The head of the European Baptist Federation criticized British Baptists for failure to apologize for slavery at a recent Baptist World Alliance gathering to pursue racial reconciliation in Accra, Ghana.
In a letter to the editor in the July 19 Baptist Times EBF General Secretary Tony Peck described the “Act of Memory and Reconciliation” worship service at Cape Coast Castle, once used as a depot in the British slave trade, as “a deeply moving and challenging experience.”
What was missing, said Peck, a former faculty member at Bristol Baptist College in England elected in 2004 to lead the federation of 51 Baptist unions representing 800,000 European Baptists, was “a direct word of regret and apology from the representatives of British Baptists present.”
Peck encouraged British Baptists to follow the example set by Dutch Baptists. At the service Anne de Vries, general secretary of the Union of Baptist Churches in the Netherlands, read a clear statement of apology and regret for Dutch involvement in the slave trade.
“On behalf of the board and staff of the Dutch Baptist Union, I want to apologize, because of the bitter history our country was involved in trading African people as slaves,” de Vries said. “In fact, part of the wealth in which we are living in our country originates from that trade. The people of Africa and their descendants (and others) have greatly suffered from these malicious actions.”
“I can only speak for our union and the present generation,” he continued. “Within that restriction, I confess our sins in this history. I promise to act against modern slavery and ask for forgiveness for the sins of our ancestors and ourselves.
“May God bless our noble nation and cure the effects of unjust practice.”
Peck said he was disappointed to learn the Baptist Union of Great Britain was invited to make a similar statement but declined.
Jonathan Edwards, general secretary of the BUGB, said British Baptists have discussed apologies over slave trade during the last year.
“Some have felt that such an apology would be helpful but many others have strongly disagreed with the notion of apologizing for something that they didn’t do,” Edwards told the Baptist Times.
Edwards said he personally repudiates the slave trade and wishes it had never happened.
“I am sure that there will continue to be a variety of opinions on the issue of apology, and we will need to respect one another in that,” Edwards said. “However, my main concern for our Union is that we should focus our energies on proclaiming and living out the liberating Gospel of Christ in our own day.”
The discussion echoes debate in British society at large about judging history by modern standards sparked during a year-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of British slave trade. Last year Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in slavery but stopped short of offering a full apology sought by black leaders.
Peck said an apology by British Baptists would be “very helpful and meaningful” for fellow Baptists whose people suffered as a result of the slave trade, like the Jamaica Baptist Union.
Centuries ago Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, was a center of the slave trade. The BWA reconciliation service was held in one of several coastline forts built by Portugal, Holland and England to control human trafficking. Ghana was also at the forefront of African resistance to the slave trade. It was the first sub-Saharan African country to obtain freedom from its colonial master, Britain, in 1957.
Slavery in the Caribbean was maintained by European nations, where ill-gotten gains were shipped and used to build cities and institutions still in existence today. The result for slaves was loss of wealth and power and ripping families apart. Sociologists and psychologists say the ripple effect of those injustices contribute to social problems facing blacks today.
Because of bonds with Christian brothers and sisters around the globe, the debate over slavery may “exercise” Baptists even more than the rest of the British populace, Baptist Times Editor Mark Woods said in an editorial.
Despite shining examples of individual abolitionists, Woods said, the anti-slave-trade cause was historically not a mass movement among Baptists.
“Whether we should apologize is a philosophical rather than simply a moral question,” Woods wrote.
“It’s argued on the one hand that where there’s a continuity in the institution which might offer the apology, it’s appropriate to do so. After all, we belong to a community which is 2,000 years old, and it’s the same Church. On the other, it’s said that we can only apologize for our own sins, that power wasn’t exercised democratically until very recently and so our ancestors had no power to influence events in any case.”
“It would be a pity if the understandable desire for an apology detracted from the real desire of white British people to make amends for a shameful part of our history,” Woods concluded. “Words are important; actions are even more so.”
Peck said it isn’t too late for British Baptists to make an apology statement. He asked Baptist union leaders to reconsider the issue in time for their general council meeting in November.
“I write all this from my home city of Bristol, a third point of the ‘slave triangle,’ and a city which still benefits today from the enormous profits some of its inhabitants amassed from the slave trade,” Peck wrote. “As a Gospel people, we do not have to be personally responsible for an evil to express regret and even apology for the involvement in it of those who have gone before us.”
“For me the Dutch statement at the Cape Coast was a model to us, which I hope we will be able to follow,” Peck said.
An undercurrent of the debate is the controversial issue of reparations for descendants of African slaves. A speaker at one BWA workshop suggested one way to compensate for slavery is to put money into educational institutions.
But Peck said he doesn’t think Jamaican Baptists, in particular, are looking for monetary reparations, but rather “a clear statement of regret and the resolve of British Baptists to fight modern slavery and racism wherever they find it.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.