There is something healthy about returning to one’s roots. When it comes to evangelical Christianity, its roots are found in the soil of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

Calvinism: Inherently Anti-Slavery?

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  • Calvinism: Inherently Anti-Slavery?

    Eric Washington

    Drawing from his narrative, it is clear that Equiano was a Christian who adhered to the theological system referred to as Calvinism. That Equiano was a Calvinist has been glossed over by many scholars. Literary historian Vincent Carretta wrote that Equiano “embraced Methodism.”[1] Historian James Walvin implied that Equiano was a Calvinistic Methodist commenting on a section of the narrative in which Equiano asserted his belief in predestination.[2] Later in his biography of Equiano, Walvin wrote, “Bit by bit, Equiano was edging towards a solution to his religious crisis by coming to terms with the Methodist theology he had been drawn to.” This may be good for the general reader, but for a reader who is theologically astute this remark raises a serious question: was the Methodism that drew Equiano more Arminian or Calvinistic? Walvin’s statement misses the nuance of Equiano’s own account of his conversion. Though he heard the gospel from a “Dissenting minister,” who was clearly a Methodist, the tone and tenor of this minister’s preaching was clearly Reformed Protestant. Though Equiano never used descriptors such as “Reformed” or “Calvinistic,” it should be apparent to readers of the narrative that the gospel he heard from people he met and partook of their company during this time were Calvinists. In recalling the conversation he had with a clerk of a chapel (presumably a Methodist chapel) after being confused about the meaning of the new birth, Equiano wrote: “I then asked my friend Mr. L—–d…why the commandments of God were, if we could not be saved by them? To which he replied, ‘The law is a school-master to bring us to Christ.’ who alone could, and did keep the commandments, and fulfilled all their requirements for his elect people.” Though Equiano learned the gospel from Methodists in London, these Methodists were Calvinistic Methodists.The most compelling evidence to that effect is found in Equiano’s re-telling of his conversion experience in chapter ten of his narrative. On the night of 6 October 1774, Equiano recorded that as he read Acts 4:12 something amazing and ground-breaking occurred. The apostle Peter preached that “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” As he meditated on these sacred words, Equiano began to wonder if salvation was based entirely on Christ and God’s sovereign gift, or in part, his own good deeds. As he puzzled over this, Equiano wrote this: “the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with the bright beams of heavenly light; and in an instant, as it were, removing the veil, and letting light into a dark place.” As we went on describing that he now saw himself as a “condemned criminal under the law,” and seeing the Lord crucified on his behalf, he wrote: “I saw the eight chapter to the Romans, and the doctrines of God’s decrees verified, agreeable to his eternal, everlasting and unchangeable purposes.” His reference to Romans 8 is particularly compelling as he must have been referring to Romans 8:29-30, the so-called “Golden Chain of Salvation” that teaches God’s sovereignty in the salvation of sinners. Equiano had come to realize that salvation was solely by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. In addition to this saving knowledge Equiano received from God, he also wrote: “Now the Ethiopian was willing to be saved by Jesus Christ, the sinner’s only surety, and also to rely on none other person or thing for salvation.” In providing such testimony to his audience, Equiano exclaimed in humble yet bold terms that God wills to save Africans; he values Africans as he values all nations of people.

    In commenting on Equiano’s text Carretta noted that though Equiano wrote, in part, to protest the slave trade, he still legitimized slavery implicitly by choosing to purchase his freedom rather than run away. This argument is debateable. Yet Equiano did laud slaveholders who did treat their slaves humanely. When reading the text as a whole, Equiano leaned toward complete abolitionism, which broadens understanding of what Equiano believed about redemption. From his conversion testimony, there is no doubt that Equiano believed that spiritual redemption is the ultimate redemption; but he recognized aspects of social redemption. In Equiano’s context, the abolition of slavery was part of social redemption. Near the end of the narrative, Equiano included a portion of a speech he gave in Philadelphia in 1785 before an audience of Quakers. In the speech, Equiano clearly favored the abolition of slavery: “We, part of the poor, oppressed, needy, and much degraded negroes, desire to approach you, with this address of thanks, with our inmost love and warmest acknowledgments; and with the deepest sense of your benevolence, unwearied labour, and kind interposition, towards breaking the yoke of slavery.” The entire tone of the text exhibits this position, and reflects a reformational worldview that views all nations of people as equal. Interestingly enough, Abraham Kuyper, who was born only twenty-two years after Equiano’s death, remarked to an American audience in 1898, that a reformational worldview (Kuyper used the term “Calvinism”) was inherently anti-slavery promoting abolitionism based upon the doctrines of human creation and original sin.

    Though abolition would give Africans and creole Africans physical freedom, the issue of how they would be integrated into British and English-speaking Caribbean society persisted. As Equiano drew his narrative to a close, he an aspect of this issue. He described his work with the government committee to repatriate the “black poor” of London to Sierra Leone. He served for a short period as the commissary, but never made the journey to Sierra Leone. Equiano’s involvement in this project signified his concern for African prosperity in a state of freedom. It was clear that the African population in London lacked the societal and political support to thrive. As Equiano was pleased to be an Afro-British person, he recognized that if Africans could return to Africa in order to establish a Christian civilization it would have great benefits for them and the English. Thinking in terms beyond the establishment of Sierra Leone, Equiano had a clear vision for the relationship between England and African sans the slave trade: “I doubt not, if a system of commerce was established in Africa, the demand for manufactures would most rapidly augment, as the native inhabitants would insensibly adopt British fashions, manners, customs, and commercial intercourse with Africa opens an inexhaustible source of wealth to the manufacturing interests of Great Britain, and to all which the slave-trade is an objection.” Equiano argued that both the suppression of the slave trade and slavery’s abolition would result in the great accruement of wealth for both the English and Africans. This is part of Equiano’s vision for a double redemption of sorts: it could redeem England’s evil involvement in the slave trade, and it could redeem West African societies tainted by the evils of the trade as well as victimized by it. Here is Equiano’s view of economic shalom.

    There is much more to comment and analyze regarding Equiano’s narrative. The question must be answered: what value does this text have for contemporary readers, especially African-American Christians? First, the text demonstrates how applicable a reformational worldview is to making sense of African-American experiences both historic and contemporary. A reformational worldview begins and ends with the scriptures. This worldview helps African Americans to apply biblical teaching to every area of life: politics, economics, education, race relations, etc. A reformational worldview considers every aspect of life as being under the Lordship of Christ; it is holistic. Operating from this worldview, allows African-American Christians to work Christianly, to vote Christianly, to protest Christianly, and to engage both African-American and American culture Christianly. Second, Equiano’s testimony of God’s sovereign grace allows African-American Christians to think in clear terms how God directs all of life from birth to death. This is nothing foreign to African-American Christianity as African Americans have confessed time and time again that “God is in control.” Yet Equiano embraced this doctrine though he had been enslaved without deserving that fate. From his position in 1789 after enduring slavery and gaining his physical freedom, he could write that God had directed all of this leading to his spiritual redemption. For Equiano, there was no other plausible way to think about the outcome of his life. This text causes the reader, the African-American Christian reader, to think in terms of God’s absolute sovereignty over all things large and great, and that truly “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).”
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