We often hear about all the harm caused by religious people in the name of their religion, but good religious ideas have continually made the world a better place. I can think of plenty of simple religious ideas that have created such a ripple effect that they changed the course of history.
In an earlier post I looked at how the Cistercian idea of work created an economic boom. In a second post looked at how the idea that beauty is the key to understanding God led to some of the world’s most magnificent architecture, film and music.
Here’s the third in this series. How a single religious belief unleashed a remarkable activist and a global movement.
THE IDEA: THAT EVERY PERSON CAN HAVE A SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF GOD’S GRACE
In the 17th and 18th centuries, there arose a Protestant movement referred to as Christian Enthusiasm. We don’t use that term much these days but its adherents were so transformed by its central idea that they turned the world upside down.
Today, we use the word enthusiast to refer to someone who’s really passionate about a hobby or interest. Hence we have car enthusiasts and football enthusiasts, etc.
But in around 1700 that term was used in a very specific way.
The Greek from which we derive term, enthusiasm, connotes being taken possession of by a divine spirit. And those who embraced Christian Enthusiasm thought it a beautiful and transformative experience. They called it a “religion of the heart”.
At that time, a British person might consider themselves a Christian precisely because they were British. They were baptized into the Church of England, joined a particular parish congregation, attended catechism and confirmation classes, married in the church, and walked by the graves of their family and descendants every Sunday.
It was entirely possible to go through life calling yourself a Christian without ever experiencing anything of a spiritual nature.
The Enthusiasts were different. They came to believe that God desired that all people should have a subjective experience of grace. This experience involved an awareness of a direct connection with the divine and associated feelings of wellbeing and affection resulting in a deeper resolve to obey God’s commands.
Other Christians of the time thought the Enthusiasts worthy of ridicule and derision. They saw the movement as irrational and superstitious. Some even considered them a danger to society, since “enthusiasm” was seen as a motivating force behind the overthrow of King James II back in 1688.
In fact, at that time, the Royal Society bylaws stipulated that any Enthusiast who wished to discuss religion or politics at a Society meeting was to be summarily ejected.
Nonetheless, by the mid to late 1700s Enthusiasm was a growing movement. Popular leaders like John Wesley and George Whitefield championed its cause, insisting that a true Christian was one who had experienced the grace of God directly and who had a personal assurance of salvation.
So how could a religious movement that encouraged a deep, private and personal experience of faith cause the world to change?
Well, if you believe that God loves individuals, and that every person must open their heart to experience the grace of God, then you believe every person is potentially capable of such an experience.
And if you believe every person is capable of opening their heart to God, then you would think that every person should be free to do so. The Enthusiasts became true daughters and sons of the Enlightenment, believing that all men and women must be granted the liberty to experience God, not mediated through the traditions of the church, or assumed by the heritage of their family, but directly and personally.
Anything that stood in the way of such an opening of one’s heart must be eliminated. People needed to be able to exercise their free will.
This meant that if a person was unable to read the good news of God’s grace, they needed to be freed from illiteracy. The poor needed to be freed from indigence. The drunkard from alcohol. The African from slavery.
Central to the cause of Christian Enthusiasm was the need to set people free from the things that made them unable to experience God’s grace.
Around that time, as Enthusiasm was growing in Britain, a young Nigerian former slave named Olaudah Equiano arrived in London. Equiano’s master had taught him to read and write and had promised if he could raise his purchase price of £40 (equivalent to £5,000 today) he could buy his own freedom.
A canny entrepreneur, Equiano sold fruits, glass tumblers, and other items between Georgia and the Caribbean islands, raising the purchase price and escaping slavery in 1767.
But not before coming under the influence of that great Enthusiast preacher, George Whitefield in America. Equiano, who confessed to being suicidal at various points in his life, encountered the indwelling presence of God’s grace and converted, a confirmed Enthusiast.
It’s interesting that he experienced this new spiritual freedom as he was winning his own physical freedom. This dual encounter forged a formidable character.
Once in London, Equiano sought out fellow believers and found them in an Enthusiast support group called the Clapham Sect.
Because the movement wasn’t limited to any one denomination, its adherents started assembling in support groups (called sects), to encourage their shared faith and to plan both evangelistic and social campaigns to allow others to experience the grace of God.
The Clapham Sect was pretty much the who’s who of Christian Enthusiasm, including the impressive Granville Sharp, a man whose facial features perfectly resembled his name.
An accomplished biblical scholar, classicist, and a talented musician, Sharp had thrown himself into the cause of abolitionism. Known as the “protector of the Negro” for his work in defending black slaves in legal cases against their masters in the 1760s, Sharp had written extensively on the evils of the slave trade.
When he met Olaudah Equiano in 1783, the former slave informed him about his first-hand experience of the slave trade, including the dreadful Zong massacre, which became a cause célèbre for the abolitionist movement and contributed to its growth.
Sharp insisted Equiano write his autobiography, which he did under the title The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in 1789. It was an international bestseller. That book became for the English abolitionist movement in the late 18th century what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be for American abolitionists nearly a hundred years later.
Equiano’s influence had led to the establishment Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and around this time he came into contact with the young MP for Kingston upon Hull, William Wilberforce.
Equiano died on 31 March 1797 aged only 52, and while everyone knows about Granville Sharp’s influence over Wilberforce and his decision to draft the Act of Abolition, fewer know about the remarkable Olaudah Equiano.
He was the living, breathing embodiment of what Christian Enthusiasm stood for – personal liberty, freedom of conscience, assurance of salvation, and personal holiness
He didn’t live to see the passage of the Act of Abolition in 1807, and neither Granville Sharp nor William Wilberforce lived to see the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, the latter dying just a month before that bill passed.
But that simple religious idea that faith must be experienced personally, and that all people should be free to experience it, led to the abolition of one of the most evil forms of trade the world has seen.
3 thoughts on “How one religious idea produced the greatest activist you’ve never heard of”
Wow. I’d known the existence of Equiano, but I didn’t know his story. Thanks so much for filling in this important gap in our understanding.
Hope. Thank you for shining light on Gods hand and how His works in my life will bring light in the future.
His autobiography is available for free on Kindle