Karl Marx poignantly described religion as the opiate of the people, and the sigh of the oppressed. Contemporary intellectuals have extended this premise to say that religion also functions as the golden scepter of oppressors that is used to buttress and perpetuate the plethora of tyrannical regimes that has afflicted societies throughout human history. One such regime is slavery, which was severely exacerbated by the onslaught of the racialised version that emerged from the discourse between Europe, Africa and the Americas. This essay seeks to explore the intricate relationship that existed between racialised western slavery and the Christian religious paradigm, with respect to the work of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. The topic of religion is very important to any discussion of slavery as it was at the helm of the more than three hundred years of slavery in the Americas, and it also believed to have brought about the end of slavery, so much so that religion/Christianity and slavery have, in some ways, become synonymous. There are, however, copious challenges being posed by contemporary revisionist historians to this popularly held theory.
The document that will be herein analyzed was written in response to the initial ferment of anti-slavery sentiments that gained prominence in Europe in the 18th century with the benevolence of the Quakers who arguably inculcated (first its members and then the wider European and colonial public) with the idea that slavery was morally wrong and inconsistent with the principles of Christianity. The author of this said document is Thomas Clarkson, who was one of England’s most influential abolitionists, having made significant strides against colonial slavery from the metropolis of the British Empire. Clarkson devoted most of his life to the endeavor of abolition and most of his intellectual works such as the document titled ‘Slavery and Commerce’ are hence protests against slavery. The message in this particular essay is directed to the Christian populace, (which would have been most if not the entire English population at the time) as Clarkson tried to appeal to the deep devotion and esteem that people had for Christianity and its teachings. He does this tactically, however, as he declares the merits of abolition of slavery, not just in terms of religious sentiments and morality, but also in terms of economics – as evidenced when he alludes to the Quakers (in the preface) who freed their slaves and hired them as freedmen, and found free labor to be more profitable than forced labor. He was also clearly a pragmatist as he was seemingly aware that financial gain was more important to people than adherence to religious principles - “That neither the laws nor religion of any country … are sufficient to bind the consciences of some; but that there are always men, of every age, country, and persuasion, who are ready to sacrifice their dearest principles at the shrine of gain … there are few retreats that can escape the penetrating eye of avarice.”
Hence recognizing this impediment called ‘avarice’ he tactfully uses it to strengthen his message of abolition by suggesting that free labor is more profitable than slave labor. It would have therefore been a very efficacious way of making his proposal for abolition as it dealt with what mattered most: commerce and religion, in that order.
In order to get a full appreciation of the intricate relationship that informed the discourse between slavery and Christianity, it must be note that slavery did not start in the Americas, but dates back to ancient civilizations such as the Great Roman Empire, and was ramified by religion as a commercial necessity since the Empire depended so heavily on slave labor. What makes the slavery that existed in this era/society different from that in the Americas is the element of race that perched its ugly head in colonial America with the accompanying tenets of brutality and...