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John Wesley, 1703-1791
Thoughts upon Slavery in "A Collection of Religious Tracts."
Philadelphia: Re-printed in Philadelphia, with notes, and sold by Joseph Crukshank, 1784.

Summary

Wesley's pamphlet Thoughts upon Slavery opens with a definition of slavery. His first note of condemnation appears when he shows that slavery first originated in \"barbarous\" times and died out with the rise of Christianity in Europe. He proposes that it was only the discovery of America and the need for large amounts of inexpensive labor that brought it back. Wesley then moves on to refute the notion that slavery rescues Africans from the harshest of conditions, quoting from many authorities attesting to the great fertility of Western Africa. He also points out that African nations are highly organized and cultured, using examples from several major tribes and nations to prove his point. Given this evidence, Wesley cannot support the notion that slavery represents an improvement to the Africans. Wesley's third point discusses how African slaves are procured and brought to America. The details as he gives them are meant to be damning; he recounts numerous instances of fraud and violence, then describes the middle passage in some detail--again, in a clear attempt to condemn the practice as barbaric and cruel. He describes the inhumane treatment of slaves in the West Indies and other slave states (including the southern United States), providing considerable detail as to modes of punishment and the laws that allow punishments to be meted out without limit.

After revealing the conditions of the slaves, Wesley then questions whether the system is defensible, "on the principles of even heathen honesty?" Human law, in his estimation, is powerless to confer right without consideration of mercy and justice. Wesley denies that slavery is necessary to support the colonial economies, pointing out that no benefit is worth any injustice made to receive it. The penultimate section of the tract is an appeal urging those involved in the slave trade to quit the trade; Wesley uses appeals ranging from fear of God's judgement to pity for the Africans. Finally, Wesley relates unpleasant Dutch and French experiences with slaves. These specific instances and stories further illustrate Wesley's point that the institution is at its core dehumanizing and barbarous.

Appended to Wesley's essay is a sermon extract from the Bishop of Gloucester.

Christopher Hill

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