Featured Institutions Slavery

Codrington at All Souls – the Awakening of the Anglican Conscience concerning Slavery

historical slavery
Written by Robert Jackson

Campaigns for the “decolonisation” of British historiography have at least one positive consequence – the shedding of new light on hitherto neglected or overlooked or misrepresented passages in British history, including the roots of the rejection of slavery.

In the case of the campaign against the commemoration of Christopher Codrington at the great library willed by him at All Souls College, Oxford, interesting new light can be shed on the dawning awareness within the Established Church of England of the wrongfulness of slavery. In the standard historical narrative such awareness is associated primarily with Quakers and Methodists and other “Dissenters”. But the movement to eliminate the slave trade and to abolish slavery within the British empire would not have been so successful as early as it was, if by the last decades of the 18th century it had not been been supported by many influential figures within the Established Church: William Wilberforce and many others.

Robert Jackson, a former MP and a quondam prize fellow of All Souls (1968), was led by the controversies surrounding Codrington to enquire into a question not previously considered by the College and its historians: what motivated the surprising benefactions in Codrington’s will in 1703? His enquiries shed new light not only on this question but also on the wider issue of the evolution of Anglican attitudes to slavery in the earlier 18th century, and the germination in that period of the thinking within the Establishment which was to lead in the early 19th century to Britain’s worldwide campaign against slavery.

These findings mark some significant “Reclamations” of history. They put in question the decision in 2021 of All Souls College to “cancel” the name of Codrington, traditionally associated with his library at the college. And they suggest important new perspectives on the “contextualisation” of Codrington at All Souls.


All Souls College at Oxford was founded in 1438 by Henry Chichele, the Archishop of Canterbury who is portrayed by Shakespeare in the first scene of Henry V, urging what would nowadays be construed as a “war crime” – an aggressive war, fought to secure domestic unity. To this day, most of the college buildings, and its very handsome endowment, derive from Chichele’s founding benefaction. The most conspicuous and impressive addition occurred in the early 18th century, with the construction of a vast new library building, funded by a bequest for the purpose by Christopher Codrington in a will made in 1703. After Chichele’s, Codrington’s is probably the most substantial benefaction in the history of All Souls, and in the older college histories Codrington is sometimes referred to as “the second founder” of All Souls.


The architect of what was until November 2020 called “The Codrington Library” was Nicholas Hawksmoor. As well as its nearly two hundred thousand books, many originally donated by Codrington, the library contains two monumental sculptures: one of William Blackstone, a fellow of the college whose Commentaries on the Laws of England was the textbook in which Abraham Lincoln pursued his legal studies, and the other of Codrington, represented in the armour of a Roman general. Current national heritage arrangements give a “Grade I” listing and commensurate protections to the library building and its statues.


Codrington was portrayed (by the sculptor Henry Cheere in 1734) in the guise of a Roman general because, as the Latin inscription on the base of the statue records, he served as the Captain General and Governor of the Leeward Isles, with a military career in the

Low Countries and more conspicuously and less successfully – in the Caribbean. The 18th century fellows of All Souls who approved the design (which also features a pile of books at the Governor’s feet) were thus honouring this high appointment in the service of the Crown. Codrington himself seems to have taken a more modest view of himself: he left instructions that he should be buried within the college chapel, under a simple stone marked only by his surname.

“Decolonisation” and “Anti-Slavery”

In the early 21st century monuments of the kind represented by “The Codrington Library” and the statue of Codrington have supposedly become “problematical”, as symbols of “colonialism” and “slavery” which continue into the present day to project “structures of domination” and of “white privilege”. In 2016 a “Rhodes must Fall” campaign was directed against similar monuments, first at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and then at Oriel College in Oxford – both beneficiaries of very substantial gifts from Rhodes. This was followed by a protest against Codrington at All Souls. He was then arraigned at a public seminar in the college – in the atmosphere of a “kangaroo court” – and the present-day fellows were eventually persuaded to erect a memorial at the entrance to the library, “In memory of those who worked in slavery on the Codrington plantations in the West Indies”. They have since also voted to cancel its traditional name with its associated putative moral stain. Proposals to remove Codrington’s statue have not yet been pursued, no doubt on account of anticipated legal difficulties with the authorities charged with the protecting the national heritage. {Footnote 1} At the time of writing these controversies may have abated, and the Warden and fellows of All Souls perhaps breathe a sigh of relief at having got through them with minimal cost and disruption to themselves.

Footnote 1: Hawkesmoor’s design for the Codrington Library, one of the first great libraries to be built at ground-level, provides a ceremonial entrance from the All Souls Great Quadrangle, situated in the middle of one of its longer sides. Upon entering, the statue of Codrington is immediately in front of the visitor, with the vast space of the library extending to right and left. This is one of the noblest interiors constructed in 18th century Britain, and the placing of the statue is as central to its theatral design as, say, Wren’s baroque throne for the Chancellor of the University in the Sheldonian Theatre. We may hope that the national heritage bodies, and if need be the the Secretary of State, will recognise the extent of the threat to this design which would be constituted by any proposal to remove the statue.

Nevertheless, some may feel – and perhaps posterity will agree with them – that the course followed by All Souls in the case of Codrington is not without its own moral taint. Moral philosophers since Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, xiii-xiv) have held that the beneficiaries of a benefaction owe a debt of gratitude to honour their benefactor: indeed, the prayer recited annually by the Warden of All Souls in the college chapel on the feast of All Souls every November expresses the hope (with reference to God, deemed to have moved the minds of the college’s benefactors), that “the remembrance of these thy benefits may never slip out of our minds”. Questions of historical justice and judgment also arise which are of foundational importance in the academic study of the “Humanities” which are nowadays the principal purpose and raison d’etre of All Souls and similar institutions. By what right and on what moral basis do we not only pass moral judgment on people in the past, living in a value-world of the past, but also act to remove their memorials from the public record thus compromising the judgment of future generations? And has the Codrington case been equitably tried by All Souls – or has it rushed to judgment without a fair trial and with overheated emotions and short-term political expediency uppermost in the mind of the college?

Reflection on these questions has led the author to enquire into the case of Codrington case and its context. This enquiry results in findings which open up new perspectives on the history of the development of concern about slavery in Britain and notably within the Established Church of England {Foonote 2}. It should also give All Souls grounds for reconsidering its damnatio memoriae in respect of Codrington.

Footnote 2: Ford K. Brown, Fathers of the Victorians: the Age of Wilberforce (Cambridge UP, 1961) emphasises that “as England was constituted at the end of the 18th century a national reform of morals was unthinkable without support from the ruling class and the Established Church” (3). Brown argues for the central importance of William Wilberforce in generating that support: “a rich man, a favourite of London society and one of the young prime minister’s closest friends, he had access to those circles of the ruling class that were closed to John Newton and had been closed to the Methodist leaders John Wesley and George Whitefield …”. In his emphasis on developments in the late 18th century, Brown does not report on currents of opinion within the Established Church in the earlier part of the century which were moving in the same direction. There are good grounds for associating Codrington with these developments.

The Case of Codrington Fairly Considered

Christopher Codrington (1668-1710) was indeed an owner of slaves, on tobacco and sugar-growing estates in the West Indies originally established by his grandfather in the early 17th century. He also inherited substantial landed property in England, where he acquired Dodington Park in Gloucestershire (since rebuilt and now the home of Sir James Dyson). As it happens – and it perhaps makes no moral difference – his bequest to All Souls was funded by his English properties, not by his plantations and his slaves in Barbados.

We know very little about Codrington personally {Footnote 3}. Very few personal papers survive: indeed, All Souls has managed to mislay its only record of the reportedly 12,000 books which he bequeathed to the library which bore his name. (Many of these seem to have been works of metaphysics and theology. They may have included the copy of William Chillingworth’s once famous Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation (1637) which the author opened as a junior fellow c1970, with a loud crack which turned out to have been made by the breaking of a thread of candle-wax left behind by its previous reader, surely more than a century before).

Footnote 3: There is a biography, by Vernon Harlow (1928). There is an article on Codrington in the new Oxford DNB (2004) by Scott Mandelbrote, which  gives a more up to date account, marred however by an up to date slur referring to his ownership of a plantation “where both cattle and slaves were bred”. Mandelbrote also authored a useful account of Codrington’s association with All Souls, in his chapter on “The Vision of Christopher Codrington” in All Souls under the Ancien Regime:Politics, Learning and the Arts 1600-1850 edited by Simon Green (Oxford UP 2007). Mandelbrote fails to notice the existence of Thomas Bray, his association with All Souls, and his possible connexions with Codrington. (In spite of the reference in its title to “the Arts” the book also does not mention All Souls’ only distinguished poet, with a European reputation, Edward Young (1683-1765), author of Night Thoughts (1742-5), admired by Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, illustrated by William Blake, and acknowledged by Goethe as an inspirer of German Sturm und Drang and of subsequent German Romanticism”).

But as it happens a personal letter from Codrington has been preserved, which records his feelings about the slaves which he inherited when his father died in 1698. Writing to his friend William Popple in 1699 he remarks of his slaves that “their condition has cost me many a mortifying reflection, and yet I know not how I shall be able to mend it in any respect but feeding my slaves well. I shall certainly be opposed by all the Planters in general if I should go about to secure their limbs and lives by a law, though I will certainly recommend something of the kind”. {Footnote 4}. That this was his attitude may account for a letter to him in 1700 from William Penn, the Quaker founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, welcoming his appointment as Governor, and remarking that “there are many Knotts attend that Station, Folly and Knavery make, that Philosophy can unty much better perhaps than the Sword can cutt them”.

Footnote 4: cited by Mandelbrote, op cit., 103.  Note also (153) Codrington’s remark to Popple, that he would be opposed “if I should promote the baptizing of all our slaves. And in this the Planters have much to say for themselves, for ‘tis certain the christening of our negroes without the instructing of them would be useless to themselves and pernicious to their masters”.

As a matter of practical ethics, it is surely relevant to ask what practical courses were open to a person in 1698 reluctantly inheriting property in a large number of slaves. In the circumstances of the time in the colonies, although the manumission of individuals was possible, the freeing of a large body of slaves would almost certainly have led to their reinslavement by other planters.  The possibility of wider freedom was only opened up with the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act by the imperial parliament in 1833, and the buying out by the British taxpayer of the property rights of the slave-owners.

Christopher Codrington and Thomas Bray?

Meanwhile, the question suggests itself, of what may have motivated Codrington’s extraordinary bequest of his many books, together with the very substantial sum of £10,000 to build and furnish the great library at All Souls. I suggest that this should be considered together with his other similarly extraordinary bequest, in the same will, of an endowment of estates worth £30,000 for the foundation in Barbados of the Church of England’s first seminary-cum-institution of higher education in the New World, still proudly known as “Codrington College” and still partly funded by Codrington’s endowment. (For many decades this institution, now part of the University of the West Indies, has been run mainly by blacks: in contrast with almost entirely white All Souls, they have not felt impelled to disavow the name of their founder. Is All Souls guilty of “cultural appropriation” and indeed of the notorious “white saviour” complex?).

Here I suggest that the college’s historians have missed what may have been an important connexion between Codrington and another more important figure, also as it happens associated with All Souls.

Unlike Codrington, who was elected into a fellowship at All Souls in 1690, the Reverend Thomas Bray (1658-1730) does not feature in the records of the college. {Footnote 5} Of relatively humble (yoeman) origins, he was never numbered among the fellows of the College: in the ancien regime which prevailed down to the mid-19th century many of these were “Founder’s Kin”, descended however remotely from the family of Archbishop Chichele. But he was registered as a pauper puer at All Souls in 1675, whence he took his BA in 1678.  He was perhaps a “servitor” at All Souls (as Samuel Johnson was at Pembroke College a few decades later). It is highly unlikely that he ever encountered Christopher Codrington at Oxford, ten years his junior and many notches higher in the class hierarchy. But there are good reasons to suppose that they later became acquainted in London, and that Thomas Bray may indeed have had something to do with the remarkable benefactions in Codrington’s will – on the one hand the founding of a great library in Oxford, and on the other the founding of his College at Barbados.

Footnote 5: the new Oxford DNB {2004} has an extensive biography of Thomas Bray, by Leonard W. Cowie, together with an up-to-date bibliography.  The University of Maryland, honouring its originator, purchased in 1979 what remains of his papers.The SPG (now USPG) archives are held at the Bodleian in Oxford, and those of the SPCK at the University library at Cambridge, together with an imposing portrait of Thomas Bray by an unknown artist.  All Souls might do well to borrow this portrait for display in the College: although in terms of the College’s current values Bray’s efforts as a Christian  missionary may be held against him, his status as a former “servitor” might be enough to compensate for this black mark against him.

A first connexion was perhaps a common interest in books, notably of ecclesiastical and philosophic interest. In 1697 Bray published the first edition of his Bibliotheca Parochialis with a greatly enlarged second edition ten years later. These contain wide-ranging lists of books which Bray hoped would be made available for the edification of the clergy and laity of the Church of England through libraries which he he hoped to provide for them by way of the “Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge” (SPCK) which he founded with a few friends in March 1698: a Society which exists to this day.  Bray’s book lists cover a vast range of subjects, together with his extensive notes, generally in Latin, summarising the contents of the books and assessing their importance.  Contemporaneously, Codrington was employing an agent in London, Alexander Cunningham, to purchase books in the same and similar fields for himself in England and abroad. There is direct evidence of a connexion between Codrington and Bray in the context of this shared interest in books and libraries: Bray’s Account of Benefactions and Libraries sent into the Plantations for the period 1695-1699 lists Codrington among thirty eight other knights and gentlemen as having donated £140 – one of the most substantial donations.

A second point of connexion was the involvement of both men in the small world of colonial policy in London, and notably Church of England policy in the colonies. In 1695 the Bishop of London, with jurisdiction in the Caribbean and North American colonies, appointed Bray as his “Commissary” for the organisation of the Church of England in the colony of Maryland. In 1697 Bray preached one of the first sermons in Wren’s newly opened St Paul’s Cathedral, subsequently published with a preface containing a General View of the English Colonies in America, with respect to Religion – a general survey of the weakness of the presence of the Established Church, from Newfoundland to the West Indies.

One of the causes of this weakness was the absence of endowments – a concern which was met in June 1700 by the obtaining of a a royal Charter and Letters Patent for Bray’s proposed “Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Forreign Parts” (SPG), which enabled that Society to receive, invest, and administer funds: this is another of Bray’s foundations that is still in service. The first substantial endowment placed in trust with Bray’s Society seems to have been that made in Christopher Codrington’s will of 22nd February 1703, bequeathing plantations in the West Indies to the SPG for “the foundation of a college in Barbadoes” for the “Studdy and Practice [of] Physick and Chyrurgy, as well as divinity, that by the apparent usefulness of the former to all mankind, they may Both endear themselves to the People and have better opportunitys of doeing good To mens Souls whilst they are Taking Care of their Bodys”. This bequest should surely be seen as a realisation of of the concern he had earlier expressed to his friend Popple, for the “limbs and lives” of his inherited slaves.

What considerations led Codrington, in the same will, to make his bequest of books and money to All Souls?  In a letter to a friend in June 1700 Codrington had remarked that he “hoped to make [his collection] as curious as any private One in Europe particularly in some sort of books wch I beleive are not known at Oxford … tho tis possible considering my circumstances I may make very little use of them myself”.  In respect of Oxford, his choice lay between founding a stand-alone new library (as envisaged in John Radcliffe’s contemporary will), or making a bequest either to Oxford’s Bodleian library or to All Souls where he had been a Fellow. Each choice would secure public access to his collection: but by bequeathing it to All Souls he may have hoped that its identity would be better preserved.  At the same time, and bearing in mind the especially strong connexions in his day between All Souls and the Church of England, he may also have been influenced by Bray’s thinking about the need for a graduated heirarchy of libraries serving the Church, with a Bibliotheca Generalis at the highest level, and Bibliothecae Provinciales, Decanales, and Parochiales at more local levels in England and the colonies (thus perhaps making his library at All Souls something of an equivalent in England of the bibliotheca centralis at Annapolis, Maryland, which Bray had founded in 1699).

The Wider Influence of Thomas Bray: an unacknowledged true “Worthy of All Souls” {Footnote six}

Footnote 6: The earliest history of All Souls is that of Montagu Burrows, under the title Worthies of All Souls: Four Centuries of English History” (1874). Not having been a fellow of the College Bray did not count, and his very active and constructive career is not set off against what Burrows described as the College’s 18th century “period of stagnation”.

Whatever may have been the nature and extent of Codrington’s connexion with the Reverend Thomas Bray – which I suggest may have helped to plant the seeds not only for his endowment of the college in Barbados which is still named after him, but also of his handsome bequest for the library at All Souls which until recently bore his name – that connexion obviously came to an end with Codrington’s death at the early age of forty one on 7th April 1710.  But the notable career of Thomas Bray continued to flourish not only in his own lifetime but also after his death in 1730, in ways which shed interesting light on the awakening of the Anglican conscience in respect of  the treatment of natives and slaves in the British colonies. The story of this development remains largely untold: this too is history in need of “reclamation”.

Bray was known to his contemporaries as a “great projector”, and his projects seem to have grown naturally out of one another over time. His interest in books led him in the 1690s to his projects for the provision of ecclesiastical libraries, which drew him to the attention of his superiors in the church. This led to his connexion with Maryland and the colonies in America, and to his projects for the provision of libraries and of priests in the colonies. And this in turn led him to projects not only for the conversion of the native Indians of North America but also for the religious instruction of black slaves in the colonies – a topic to which he refers in the Letter he published in 1700 reporting on his work in Maryland. A critical event was perhaps his meeting in 1699 with Abel Tessin, the Sieur d’Allone, secretary to King William at the Hague, where Bray encountered him in the course of his unsuccessful efforts to solicit a royal endowment for the SPCK. (Codrington may also have been in the Low Countries at that time).

D’Allone and Bray apparently discussed the spiritual condition of the blacks in the colonies, leading D’Allone to make a bequest in his own will of some £900 at the time of his death in 1723, which Bray put under the charge of a new society for “the founding of clerical libraries and supporting negro schools”. Note also Bray’s publication in 1727 of A Collection of Missionary Pieces Relating to the Conversion of the Heathen; both the African Negroes and the American Indians (including, incidentally, a Memorial arguing against the practicality of the contemporary plan for a seminary for this purpose in Bermuda, which was then being promoted by George Berkeley, the great philosopher-bishop: this proposal is another sign of emerging Anglican concern with these questions).

Bray’s arrangements for the deployment of D’Allone’s bequest became the nucleus for a body known as “Dr Bray’s Associates”, founded in 1723 (and only wound up in the late 20th century). And this association in turn helped to generate two great projects, fraught with significance for the future.

“The Georgia Experiment”: an American Colony without Slaves

The first of these was the foundation in 1733, three years after Bray’s death, of the last of the British colonies in North America – what subsequently became the US state of Georgia. This was originally proposed by Bray as a settlement “for the Reliefe of  honest poor Distressed Famelies”. The first governor was an MP, James Oglethorpe (1697-1785), one of the founding Bray “Associates”, who lived long enough to be a friend in his old age also of Hannah More and William Wilberforce. When he set forth for Georgia in 1735 he took with him as his chaplain John Wesley, then a missionary on the strength of the SPG. {Footnote seven} Shortly before leaving for Georgia, it was Oglethorpe who purchased and freed the enslaved merchant, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, whose Memories are one of the earliest of the slave narratives which helped to inspire the rising movement of British public opinion against slavery.

Foonote 7: Wesley described slavery as “the sum of all villainies” (in his Thoughts Upon Slavery, 1774). It was in Georgia that Wesley encountered Moravian missionaries, leading to his conversion to what became “Methodism” in 1738. In the same year he was joined in Georgia by George Whitefield,  the other great Methodist founder.  The complexities of the Christian encounter with slavery in this period are illustrated by Whitefield’s career: his principal project in Georgia was an orphanage at Savannah, for which he obtained an endowment of land which could only be worked remuneratively by negro slaves, leading him to campaign for the legalisation of slavery in Georgia – all the while insisting that slaves should be evangelised and well treated. After his death in 1770 these properties passed to his patroness, Selina Countess of Huntingdon, whose “Connexion” was prominent among the black “Loyalists” who fled from the American Revolution to Nova Scotia, and thence to Sierra Leone, where it is still active

As governor of Georgia, Oglethorpe was determined that slavery should have no place in the new colony, because he believed that it was incompatible with the kind of settlement of individuals reformed by their own labour for which the colony was intended, and also because he feared that slaves might be induced to revolt by promises of emancipation which might be made by the colony’s bordering Spanish rivals in Florida.  The upshot was the “Georgia Experiment”, legislation by Parliament in 1735 prohibiting slavery in the new colony: arguably a first step towards the eventual British legislative abolition of slavery throughout the empire.  Unfortunately, the experiment was a failure, on account of resistance by the settlers and from the neighbouring colonies, and also of the abatement of tensions with Spain. After the end of the War of the Austrian Succession (1748) had brought peace with Spain, Parliament was persuaded in 1750 to repeal its act of 1735, and by the time of the American Revolution slaves made up a half of the colony’s population of some 33,000 souls.

The Education of Black Americans

More successful in the longer run was another project undertaken by “Dr Bray’s Associates” after his death: the distribution of books and the foundation of libraries and schools in North America, notably for the purpose of educating blacks.  Here a prominent supporter was Benjamin Franklin, himself an “Associate” (also an admirer of George Whitefield). In 1758 a first school for blacks was founded in Philadelphia, run by Bray’s SPG, followed by others in 1760 in New York and at Williamsburg, Virginia, and in 1762 at Newport, Rhode Island. Early in the revolutionary period, however, all these schools were closed, and after 1786 attempts to reopen them failed.  {Footnote eight}  But the Friends of Thomas Bray had helped to plant the seeds of the foundation in the 19th and 20th centuries of a multitude of schools and colleges educating an emerging black American middle class.

Footnote 8: see the extensive article by E.L Pennington on “Thomas Bray’s Associates and their Work among the Negroes”,  Journal of theAmerican Antiquarian Society, October 1938 (311-403).

The Rise of Abolitionism

In the 18th century the West Indian sugar islands were the richest jewels in the crown of the British empire, and the associated trade in slaves was one of its most lucrative trading activities. Critics of British “colonialism and slavery” fail to recognise the implication that on this account all the more credit is due to the increasing number of protestors against slavery in Britain in the same period, and to the eventual success of their campaigns. These protesters were led not only by Quakers and Methodists, as in the standard historiographical view, but also with increasing force and emphasis by leaders of the established Church of England with Bray and Codrington among their precursors.  These included such figures as Beilby Porteus, Bishop of Chester (1776-87) and then of London (1787-1809: he was appointed by Pitt) and therefore episcopally responsible for the churches in the remaining colonies in America.

To bring our argument back to Christopher Codrington: just as whatever may have been his special intention for his library was overlooked at ancien regime All Souls (and has finally been consigned to oblivion by the current generation of its fellows), so also his intentions for his foundation in Barbados were largely ignored by his appointed trustees at the SPG who allowed it to become in effect a grammar school for the sons of local planters.  But when Bishop Porteus (himself the son of a Virginia planter) was invited to preach the SPG’s Anniversary Sermon in 1783, he reproached the Society for the treatment of the slaves on its Codrington plantations in the context of a general plea for The Civilisation, Improvement and Conversion of the Negroe Slaves in the British West-India Islands. He also later submitted to the trustees a Plan for the Effectual Conversion of the Slaves of the Codrington Estate. Meanwhile in the House of Lords he was a very prominent supporter of the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade, which eventually prevailed in the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Christianity and Slavery

What I have described as the awakening of the Anglican conscience in the matter of slavery should be seen in the wider context of the history of Christian thinking on the subject: this is another and larger topic whose history is especially worthy of reclamation.

The founding documents of Christianity were written in a period when slavery was pervasive across the Roman empire. In his Epistles,  St Paul makes a distinction similar to that also made by Stoic philosophers (eg Epictetus, himself originally a slave), between the inner (“spiritual”) man and the outer (“fleshly”) man. For St Paul all flesh is caught up “in the bondage of sin”, and slavery is a contingent feature of that condition.  But man’s spirit is free, and with the Grace of God man is able in his inner freedom to transcend the limits of his fleshly bondage – in the words attributed to Jesus, “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are  God’s”. Meanwhile, “in the spirit” all men are brothers, sons and daughters of the same “Father”, and “made in His image and likeness”. {Footnote 9}

Footnote 9: St Paul’s Epistle to Philemon is directly concerned with Philemon’s slave Onesimus, who seems to have escaped from his Christian master and then been converted by St Paul, who describes him as “my [spiritual] son, whom I have begotten [ie converted][ in my bonds”. St Paul sends him back to Philemon, beseeching him to receive him “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, especially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord”.

While this biblical approach does not attack the institution of slavery as such, it certainly contributed to its fading into perhaps less arduous kinds of bondage in the Christian world of the Middle Ages: already a marked contrast with the continued flourishing of slavery since remote antiquity in the other high cultures of the period.  When the question of slavery was reopened in the Christian West in the late 15th century, originally in the context of the overseas expansion of the Portugese and Spanish empires, the Christian response developed along two interrelated lines. On the one hand, notions of the “natural rights” (later the “human rights”) of all men began to be formulated, notably by Fr Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566), endorsed in a number of Bulls by Pope Paul III in the 1530s. {Footnote 10} And on the other, more characteristically Christian ideas emerged, insisting on the Christian duty to open the channels of divine Grace also to slaves: the preaching of the Word, and access to the Sacraments.

Footnote 10: Sublimis Deus, 1537 declared the indigenous peoples of the Americas to be “truly men … not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, the desire exceedingly to receive it”. However, the bull’s executing brief, Pastorale Officium, was soon annulled under Spanish pressure. Las Casas’ chief concern was with the native “Indians”: in his Memorial de Remedios para Las Indias (1516) he argued for the importation of black slaves from Africa to relieve them, although he later retracted this position.

In the English and British context, early documentation of this second approach is to be found in Charles II’s instruction in 1660 to his council  for foreign plantations, “to consider how the natives and slave may be invited and made capable of baptism”. {Footnote 10} This was the background to the thinking of such men as Codrington and Bray, and of the Anglican authorities through most of the 18th century.  But on the ground in the colonies this approach encountered a powerful practical obstacle: the resistance of the planters to the evangelisation of their slaves. In 1695 Codrington’s father, and his predecessor as Governor of Barbados, registered one of the grounds of their objection, that “the keeping of Christian holy days will be the great obstacle, most of the planters thinking Sundays too much to be spared from work”.

Footnote 10: see the article “Parliament and Slavery, 1660-c1710” by R. Paley, C. Malcolmson, and M. Hunter, in Slavery and Abolition, vol 31, no 2 June 2010 at p 260. The remarks of Codrington’s father are to be found at p263. See also the discussion at pp259-60 of the question of the relation between baptism and manumission. References to Anglican works of this period denying that the former entailed the latter can be found at p277, note 20. Note the role of this question in Somersett’s Case (1772), which concluded in Lord Mansfield’s judgment that “I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged”.

Another consideration arose from a confusion between the notions of spiritual and legal freedom: the belief, among some slaves and some slave-owners, that baptism entailed  manumission. In the hope of removing this obstacle to evangelisation various Anglican authorities in the 18th century were led to issue denials of such entailment.  Ultimately it became increasingly clear that the plantocracy would not cooperate with the instruction and conversion of their slaves: and together with increasing public awareness of the horrors of the “Middle Passage”, this was surely an important factor making for the radicalisation of the Christian critique of slavery which developed in the course of the 18th century. This in turn opened the way not only to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the promulgation and enforcement of new laws regulating the treatment of slaves, but also finally to the eventual abolition of the institution of slavery across the British Empire in 1833.

Meanwhile in the late 18th century the perhaps more secular legal-philosophical doctrine of “natural rights” also began to cut through, first of all in the American Declaration of Independence (1776): “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”, and thirteen years later in the French Declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (1789): “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”. Current overwhelmingly secular historiography sees in the “Enlightenment” thinking represented by these Declarations the decisive step towards the termination of slavery in the Western world.  But as the Christian Tory Dr Johnson remarked in 1775, “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”. Within a decade of the promulgation of the French Declaration and the revolution’s abolition of slavery in 1794, Napoleon had reinstituted it (1802) and was campaigning to reconquer Haiti. {Footnote 11} And so far as the slaves in America’s southern states  were concerned, the fine words of the American Declaration remained a dead letter until its application to slavery was clarified by the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution in 1865.

Footnote 11: in 1825 France recognised the independence of Haiti, which was obliged to pay an indemnity of 150 million gold francs plus accumulated interest as it was paid off: this huge debt (the equivalent of some $40 billion dollars in today’s values) continued to be paid until 1947.  In the British empire the British taxpayer paid for the liberation of the slaves: in the case of France, continuing throughout the history of the Third Republic, the former slaves had to pay for it themselves.

Indeed, if the historian were to pose the question, Which did more to bring about the end of slavery in the West – its Christian conscience, or its commitment to secular “natural rights”? – the answer might justifiably award the palm to the Christians. Conscience will always be a more powerful motivating factor than abstract principle.  The post-colonial world has almost everywhere seen a mighty avalanche of constitutional commitments to universal human rights: at the same time it is also seeing a recrudescence of slavery and worse in many former colonial territories. The way of the Christian conscience, followed however stumblingly by such men as Christopher Codrington and Thomas Bray, is still perhaps the best way towards the transcendence of human bondage.


It is an interesting historical “counter-factual” to consider what might have happened to slavery in what after 1777 became the United States of America, if the American territories taken from France by Britain in the Seven Years War had been returned to her by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. {Footnote 12} The American revolt against Britain would probably not have occurred, deterred by fear of France; and neither perhaps would the French revolution – which was largely precipitated by the cost to France of her intervention in the American war.  Meanwhile the continuance of the slave system in the southern colonies would have come under increasing pressure from the transatlantic awakening across the British Empire, of its Christian conscience in respect of slavery – with the question likely finally being resolved in the context of a great war in the early 19th century for the future control of North America, between the united British imperial forces of George III and Louis XVII (perhaps respectively commanded byArthur Wellesley, later Duke of Mississippi, and a Marechal Buonaparte?).

Footnote 12: The question “What if there had been no American Revolution” is thoroughly discussed by J.C.D. Clark in his contribution (125-174) to Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, edited by Niall Ferguson (1997). At 168-171 he discusses the implications specifically for North American Indians and for American blacks.

The historical revisionism of the New York Times’ “1619” project may indeed have a valid point. As colonies under the British Crown, what became the states of the American union might have addressed the problems of slavery and of their relations with the indigenous peoples sooner and less painfully than they did as an independent polity largely founded and then governed by the “white settler” plantocracy. This was the system in which in an earlier generation Christopher Codrington in the West Indies also found himself reluctantly caught up – and for whose consequences he did the best he could to furnish alleviating remedies by way of education and evangelisation, to be followed not long afterwards by the successful British Christian campaign to abolish the institution of slavery across the British Empire and across the world.

About the author


Robert Jackson