The release on DVD last week of the film Amazing Grace, about the life of British abolitionist William Wilberforce, should help dispel one of the greatest lies secularists continue to tell themselves: That it was the atheist "free thinkers" of the Enlightenment who led the abolitionist cause to ban slavery in Europe.
The truth is precisely the opposite.
Far from condemning the cruelty of slavery, many of the most vocal anti-Christian writers of the Enlightenment, such as Edward Gibbon (c. 1737-1794) and David Hume (c. 1711-1776), justified it as a regrettable but necessary price to be paid for civilization.
Slavery was, Gibbon said, "almost justified by the great law of self-preservation." According to the atheist hero David Hume, "the negroes and in general all the other species of men… [are] naturally inferior to the whites"-a sentiment which the Enlightenment's great moral philosopher, Immanuel Kant, cited approvingly.
"The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling," Kant declared, in his 1764 essay, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. "Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries…not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality."
While a few Enlightenment writers like Rousseau and Thomas Paine wrote abolitionist pamphlets, the people who actually risked life and limb to end slavery were almost all, without exception, devout Christians.
They included Wilberforce (played with a God-haunted intensity by Welsh actor Ioan Gruffud in the film), but also such Christian leaders as Dr. Beilby Porteus (the Anglican bishop of London), classicist and biblical scholar Granville Sharp, deacon Thomas Clarkson, Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell, and the U.S. Baptist journalist William Lloyd Garrison.
Compare what David Hume and Kant said about black slaves to what prominent Christians in this period said: The Catholic Abbé Guillaume Raynal (1713-1796) declared that "he who supports slavery is the enemy of the human race."
Quaker leader George Fox (1624-1691) begged his followers to "consider with yourselves, if you were in the same condition as the poor Africans are, who came strangers to you, and were sold to you as slaves; I say, if this should be the condition of you or yours, you would think it a hard measure; yea, and very great bondage and cruelty."
John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, who witnessed slavery first hand in the West Indies, declared that "slavery is the sum of all villainies and the vilest that ever saw the sun."
The truth is, while the French atheist philosophes were busily engaged in massacring tens of thousands of innocent people in the Terror that followed the French Revolution, British Quarkers, Methodists, and evangelical Anglicans were waging a campaign to purge the evil of slavery from Europe and European colonies.
In the United States, American Quakers such as Levi Coffin would risk their lives and those of their children running the Underground Railroad that helped more than 100,000 slaves escape their plight.
When asked why he did it, Coffin replied, "The Bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about color, and I should try to follow out the teachings of that good book."
In the 1700s, the world of Tom Jones and Squire Western, most secularists saw little problem with slavery. As Adam Hochschild documented in his remarkable book, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire Slaves, anti-Christian crusaders paid lip service to liberty but did little to aid the millions of kidnapped Africans.
Voltaire could mock slave owners in Candide – but saw nothing wrong when a French slave ship owner offered to name a slave ship after him.
Even John Locke, the great champion of human (natural) rights, who rightly traced the origin of human rights back to Old Testament precedents, nevertheless invested £600 in the Royal African Company that branded its slaves with the initials RAC on their chests.
The truth is, as the film Amazing Grace so dramatically depicts, it was only those annoying, moralistic, relentlessly determined Evangelical Christians – with their constant meddling in politics to the detriment of good business – that shamed the entire world into outlawing the barbarism of slavery.
"Secular elites of our day, or for that matter their counterparts of a century or two centuries ago, like to think that all human progress is due to secular reason," is how political writer Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report sums of the politically correct delusions of the academy vis à vis slavery, commenting on David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. "But Christian belief in the moral equality of every person played a key role in inspiring the Britons and then the Americans who led the fight to abolish the slave trade and then slavery."