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Freedom in the Atlantic World: John Wesley and George Whitefield on Slavery

O'Brien, Glen (2018) Freedom in the Atlantic World: John Wesley and George Whitefield on Slavery. In: Wesley and Whitefield? Wesley versus Whitefield? Pickwick Publications (Wipf & Stock), Eugene, Oregan, pp. 161-182. ISBN 978-4982-9067-8

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John Wesley and George Whitefield both gloried in the strength of Britain’s Protestant maritime empire, sharing in the ‘cult of commerce’ that marked this period of British expansion. Though they were themselves frugal, almost monkish men, in their own patterns of self-denial, and often spoke against the evils of greed and luxury, they exhibited no in-principal opposition to economic prosperity as such. The health of British trade meant greater security for its Atlantic Protestant Empire and served as a bulwark against foreign incursion and the loss of Protestant liberties. Whitefield in particular benefitted from riding the waves of this Atlantic world (both figuratively and literally) becoming the most prominent transatlantic religious personality of the age. In spite of this, Wesley was willing to see Britain’s financial prosperity collapse rather than support a lucrative slave trade that kept human beings in lifelong servitude. Both these Methodist leaders, close personal friends in spite of their at times strained relationship over theological differences, spoke eloquently against the ill treatment of slaves. Whitefield issued one of the earliest protests against the cruelty of slave masters, and saw the African as the object of God’s redeeming love. Slavery was for Whitefield a more personal issue as without it he could not see his beloved Bethesda orphanage and proposed college succeed. The colony of Georgia was established on a principle of social benevolence and slavery was initially outlawed there so that Whitefield’s petitioning of the colonial government to allow slavery was ultimately self-serving. The conclusion seems inescapable that Whitefield’s rationale for keeping slaves was primarily economic and that, notwithstanding his plea for mercy toward slaves, Whitefield shared in a racist culture that exploited the labour of a people considered to be inferior for its own commercial benefit. What for John Wesley was an ‘execrable villainy’ that could not be countenanced under any circumstances, was for George Whitefield a necessary evil and a means to an end that needed only to be protected against brutality. Both men shared a passionate conviction about the spiritual freedom provided in the new birth; they differed, however on the extent to which freedom should be considered a basic human right. Where freedom was a non-negotiable natural right in Wesley’s Atlantic world, for George Whitefield freedom was a matter contingent upon the circumstances of birth, race, and economic expediency.

Item Type: Book Chapters
Repository Version: Metadata Only
Keywords: Slavery, Eighteenth-century British history, History of Evangelicalism, Methodist History, John Wesley (1703-1791), George Whitefield (1714-1770)
Fields of Research: 22 Philosophy and Religious Studies > 2204 Religion and Religious Studies > 220401 Christian Studies (incl. Biblical Studies and Church History)
Socio-Economic Objective: C Society > 95 Cultural Understanding > 9504 Religion and Ethics > 950406 Religious Traditions (excl. Structures and Rituals)
Type of Activity: Pure Basic Research
Subjects: C - Church History
College/Association with University of Divinity: EBC: Eva Burrows College
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Rev Associate Professor Glen O'Brien
Date Deposited: 31 May 2018 03:14
Last Modified: 31 May 2018 03:14
URI: http://repository.divinity.edu.au/id/eprint/3118

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