This is part three of the series on Real Historical Heroes for Racial Justice. Read the introduction to this series here.
In examining the missionary labors of William Knibb (1803-1845) in Jamaica, one is confronted by a fascinating story of God’s power on full display. Knibb was instrumental in continuing the missionary labors of former American slaves George Lisle and Moses Baker on the island. He had heard about their work in England through his connection with John Ryland, Jr. Ryland, along with such notables as Andrew Fuller, Samuel Pearce, and John Sutcliff, had been founding members of the Baptist Missionary Society which had earlier sent William Carey to India. Knibb went to Jamaica with his wife at the young age of 21 and would labor there for the remainder of his short life.
Upon arriving on the island in 1824 with the specific desire to preach the gospel, Knibb was sickened by what he discovered:
The cursed blast of slavery has, like a pestilence, withered almost every moral bloom. I know not how any person can feel a union with such a monster, such a child of hell. I feel a burning hatred against it and look upon it as one of the most odious monsters that ever disgraced the earth. The iron hand of oppression daily endeavours to keep the slaves in the ignorance to which it has reduced them.1
What Knibb encountered on Jamaica was an extremely oppressive system that was making many of his fellow white men wealthy. Knibb saw right through the slave owners’ desperate justifications and vacuous arguments:
Never argue in support of a system so corrupt, so repugnant to every feeling of right and justice, and which must be viewed by God with total abhorrence. The moral degradation of the slaves is urged as a reason why they should not be freed. Their oppressors have reduced them so low that they can plead their condition as a reason for continued oppression! But let it not be thought that the slave is the only one who is vile. The white population is worse, far worse, that the victims of their injustice. There is scarcely a chaste person to be found.2
While Knibb warred within himself over the evils he was witnessing, he carefully avoided uttering words that would rile up the masses of slaves into revolt. He did not believe bloodshed was the answer.
However, Knibb’s hand was forced to speak out publicly in a local newspaper, when one of the deacons of his church, Sam Swiney, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to receive twenty lashes for preaching without a license. What had Swiney done wrong? He had the gall to pray with a few others over Knibb’s sickbed for the health of their pastor. For the remainder of his ministry Knibb would live within this tension of opposition to slavery and desire to prevent revolt and the ensuing bloodshed. Nevertheless, when insurrection finally did hit the island, Knibb and the other Baptist missionaries would shoulder the blame.
Knibb would pay dearly for his outspoken opposition to slavery. His name would be slandered in newspapers, he would be eventually arrested, and Baptist chapels across the island would be set ablaze. He wrote about treatment during this time: “No pirate or savage Moor could have treated me worse than I was treated by Englishmen. No fault had I committed, but I was a missionary, and that was enough.”3 As missionaries left the island, Knibb, having been given bail, refused to leave. This decision to stay would almost cost him his life and bring danger to his family. A mob of planters, intent on taking his life, pursued him. Knibb was forced to hide his family in the home of a sympathetic island official while he boarded a merchant ship in the harbor. The mob destroyed his home and belongings, but Knibb never lost heart: “Seven years ago I landed on this island, and do I repent coming? No! With eternity and a jail in prospect, I do not.”4
As tensions continued to rise during the island’s ‘reign of terror,’ the Baptist community decided to send Knibb to England for help. Knibb immediately set about on a tour of churches, telling all who would listen about the oppression on Jamaica. Knibb spoke boldly and powerfully. Peter Masters describes the effect of these addresses:
Knibb’s public addresses had a power altogether overwhelming. Sceptics were convinced, waverers became decided, apathetic people were roused, and great numbers of hearts everywhere kindled to irrepressible support. With perhaps a single exception, the eloquence of no on man made a larger or more distinguished contribution to the change of public opinion. British colonial slavery at last really began to cower and fall.5
Knibb would eventually see the abolition of slavery in England and her colonies in 1834. He would return to Jamaica to continue his gospel ministry, but the slander and opposition of the planters would continue to the end of his life.
William Knibb provides another remarkable example of a hero who stood against cultural injustice at great personal cost. Knibb could have chosen the path that many others took and remained silent about an issue that did not personally affect his life. His life would certainly have been easier. But Knibb realized that the injustice of slavery cannot coexist with the gospel of liberation. Our Lord calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus shows us that such love will cost us our lives. Knibb loved his neighbor, the slave, but he also loved his enemy, the planter. Returning to the island after the abolition of slavery in England, Knibb wrote, “Having now come with you to the tomb of colonial slavery, I desire to bury every grain of animosity to the planter in the same grave with the system itself.”6 Such an example of sacrificial love deserves our attention as well as our emulation.
- Quoted in Peter Masters, Missionary Triumph over Slavery: William Knibb and Jamaican Emancipation (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2006), 11.
- Ibid., 21.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 29.
- Ibid., 37.