Why the West Should Be Celebrated

The Forgotten (or Omitted) History of How the West Abolished Slavery

When the statues of Confederate generals were toppled in the south, perhaps most Americans did not find this too objectionable. Likely few want to actually celebrate the life of someone who not only supported slavery, but was willing to fight to maintain it as an institution. To no one’s surprise, in a peaceful-turned-violent protest in Nashville on Saturday, a statue of Edward Carmack – a lawmaker openly supporting lynching – was toppled in front of the state capitol.

While the condemnation of those in history past supporting the continued institution of slavery is understandable, it is curious that the mob has more recently taken to defacing and destroying statues of founding fathers and abolitionists. Not content to stop with 18th and 19th century figures, Christopher Columbus himself has had quite a raucous few weeks, suffering a decapitation in Boston, a drowning in Richmond, a defacing in Miami, and violent toppling in the city of St. Paul. With the goalposts of “righteous” condemnation forever changing, it almost appears that the mob – unimpeded - will set in their crosshairs any symbol memorializing specifically western ideals. We can probably chalk their misguided hatred up to the “quality” social studies education these disaffected young people have enjoyed (or rather, endured).

One man’s history “education” is another’s history indoctrination. What has been remarkably absent from the pages of high school and college history texts is the role that western civilization played in the abolishment of slavery. Not a uniquely American or European construct, slavery has existed since the dawn of humanity, and practiced on every continent – even to this day. What was uniquely western was the notion that the practice of slavery was abhorrent, a national embarrassment, and an indictment on a civilization.

Sociologist Rodney Stark in For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery,[1] remarked that in the same way the institution of empirical science arose only once, “so, too, did effective moral opposition to slavery,” crediting Christian theology as providing the framework. Following a survey of slavery’s global history, Stark recounts how the appearance of African slaves in Europe drew quick revulsion: as an example in Lagos, Portugal (1444 AD), citizens were so distressed at the sight of families being separated during a “sale” that they demanded the proceedings be stopped. In 1596, citizens of the Netherlands were so enraged at the “cargo” of a Dutch slave-trader, the local council pronounced all the slaves to be free. Consequently, Dutch slavers moved their activities abroad.

These pronouncements of horror by a specifically Christian culture fueled abolitionist movements throughout Europe and the U.S. Stark explains that: “an organized opposition to slavery arose only when and where (1) the appropriate moral predisposition was (2) stimulated by the salience of the phenomenon and (3) was not counteracted by perceived self-interest.” Stark argues pointedly that without the moral imperative informed by a Judeo-Christian ethic, abolitionist movements do not emerge, which is why they never appeared in non-Christian countries. Their emergence also depended on citizens that felt some direct moral responsibility for the evil of slavery, and did not have a stakeholder interest in its continuance. These three imperatives combined explain why abolition movements did not gain traction in the American South, African, Arab, or Asian societies.

So disgusted was Christianized Britain with the institution of slavery that after it was abolished in its own territories in 1833 it invested human capital and warships to patrol the coast of Western Africa in the Atlantic in order to interrupt the international slave trade there. Brazil capitulated to British pressure to stop slave trade only after their slave ships were seized and destroyed in their own waters by British warships. In an effort to interrupt the Arabic slave trade (which was decidedly more brutal than that of the U.S.) Britain dispatched patrols in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf as well. In 1873, off the coast of the island nation of Zanzibar, two British cruisers threatened to blockade the island until the slave trade was effectively shut down (and it ultimately was). These acts represent but a sampling of Britain’s efforts in its quest to end the global slave trade.

Of Britain’s tenacity in its long-term crusade against global slavery, economist Thomas Sowell states, “It would be hard to think of any other crusade pursued so relentlessly for so long by any nation, at such mounting costs without any economic or other tangible benefit to itself.” [2]Sowell adds that the costs included the maintenance of a naval patrol, bribes paid to Spain and Portugal for their cooperation, and that of resettling the slaves who were freed. In addition there was the toll of the human lives lost in this noble pursuit.

Britain was not alone in its disdain for the institution of slavery. As early as 1700, American public figures decried it, penning pamphlets and articles. What started as smaller movements among the Quakers grew into non-denominational abolitionist societies, with prominent clergymen leading the way. Oberlin College became a key station along the underground railroad, conveying runaway slaves to Canada, under the direction of Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1885). The year 1833 saw the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society, led by William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879). This group, using religious justifications, published what was called a Declaration of Sentiments demanding that slaves needed to be set free immediately and brought under the protection of law. The sentiment towards slave ownership was visited with such disgust that this society grew to over 400 chapters within two years of its formation, and by 1838 there were more than 1,000.

Space does not permit the enumeration of abolitionist efforts made by still other countless Catholic and Protestant organizations. You can read of these in detail in Stark’s excellent text. The point that Stark and Sowell are making is that it was not Arabic, Asian, or even African societies that fought – and won - the war on slavery. Rather it was uniquely westernized, Christian societies sacrificing significant blood and capital, informed by the notion that all humans are created as image-bearers of our Creator, thereby possessing certain unalienable rights and deserving of dignity. It is doubtful that the infantile anarchists we witness in the news daily, defacing and toppling abolitionist monuments have ever even learned of this rich and forgotten history. And just why is this history forgotten? Thomas Sowell tells us that “by making enslavement appear to be a peculiarly American or a peculiarly white crime,” ideological points can be score to the end that benefits can be extracted from the white population.  

[1] Stark, Rodney. (2004). For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton University Press.

[2] Sowell, Thomas. (2009). Black Rednecks & White Liberals: Hope, Mercy, Justice and Autonomy in the American Health Care System. Encounter Books.

graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno, with a BS in molecular biology and a minor in cognitive psychology. As an undergraduate, she conducted research in immunology, microbiology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, scanning tunneling microscopy and genetics - having published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and projects in scanning tunneling microscopy. Having recently completed an M.Ed. from University of Cincinnati and a Certificate in Apologetics with the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, Emily is currently an instructional designer/content developer for Moody Bible Institute and teaches organic chemistry and physics. As a former Darwinian evolutionist, Emily now regards the intelligent design arguments more credible than those proffered by Darwinists for explaining the origin of life.

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