery to sin (John 8:34, 36, Rom. 6:14-23).

5) Freedom from bondage to the Mosaic law, especially if observing it is seen as a way of gaining God’s approval (Rom. 7:6, Gal. 2:16, 3:10, 13).

6) Freedom from fear of physical death (Heb. 2:14-15).

7) Freedom from slavery to ‘the elemental spiritual forces of the universe” (Gal. 4:3, 8-9, Col. 2:8, 20).

Murray later writes,

“Only the person who has suffered under the rigors of slavery truly appreciates freedom.  Indeed, the more intense one’s experience of servitude, the greater one’s appreciation of emancipation.  The joy of freedom is in direct proportion to the pain of slavery.  The person who is unaware of being enslaved neither longs for nor appreciates freedom.  On the other hand, the person who is painfully aware of grinding slavery will pine after freedom and embrace it with enthusiastic relief when it comes.”

Murray Harris, Slave of Christ, p. 75-79. shane lems

Slavery Compared

The discussion of slavery and Christianity is a difficult and sensitive issue.  I don’t have the time or space to go into all the details here, but one resource that is helpful in this area is Clinton Arnold’s commentary on Ephesians, specifically his essay in it called, “The Distinctive Features of Roman-Era Slavery” (pp. 419-422).  This essay comes under his commentary on Ephesians 6:5.

Arnold’s main point is that slavery in the Greco-Roman 1st century was quite different than slavery in the 19th century southern United States.  Here are his five points showing the differences (I’ve summarized them).

In the Roman-era slavery,

1) Racial factors played no role.  Slavery in America was primarily based on racial factors.  However, Roman-era slavery had nothing to do with race or a particular people group.  Roman slaves were of virtually every race of people in the Mediterranean region and involved people from every country.

2) Many slaves could reasonably expect to be emancipated during their lifetime.  A great number of slaves could expect to be released by the time they were thirty years old.  In fact, so many were being released from their servitude in the early first century AD that Caesar Augustus declared thirty years old to be the minimum age for emancipation and then limited how many were freed each year.  Sometimes, owners paid their slaves a reward (a peculium), which was commonly used by the slaves to purchase their freedom.  Slavery in the United States, however, typically had no hope for manumission and freedom.

3) Many slaves worked in a variety of specialized and responsible positions.  Some slaves were consigned to hard labor, but many others served as teachers, writers, accountants, secretaries, etc.  African slaves, however, were seldom entrusted with responsible positions nor did they have the training for any skilled jobs.

4) Many slaves received education and training in specialist skills.  In the Roman world, many slaves were educated and trained in certain skills, which would benefit both the slave and the owner.  Sometimes, owners viewed this as a business strategy – to train slaves and motivate them to high quality workmanship by holding out the prospect of freedom after a specified time.  Slaves in America, however, typically did not receive extensive education and training.

5) Freed slaves often became Roman citizens and developed a client relationship to their former masters.  It was the common practice for a freed slave to gain Roman citizenship.  Often, their former master would become their patron, making their transition into freedom a bit easier.  African slaves in the United States, however, were typically not freed and given a patron status.

Arnold is not saying that slavery in the Roman era was a bed of roses: “Although we can point to some features that make it appear better than slavery in the Antebellum South of the United States, it still involved the coercive ownership of another person.”  Slaves in the apostle Paul’s day didn’t have legal rights, could not own property, and often were not permitted to marry and have a family.  The main point Arnold is making is this: slavery in Paul’s day was quite different than slavery in the 19th century United States.  Though this thesis doesn’t resolve all the difficulties in this topic, it is helpful to remember as it will keep us from anachronism and historical errors.

Clinton Arnold, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

shane lems