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'Slavery Shall Cease': The Millennial Mission of British Abolitionists, 1780-1840

Thursday 20 October 2022, 5.15PM

Speaker(s): Dr John Coffey, University of Leicester

Abolitionism is often described as the first modern human rights movement, but it was shaped by ancient texts as well as modern ideas. Citing the prophecies of Isaiah and Revelation, leading abolitionists, and many of their grass roots supporters, believed in a coming millennium when the triumph of authentic Christianity would spread peace, justice, prosperity and enlightenment throughout the earth.

This talk will trace the history of Protestant millennialism in Britain from the seventeenth century through to the early nineteenth century. It will explain how the Reformers' Augustinianism scepticism about millenarianism was overcome in the seventeenth century, and how traditional millenarianism (or pre-millennialism) was eclipsed by a more 'moderate' form of millennialism in the long eighteenth century.

Pre-millennialism taught that the millennium would be inaugurated by an imminent Second Coming of Christ, but post-millennialism pushed the Parousia into the far distance, as an event that would occur after the golden age. By doing so, the new millennialism opened up space for human progress, offering a fresh prospect: that Christian mission, improvement and reform would usher in the millennial age.

In the second half of the talk, I will document the blending of millennialism, missions, and antislavery in the decades after 1780, and consider the effects of this potent cocktail. While eschatology was rarely at the forefront of abolitionist discourse, it supplied the movement’s horizon. The slave trade and slavery came to be seen as roadblocks to the millennium, obstructions that must be abolished if Britain was to play its role in the universal spread of the kingdom of God. Millennial faith gave abolitionists the precious commodity of hope, leading them to think that they could tame the wild horses of capitalism and empire, harnessing them to a Christian humanitarianism.

Location: The Treehouse