Wilberforce had long known his vocation to be the emancipation of
slaves. He had long expected
-- and received -- frustrations, setbacks and persecution.
As assaults on him intensified and discouragement lapped at
him, he received a letter from an eighty-eight year old man.
It turned out to be the last letter the aged fellow would write.
The letter said, “Unless God has raised you up for this very
thing [‘your glorious enterprise of opposing that execrable
villainy’ -- slavery] you will be worn out by the opposition of men
and devils; but if God is with you, who can be against you?
Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in
the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever
saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.”
The letter was signed, “Dear sir, your affectionate servant,
John Wesley.” One month
later Wesley was dead. His
letter was life-giving to Wilberforce, for Wilberforce did “go on in
the name of God and in the power of his might”.
abolished the slave-trade in 1807 and ended the practice of slavery in
1833. Wilberforce died in
1833; the news of
’s slavery-ending legislation was brought to him on his deathbed.
Black slaves appeared in the New World in 1619, brought to
on board a Dutch ship. By
1681 there were 2,000 slaves in
, working the tobacco fields. (Later
it would be sugar and cotton.) European
ships, loaded with liquor, firearms, textiles and trinkets, sailed for
where they exchanged their cargo for black people.
The next leg of the voyage,
to the new world, found slaves packed into the ship’s hold, chained in
place to prevent both rebellion and suicide.
There were no sanitation facilities whatsoever on slave-ships;
anyone downwind of a slave-ship could smell it thirty kilometres away.
John Newton, a slave-ship captain whom God’s grace eventually
rendered clergyman, hymn-writer and spiritual counsellor, was eager to
deliver as much of his black cargo alive in the new world as he could.
To this end Newton occasionally had the slaves brought up on deck
(shackled together, of course) while the ship’s crew scraped the
accumulation of human sewage out of the hold, then fumigated the hold
with tar, tobacco and brimstone, and finally washed it down with
vinegar. Even so, at least
20% of the cargo died en route.
After the slaves had been put ashore the ship loaded up with
staples, including molasses. The
molasses was processed into rum, and the rum was used to purchase slaves
on the next trip. By 1860
there were four and a half million slaves in the
alone. The business of
buying and selling slaves was so lucrative by now that slave-trading was
more profitable than trading in the agricultural items that the slaves
Then must be it be concluded that the heart of the white person
is extraordinarily cruel? Are
white people fallen creatures who are extraordinarily fallen?
Is white rapacity unparalleled?
No. While white
enslavement of black people is without excuse, the first black slaves in
weren’t enslaved by white Europeans but by
black fellow-Africans. For
centuries tribal warfare in
had yielded countless prisoners of war. Prisoners
of war are useless as long as they are merely standing around in a
compound. Since they have to
be fed anyway, why not turn them into slaves and get some useful work
out of them? The first black
slaves anywhere in the world were black prisoners of war who had been
enslaved by fellow-blacks in
. The prophet Jeremiah
writes, “The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately
corrupt. Who can understand
it?” No one can understand
the human heart, just because it’s so desperately corrupt.
When white Europeans
appeared who were willing to exchange trade goods for slaves, African
tribes competed with each other to sell their prisoner of war slaves for
export to the
The first black slave to be transported directly from Africa to
was Olivier Le Jeune, assigned a French name while crossing the
. The first, he was by no
means the last; slaves were regularly imported from the West Indies and
from New England; by 1759 there were 1132 slaves in New France.
Slavery, however, didn’t flourish in
. For one reason, the cold
weather was exceedingly hard on someone from a hot country; for another,
the economy never flourished in New France, since
’s principal export to
was soldiers, and soldiers, however skilled militarily, do little for a
country economically. With
the British defeat of the French in 1760 even more slaves were brought
. Like slaves everywhere,
they were restricted to doing the most menial, dehumanizing work – and
thereupon they were accused, according to stereotype, of lacking
independence, lacking initiative, lacking education, suited only for
The American Revolutionary War found United Empire Loyalists
and bringing black slaves with them.
In addition many slaves appeared in
who weren’t attached to Loyalists but who were simple fugitives,
hoping that the bondage they were fleeing in the
they wouldn’t find in
. There appeared in
as well 3,500 free
black loyalists; they had been American-owned slaves and had been
granted their freedom by the British when they sided with the British
during the Revolutionary War. In
fact they had been promised the same privileges and rights as the white
Loyalists. These free black
loyalists settled in
. As government officials
found themselves overwhelmed at having to process so many newcomers at
once, delays mounted in the assigning of land-grants.
Needless to say, the people who had previously been at the bottom
of the social order (if they were even in
the social order) found themselves at the end of the line-up: the result
was that the black newcomers who had been promised land as loyalists
were granted no land at all, for the most part; the few who did get land
were assigned land that was virtually useless. All they could do was
deliver themselves into the hands of white people eager to exploit them.
At the same time the black victims of broken promises were now
segregated in churches and schools or even excluded from churches and
schools. All of this was
rendered the more distressing in a class-conscious society whose rigid
social distinctions were rooted in centuries of European prejudice.
Fifty years after the American Revolutionary War the War of 1812
broke out. Thousands of
black American slaves fled to the British for protection.
Once again they were promised land and freedom in
. Formally known as “Black
Refugees”, the first of them arrived in
in 1813. They were welcomed
enthusiastically as a large supply of cheap labour.
Immediately following the War of 1812, however, a severe economic
recession, along with a sudden influx of white immigrants from
, pushed the black people even farther down the social order and removed
the little economic opportunity they had had.
In 1815 legislation was passed in
banning further black immigration. The
British parliament overturned this legislation, but the mood of white
Canadians was clear. Their
mood didn’t improve when part of their taxes was used to keep black
people from starving.
black people were used to construct roads and clear land.
When in 1793 the Provincial Assembly attempted to phase out
, objectors insisted that cheap labour (i.e., free labour) was still
needed. By the 1840s poor
Irish immigrants were competing with blacks for the most menial jobs; at
the same time farm-mechanization eliminated much of the work that black
people had always done.
had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833 (
in 1848) slavery continued to thrive in the
. In 1850 the
passed the Fugitive Slave Act, promising even harsher treatment for
runaway blacks and anyone who assisted them.
Not surprisingly, many more slaves fled to
, whose black population now numbered 40,000.
In the same year (1850)
reacted by passing the Common School Act.
This act permitted separate schools for blacks.
If no separate school existed, then black children could be made
to attend class at separate times from white children, or be made to sit
on segregated benches. We
must note that while black/white segregation was legal in
only in the school system, de facto segregation
occurred everywhere else (e.g., black people in
could neither vote nor sit on juries; interracial marrying was enough to
provoke a riot).
In the 1850s black people in
who had never been slaves (
never was a slave-state) nevertheless found themselves set upon.
Seven hundred of them moved to
, B.C., in 1858. These
people, never having been slaves, possessed employable skills, business
experience and investment capital -- all of which were put to use
. But the city of
also accommodated white Americans who spoke loudly of annexing
. The black people, fearing
annexation, formed the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company to defend the city
(not merely themselves) against American aggression.
Despite their loyalty to
, and despite their moderate affluence, they found churches that allowed
them to sit only in segregated sections, public institutions that
refused to serve them, and theatres that permitted them to sit only in
the balcony. The Victoria
Pioneer Rifle Company was forbidden to parade or take part in public
intimidation was rife -- and all of this in a society that accorded
Violence always simmered beneath the surface.
Violence erupted in the Maritimes in the 1780s when a black
preacher baptized white Christians, in
in 1852 when blacks formed a militia unit, in
) in 1860 when a black man married a white woman, in
in 1860 when black people left the balcony of a theatre and sat in
After Confederation (1867) huge numbers of white immigrants came
. This influx rendered the
black minority that much smaller a minority, with the result that their
social and economic situation worsened.
Then in 1907 living conditions worsened for black people in
. Between 1910 and 1912
1,300 immigrated to
. They settled in
. Immediately white people
on the prairies demanded legislation to preserve the Canadian West for
Caucasians. Public petitions
and municipal resolutions from all three
to end all further black immigration and segregate all black people
already residing in the prairies. Newspapers
supported the demand for legislation.
The Canadian government prepared the legislation but never
enacted it out of fear of damaging relations with the
. Less formal means were deployed to prohibit black people from entering
; for instance, the physical and financial qualifications for black
immigrants were made insuperably difficult, while Canadian immigration
officials who disqualified blacks were surreptitiously rewarded.
The result was predictable: by 1912 all black immigration to
had been halted without
’s ever having declared a racist policy formally.
Despite the prejudiced treatment they had received from
’s people and government, black men volunteered for overseas service
in World War I. Commanding
officers were permitted to reject black volunteers, and most did just
that. When black men
persisted they were allowed to form a black battalion in 1916 -- but
were not allowed to fight the enemy.
They were allowed only to perform auxiliary services for white
troops. Canadian soldiers
and Canadian civilians attacked them with impunity.
After the war black people found they could get only the most
menial jobs. Sleeping-car
porters were almost exclusively black, for instance, while dining-car
waiters were exclusively white. Even
the federal government permitted racial restrictions in hiring and
promotion practices within the civil service.
Housing discrimination abounded.
In fact when I was a teenager in the late 1950s I knew that black
’s professional minor league baseball team regularly responded to
advertisements for rental accommodation only to be turned away when they
appeared in person.
There’s a point about all of this that we must note carefully.
(after 1867) has never enacted race-legislation; nevertheless, race-discrimination
has been upheld by Canadian courts as legally acceptable.
In 1919 a
appellate court deemed it legal for a theatre to restrict blacks to
inferior seating. In 1924
courts upheld a restaurant which refused to serve blacks.
In 1941 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Montreal Forum
Tavern in its refusal to serve blacks.
The courts consistently upheld racial discrimination as legal in
a country that boasted of having no racial legislation.
Improvement appeared in the 1940s and 50s as most provinces and some
municipalities passed laws against discrimination.
courts declared that racial discrimination was contrary to public
policy. The Canadian Bill of
Rights and the Human Rights Commission were steps in the direction of
legislation, however, does nothing to alter attitudes in individuals.
Black people, faced with persistent discrimination, have formed
the Black United Front in
and the National Black Coalition of Canada.
Studies undertaken by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association
have revealed that most employment agencies will agree, if asked by
prospective employers, to screen out non-white job applicants.
Once hired, black people as a group appear at the lowest end of
the wage scale without regard for training or
Ontario Human Rights Commission study has disclosed that blacks who hold
a Master of Business Administration degree earn 25% less than whites
with the same degree and the same professional experience.
the 10th of February, 1806
newspaper carried the following advertisement:
“For sale. Two
slaves. Peggy, aged 40,
adequate cook, $150. Her
son, Jupiter, aged 15, $200.” Two
hundred dollars for a fifteen year old black boy was a great deal of
money in 1806. Whoever
purchased these slaves was clearly expecting enormous work from them,
since a horse would have cost far less.
We must never forget too that the last segregated school in
was shut down as recently as 1965.
noticed in the “Children’s Moment” part of our service this
morning how nervous the adults were lest they be asked to eat snake
If you are queasy about eating snake soup you will understand how
the apostle Peter felt when he had his dream or vision of the sheet let
down by God, and inside the sheet were “clean” animals (those he
could eat) and “unclean”, those he would never
eat. As the sheet came
closer and his aversion grew, God spoke to him: “What God has cleansed
you must not call unclean”.
A short time later three messengers came from Cornelius to tell
Peter that Cornelius wanted to see him.
Cornelius was a gentile and an officer in the Roman army.
He was also what was known as a “God-fearer”.
God-fearers were gentile men and women who had become disgusted
with the pagan religiosity which surrounded them, together with its
immorality; they were attracted to the monotheism and ethics of Judaism.
They remained on the fringe of the synagogue, however, inasmuch
as they didn’t conform to the dietary laws of Judaism or submit to
Cornelius sends word
that he wants to see Peter, a Jewish believer in Jesus, and Peter
responds. It was a miracle
of grace -- nothing less than a miracle -- that Peter went to the home
of Cornelius, because Jews never
entered the home of a gentile. After
all, every morning a Jewish man thanked God that he hadn’t been born a
gentile. No help was to be
given a gentile woman in difficulty during childbirth, because to help
her would only add one more gentile to the world.
And a gentile man, uncircumcised, was spoken of as a dog.
And then the God-ordained dream/vision and the God-spoken word:
“What God has cleansed you must not call unclean”.
Whereupon Peter goes to the home of Cornelius and defiles himself
(according to the Judaism of that era) as he eats with a gentile.
Peter commends the gospel to the Roman officer, with the result
that Cornelius and his household joyfully embrace Jesus Christ in faith.
The conclusion of the story is found in Acts 11:18: Peter and his
fellow Jewish-Christians “glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the
God has granted repentance unto life.’”
Do we grasp how crucial this episode was in the history of the
young church? Apart from
this episode you and I wouldn’t be here today.
Apart from this episode the gospel would have been confined to
Judaism. Let me tell you how
crucial Luke, the writer of Acts, regards this episode.
Luke wrote Acts in an era when there were no books (a book being
a convenient, cheap way of bringing together a vast amount of detail).
People wrote on papyrus scrolls, papyrus being made from the pith
of the bulrush plant. Scrolls
were exceedingly cumbersome. A
scroll couldn’t be longer than 35 feet (unrolled) or else it
couldn’t be handled. Because
of its bulk and its cost and the fact of its being hand-lettered, a
scroll contained relatively little (compared to a modern book): you were
very careful what you put into it, there being space only for what was
crucial. Acts, for instance,
would have taken up an entire scroll.
Luke had reams of material he could have put in and no doubt
wanted to put in; yet so crucial was the episode of Peter and Cornelius
that Luke uses two precious chapters in order to tell the story twice.
“Then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance unto
When Cornelius came to faith in Jesus Christ and found himself
invigorated by the Holy Spirit his first reaction was to kneel before
Peter as a sign of reverence; after all, Peter was the spokesperson of
that gospel which brings repentant people like Cornelius from death to
life. But Peter refused to
accept such subservience from Cornelius: “Stand up”, Peter said,
“for I am only a man, just like you.”
In Christ there is no subservience; within the fellowship of
Christ there is no grovelling. By
his grace God grants repentance of sin, faith in Jesus Christ, and
obedience to the master; by his grace God grants this to any and all,
regardless of racial distinction. Any
and all whom God brings to repentance, faith and obedience thereafter
embrace each other without distinction.
After all, everyone whom the cross has drawn knows that the
ground at the foot of the cross is level.
Peter says, “What God has cleansed I must not call unclean”.
Paul says, “All Christians are one in Christ Jesus...in him
there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free”.
We must note one last feature of Peter’s episode in Acts 10 and
11. According to Luke, Peter
sets off for the home of Cornelius, saying, “The Spirit told me to go;
six brethren accompanied me, and we seven entered the man’s house”.
According to Egyptian law (which first century Jews knew well)
seven witnesses were necessary to prove a case.
According to Roman law (which first century Jews also knew well,
since they were governed by it) seven seals were needed to authenticate
a legal document. When the
seven Jewish Christians enter the gentile home of Cornelius and break
down centuries of deadly prejudice, the fact of the seven witnesses
renders the case proved. It stands
proved and sealed that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither
slave nor free. It stands
proved and sealed that what God has cleansed we are not to call unclean.
This morning you and I and all Christ’s people aren’t charged
with proving or sealing anything. We
are charged simply with living, day by day, so as to demonstrate the truth of what has been proved and sealed
already, never yielding any support to those who want to contradict it.