FACING A SHAMEFUL PAST: an exhibition on the Anglican church’s links to the slave trade

Image: Pixabay

Enslavement: Voices from the archives is an exhibition at Lambeth Palace Library, running until 4 April 2023. It follows the Church Commissioners’ report last year into historic links with the transatlantic slave trade and the church’s endowment fund, which traces its origins to Queen Anne’s Bounty, a fund established in 1704.

Although it is a small exhibition, the archives displayed are hard hitting and shed an uncomfortable light on the source of some of the church’s historic funds. There are also documents from those within the church troubled by the trade and the treatment of the slaves, who were prepared to speak out and challenge widely held views.

It is sobering to realise that enslaved people were not allowed basic Christian rights such as baptism and marriage, in case these rights damaged the property and legal rights of the owners. The Revd Morgan Godwyn, an Anglican missionary to Virginia and Barbados wrote in 1680 appealing to the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow Anglican priests to baptise enslaved people. There is also a moving letter from Esther Smith, a slave, in 1760 to Archbishop Secker petitioning him to allow her to be baptised (see right).

A notable exhibit is the ‘Slave ‘ Bible, which is a doctored version of the one we are familiar with. It excludes 90% of the Old Testament, and 50% of the New Testament and many references to freedom and escape from slavery have been removed. It includes the Ten Commandments, but the first 18 books of Exodus, in which the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt, have been removed.

The exhibition shows some of the ledgers of the Queen Anne’s Bounty and it is interesting to see that Edward Colston’s name appears in a bequest from his will. He is of course better known for the summary toppling of his statue in Bristol and the awareness that so much of his philanthropy in that city came from the slave trade .

In response to the findings of the report which the archives evidence, the Church Commissioners’ Board wants to try and address some of the past wrongs. It is committing £100 million of funding, delivered over the next nine years to a programme of investment, research and engagement, focusing on communities affected by historic slavery. An oversight group will be formed during 2023 with significant membership from communities impacted by historic slavery. This group will work with the Church Commissioners on shaping the response. The Church Commissioners will also continue to use its voice as a responsible investor to address and combat modern slavery and human rights violations.

The Church Commissioners says it “is deeply sorry for its predecessor fund’s links with the transatlantic slave trade.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, who is also Chair of the Church Commissioners, said: “I am deeply sorry for these links. It is now time to take action to address our shameful past. Jesus Christ calls us to face our present and future with integrity. It is hard to do this at a time when resources in many parishes are so stretched, but by acting rightly we open ourselves to the blessing of God.”

The exhibition, Enslavement: voices from the archives, runs until 4 April 2023 and can be visited 9:30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. There are two Saturday openings, 4 March and 1 April, 10am to 5pm. No booking is necessary and admission is free. The Library is in Lambeth Palace Road, opposite St Thomas’ Hospital A and E Department and on bus routes 507, C10 and 77. The nearest tube stations are Waterloo and Lambeth North.

It is well worth a visit.

And on the lighter side click here

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