A popular contemporary stereotype is that Christians concerned with global evangelism and missions are tone deaf to questions of social justice, and those concerned with the latter have no evangelistic or missionary impulses.
In fact, in Anabaptist and Baptist history, I have often found missionaries to be among the pioneer campaigners for social justice, and their communications “back home,” have often served to “raise consciousness” in churches previously unconcerned with a pattern of abuse.
Alas, it is also true that mission agencies have usually wanted missionaries to be apolitical and have had a hard time with the justice-seeking impulses of the missionaries. Mission agency administrators have usually not wanted to “rock the boat” either in the sending country or the host country. Fortunately, many missionaries have taken more risks than the bureaucrats wanted.
This was definitely the case with William Knibb (1803-1845), an early British Baptist missionary to Jamaica.
A former apprentice to Andrew Fuller, printer and Baptist minister-theologian, Knibb and his older brother, Thomas, became enthusiastic supporters when Fuller and his friend William Carey launched the Baptist Missionary Society, today called BMS World Mission.
Carey is often said to be the first missionary of the modern era, but this is not strictly true. Black Baptists in America had already sent George Lisle (sometimes spelled “Leile”), founding pastor of several of the earliest black Baptist congregations, to Jamaica to minister to the slave and free black populations.
Lisle repeatedly wrote the BMS for aid, and they sent first Thomas and then, when he died quickly, William Knibb.
Knibb’s ministry among the slave and free black populations led him to become one of the pioneer abolitionists among British Baptists. He worked first to end the slave trade in British colonies, then for emancipation, and finally for equal citizenship–all of which earned him the enmity of the Jamaican planter class and the pro-slavery voices in the British Empire.
Committed to nonviolence, Knibb was even falsely accused of fomenting slave rebellions instead of trying to stop them.
Knibb had blind spots. He never questioned whether Britain should be an imperial power in the first place, for instance. And, by today’s standards, he would certainly be judged to have racial prejudices and patnernalistic attitudes.
But, for the 19th century, he was a remarkable voice of liberty and equality. He referred to slavery as a “monster,” and even convinced British Baptists to send representatives to Baptists in the American South–where slavery was increasingly accepted despite earlier Baptist opposition–to plead the abolitionist cause.
(The British Baptists were not well received, and Knibb died the same year the Southern Baptist Convention split from American Baptists in order to defend the right of home missionaries to own slaves.)
Knibb also knew that “Christian” support for slavery and other social injustices created resistance to the spread of the gospel. He argued against those who claimed that the spiritual liberation of new birth had nothing to do with social and political aspirations for liberation. The gospel sets free both souls and bodies.
Hats off to William Knibb; may God give us more like him today.
Michael Westmoreland-White is a peace activist and educator in Louisville, Ky. This column appeared originally as a blog.