History at Leicester

British Abolitionists and Protestant Millennialism 1770-1840

Leverhulme Research Fellowship

September 2012 - August 2013

Professor John Coffey

Why did British abolitionists come to believe that the abolition of slavery was necessary, possible and even inevitable? After all, slavery was not only an integral part of the imperial economy; it was also an ancient social institution, sanctioned by classical texts and the Bible itself. Part of the answer lies in the Enlightenment belief in human progress. But most abolitionist activists were intensely religious, and in their minds Progress was underwritten by Providence. Many came to share Joseph Priestley’s faith that ‘the great governor of the world is gradually bringing on a state of universal peace and happiness, which must imply…the abolition of slavery’.

The rise of abolitionism coincided with the rise of the missionary movement, and both reflected and reinforced millennial hopes. Whereas eighteenth-century missionaries had justified African slavery as a providential means for the spread of the Gospel, it became increasingly common to think of emancipation as the means to this end. My project will analyse the eschatological dimension of British abolitionism as it developed from the 1770s to the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840. It will explore the archives of leading figures like Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay and Thomas Fowell Buxton. But it will also investigate popular abolitionism as it was expressed in speeches, sermons, pamphlets, periodicals, poetry, songs, hymns and iconography.

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