The antislavery issue was important in Britain in a way in which it was not elsewhere in Protestant Europe. It was also important because it involved taking a stand against something not explicitly condemned in Scripture. Later in the century the disputes in the United States over the issue led some Christians to argue that Scripture supported slavery. This did not happen in Britain, but the fact that the antislavery campaign was led by evangelicals - notably William Wilberforce, but also others of the so-called 'Clapham sect' - meant that the appeal to Divine Providence by these Christian campaigners was particularly significant. Legislation to abolish the slave trade in British ships was passed in 1807, and slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833, news of this reaching Wilberforce a few days before he died. However, the system of indentured labour in the Caribbean which replaced slavery had several problems, and was partly responsible for some of the civil unrest in the 1830s. In South Africa the abolition of slavery was one of the reasons for the Great Trek in 1836, when a number of Boer farmers left the Cape Colony and founded two new states - the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Britain secured a commitment from the other European powers to abolish the slave trade at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but slavery was abolished in the French colonies only in 1848 and not in the Dutch colonies until the 1860s.
The democratic implications of the French Revolution were overtaken by the consequences of the French war in Europe which followed in the 1790s. Protestant churches in continental Europe did not hesitate to defend the political independence of the states of which they were a part. Furthermore in so far as the Revolution had moved towards a 'religion of reason' it was understandable that the churches should be concerned about the threat this might pose to Christian faith. Thus the more significant issues surrounding democracy had to be tackled in the period after 1815, when Napoleon had been defeated. The number of German states was reduced from over three hundred to just over thirty; several acquired new liberal constitutions; and new legal arrangements were made for the recognition both of Roman Catholics and of the Reformed (or occasionally Lutherans). Protestant churches found themselves in a new kind of legal world. In Great Britain the Toleration Act of 1812, the legalisation of Unitarianism in 1813, the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and Roman Catholic Emancipation in 1829 represented similar developments. The Belgian Revolution of 1830 also marked a significant change for Dutch Protestants: perhaps more than any other event in the century it illustrates a reversal of traditional roles, with Catholics supporting liberalism and Protestants taking a very conservative position.
Was this article helpful?