Current events often prompt us to look at the past. The recent death of 46-year-old African American George Floyd at the knee of a white police officer took a lot of people back to some equally dark times. Chief among them, the transatlantic slave trade.

Christians today will clearly see a move of God’s Spirit at that time.

This 400-year period, from the 16th to the 19th century, saw slave traders, many Britons among them, transport millions of enslaved Africans to the Americas, mainly. Millions died along the way. Large numbers died upon arrival. Many survived and, with their descendants, went on to make a huge amount of money for Britain and other European countries.

For some, statues in England are a stark reminder of these times, as are the Bank of England, Lloyd’s of London and other organisations. As such, in recent weeks the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into Bristol Harbour by Black Lives Matter protesters, calls were made for other statues to be removed, and both the central bank and the insurance giant issued apologies over its links to the slave trade.

Though, for many black Brits, the problem is far greater than statues and buildings. The racist murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the institutional racism found within the investigating police force, and then the Windrush Scandal 25 years later in 2018, are among the more recent incidents that suggest that after all these years, the assault on the lives of black people continues. George Floyd is tragically the latest casualty. 

Yet to only present a précis of these particular poignant events would risk losing sight of the progress that Britain, which was said to have perfected the Atlantic slave system”, has made towards a more fair and integrated society in the years leading up to and following the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Doing so would also run the risk of implying that there’s an age-old division – hatred even – between black people and white people, and true unity is the stuff of dreams.

The light side

So, let’s take another look back. Of note are the efforts of British men and women, and African ex-slaves living in England, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to end the practice of slavery at home and abroad. Many Christians were among them: William Wilberforce, who became an evangelical Christian in 1785 and led in the abolitionist movement, and ex-slaves Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, both converts to Christianity, abolitionists and members of Sons of Africa, to name a few.

Some academics attribute Britain’s eventual abolishment of the slave trade in part to the influence of Christians, but mainly due to the global market opening up and there being new ways to make money. Even if this is so, Christians today will clearly see a move of God’s Spirit at that time. How else would William, Olaudah, Ottobah and countless others have come to know God? If not God, who else would have kindled their resolute concern for justice and fairness for all? From where did they get the courage to challenge the centuries-old system and those who approved of it? 

It’s both heart-warming and encouraging to read about these individuals and groups, who, by all accounts, sought to do what the Lord required of them – to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with their God – even if it meant being countercultural and losing friends. Flick through the history pages of the Evangelical Alliance’s story and you’ll see the same spirit: people of God filled with compassion for their fellow men and thus behind the crusade against slavery – losing friends along the way. 

Professor of history J. F. Maclear, in the Huntington Library Quarterly (Vol. 42, No. 2, Spring 1979), marked out the meetings that preceded the inception of the Evangelical Alliance as pivotal periods during which the anticipated religious union between British and American evangelical Christians could not be realised due to contrasting beliefs about slavery. The vast majority of British evangelicals remained determined in their belief that slavery was un-Christian, and they subsequently had to go it alone. 

Maclear wrote: Both the Liverpool Conference and its successor…took steps which made slavery a central and divisive preoccupation in the forthcoming Alliance… The most active, as well as the most numerous, of the British delegates were Nonconformists, chiefly Wesleyans, Congregationalists, and Baptists. Each of these connections had a tradition of combat against slavery… The British branch organised on anti-slavery principles which alienated American brethren… The Alliance had diminished, not strengthened, transatlantic religious concord.”

In One Body in Christ: The history and significance of the Evangelical Alliance, Ian Randall and David Hilborn, who trace the Evangelical Alliance’s journey from its start in 1846 up to 2001, note: The fact that the question of slave holding received such attention shows that evangelical unity could not be confined to the spiritual realm. An alliance of evangelicals had to examine the connection between evangelical faith and life in society.” 

And so, in 1846, the London conference failed to create an international alliance of evangelicals because the British evangelicals would not settle and allow slave holders to be members. Despite a vision for unity, and a desire for the church to be as one, the evil of slavery was too great to go unchallenged. Therefore, from the very beginning, the UK Evangelical Alliance was founded on a call for justice not compromise. 

These accounts show that this period in human history was a dark time. A time of death. A time of fear. A time of wickedness. A time of inhumanity. A time of rapacity. But it was also a time when the light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it – a time of God moving through His people. We see this juxtaposition of light and darkness (good and evil) throughout human history – there are too many examples, across many cultures and nations, to recount, and the Bible tells of many too.

The way

While current events often prompt us to look at the past, they also encourage us to cast a vision for the future. In 1963 Rev Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those famous words I have a dream” as he pled for justice and fairness and an end to racism in the US – at a time when racial discrimination, racial segregation and disenfranchisement were the order of the day.

For us in the UK today, the expressions of protest and outrage following the death of George Floyd; the personal stories from people of all ethnic backgrounds of racism, discrimination and prejudice; the admission of government ministers that more can be done to foster fairness; the preparedness of organisations and businesses to admit they profited from the slave trade and want to make amends, might motivate us to think more seriously about our vision for a more loving, integrated and fair Britain.

In 2010 the Evangelical Alliance launched its One People Commission to support local churches in their own efforts towards greater ethnic unity and integration, believing that only the church, those who know that all people are made in the image of God, can sincerely model a celebration of diversity while promoting unity. This journey, started by the Evangelical Alliance many years ago, remains challenging, with much learning along the way; but with many others in the church, we are determined to reflect our Father’s heart for all people. 

God will not have us show a better way; He will have us show the way. For as we’ve seen with Christians of old, it’s only the heart of God and the mind of Christ that enable people to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. More than a mantra or a slogan is the Evangelical Alliance’s call to work together to make known Jesus Christ, the light of the world. How else will we see real change?

God will not have us show a better way; He will have us show the way.