Calvinism: Inherently Anti-Slavery?

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 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 is particularly compelling as he must have been referring to , 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 ().”

This is Part III in our three-part series on the life of Olaudah Equiano. See Part I & Part II

[1] See Vincent Carretta, “Introduction,” in Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative, ix.

[2] James Walvin, An African’s Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano 1745-1797 (London: Cassell, 1998), 69.

12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (ESV)

8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (ESV)

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (ESV)

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV)

Eric Washington
Eric Washington serves as Assistant Professor and History Director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Minor at Calvin College. Dr. Washington is primarily interested in studying the African-American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century.

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