A Story without End

The following piece by Anders Hallengren appears at the end of The Moment Is Now: Carl Bernhard Wadström’s Revolutionary Voice on Human Trafficking and the Abolition of the African Slave Trade—a volume that includes the proceedings of The International Carl Bernhard Wadström Conference on Human Rights and the Abolition of Slavery, which was held in London on June 2–4, 2015.

A multidisciplinary effort by leading international scholars to demonstrate the influence that Carl Bernhard Wadström (1746–99) and the leading reformers of his time have had over the years on issues concerning the slave trade, oppression, and racism, The Moment Is Now not only offers a glimpse into a significant moment in history but also serves as a call to action and a primer to be used in the here and now.

The Moment Is Now is available in print or e-book format. Learn more

By Anders Hallengren

Twelve million bonded black Africans were transported from Africa to the Americas—packed on British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish merchantmen and cargo vessels—during the centuries of transatlantic slave trade. The growing wealth of North America and the Caribbean and South American colonists, landowners, planters, and shareholders was built on chattel slavery, forced labor, indentured servitude, and serfdom.[1] 

As Neil Kent observes in his introductory overview, this was by no means a uniquely Western phenomenon. As enslavement in its various forms has counterparts worldwide and has been a fundamental element of many growing economies to this day, the success of the abolishment of slave trade can certainly be questioned.

Mark Florman’s essay, “It Happens Here,” represents the research work done by the Centre for Social Justice, which claims that tens of thousands of people living in the United Kingdom today are either enslaved or traded as chattel. This dark business that has now eventually come to light in the UK is part of a much bigger network of crime that now accounts for more than thirty million slaves around the world. The statistics corroborate the estimate made by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva. The UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) is specific in their monitoring of the work market, regularly updating their information on forced labor, modern slavery, and human trafficking. This global business is as profitable as it is evil.

  • Approximately twenty-five million people worldwide are victims of forced labor, with women and girls being disproportionately affected (accounting for 99 percent in the sex industry and 58 percent in other sectors).
  • Approximately sixteen million victims are exploited by private individuals or by enterprises, 4.8 million of whom are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
  • Approximately four million victims are exploited by a state or government.
  • Domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and entertainment are among the most affected sectors.[2]

Much remains unrecorded, though, and hidden statistics gradually surface. According to a recent estimate presented to the UN Assembly in the fall of 2017 by Alliance 8.7, more than forty million people around the world were victims of modern slavery in 2016, including not only the nearly twenty-five million in forced labor but also 15.4 million in forced marriage! The ILO has also released a companion child labor estimate, which confirms that about 152 million children were subject to such mistreatment.[3] 

How is it possible that modern slavery can go on? It forms a dark net beyond our grasp and detection. How can it be stopped? We must bring it to light, making it known to as many people as possible, and take the necessary legal and political actions. These things, finally, are now taking place.

It is a lack of knowledge, insight, and experience that allows for this exploitation of fellow human beings to go on without the appropriate reaction and necessary response. Due to arbitrariness and a dearth of enlightenment with regard to equal freedom for all races, Swedes and other Europeans partook in the slave trade. And this behavior persisted until new ideas and realities slowly emerged in the common consciousness, as Thomasson and Rönnbäck showed in their chapters.

Religion is not of much help settling the issue, since slavery has been ecumenical, so to speak, and human progress in the history of religion is assuredly equivocal. It is true that a belief in a God who sees everything you do may have an impact on your behavior, as children’s doings are affected by their knowledge of someone watching them; but the action of the faithful completely depends on what conscience and church doctrines prescribe or allow. The same applies to laws and law enforcement. What is the probability of being caught red-handed and prosecuted when governments and authorities shut their eyes to injustice or pretend that there is no injustice at all? Crimes continue without punishment.

According to the fourteenth Dalai Lama, compassion is what is needed, as the only hope for humanity is empathy—the channel of understanding and love for our neighbor. This channel can only be opened by means of experience and awareness. Knowledge in this broad sense is required for heartfelt charity (caritas).

As we have seen from Ambjörnsson, Williams-Hogan, Howard, and Rix, Carl Bernhard Wadström’s final great awakening took place when he was struck by the cruelties of the slave trade, which he saw with his own eyes on his long trip to West Africa and gleaned from reliable observations made by others. Wadström became a witness and in turn a staunch abolitionist, making plans for creating humane civil societies in Africa that were free from slavery and the slave trade and for founding a prospering utopian city of refuge.

Wadström’s ensuing visions and plans, as well as his arguments, were partly built on his belief in Swedenborgian values and ideas. As evidenced by James F. Lawrence, though, Swedenborg’s nineteenth-century post-Doomsday New World followers, who apparently trusted destiny and the works of divine providence in the new era, were (with a few great exceptions) largely confident onlookers, anticipating amendments to come by divine force. These Swedenborgians were avoiding worldly and political matters, as many other Christian churches did, when slavery was the issue in the Antebellum un-United States of America, where eloquent, fundamentalist, pro-slavery agitators in the South used quotations from the Bible as swords against reformers.

Obviously, Swedenborgianism was as little a sufficient condition as it was a necessary one for someone to become an abolitionist, but it was manifestly compatible with an abolitionist standpoint, as our example shows. We might regard Wadström as an anomaly, but that is neither true nor the whole story. Many antislavery-minded people and activists (such as the formidable freedom fighter Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists) did not want to join any abolitionist movements, which were sometimes considered to be revolutionary, violent, or sectarian. Moreover, and as pointed out by Inga Sanner, Swedenborg’s impact encompasses reform movements and transformational thought of various kinds up to our times.

We know that leading Swedenborgians were at the forefront of the liberation of the serfs and land reform in Russia during 1861, as well as were involved in the democratic Decembrist revolt (Vosstanie dekabristov) in 1825.[4] In some Caribbean societies, Swedenborgian ideas had played a crucial role in bringing radical reform and in contributing to the rising status of people of African descent.[5] 

Furthermore, most Swedenborgians today are black Africans, the majority of whom live in Western and Southern Africa. In fact, there are numerous active churches and congregations in Togo, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Kenya, the Republic of South Africa, Nigeria, and the kingdom of Lesotho.[6]

The background is historical, and the grounds are theological. How did all this happen, and what was it in particular that people took note of and were inspired by in Swedenborg? The theological grounds for attraction, conversion, and reform can be summarized under the following main points:

  • the emphases on freedom as an inalienable human quality, free will as the foundation of morality, and responsibility for oneself, since without free choice, there are no morals or ethics;
  • that all human beings are equal before God and that there is no predestination, punishment, or “Day of Doom”: our fate is all up to us;
  • the emphasis on goodness, or love for our neighbor, and the supreme importance of behavior: action is more significant than belief, as love is primary and faith secondary;
  • that the neighbor is society, country, and the human race in its entirety;
  • the teaching of the profound spirituality possessed by Africans; and
  • a doctrine of spirit that connected with African primal religion and readily appealed to its people.

Edward Wilmot Blyden, the well-informed Liberian envoy to England, made the following statement in his speech at the annual meeting of the Swedenborg Society in London in 1892:

[Liberia] may be regarded, and in no remote sense, as a result of the teachings of Swedenborg and of the example and labours of his followers. . . . Swedenborgians have a sort of claim upon Liberia, and right to feel interested in her prosperity and success; as the only aboriginal prince ever brought away from her territory for training in England was brought away by a follower of Swedenborg, and the most exhaustive account of the region of country now occupied by the republic, given a hundred years ago, was by Dr. Wadstrom, that eminent Swedenborgian who lived among and toiled for the people of Mesurado, long before Liberia was settled. Providence, in permitting Liberia to be founded there, seemed to be following up and putting a seal upon those self-denying members of the New Jerusalem Church.[7]

Inspired to do so by his fellow countryman Rev. John P. Knox,[8] Blyden joined the free black emigrants in the region that is the present Sierra Leone and Liberia, and he became a prominent figure in the colony set up for freedmen by the American Colonization Society. A citizen of the former Danish West Indies who was educated in the United States, Blyden was a learned and prolific writer.[9] He had become professor of Latin and Greek at Liberia College in 1861, later serving both as its president and as an ambassador to England and France.

Blyden called attention to the prominent Swedenborgian scientist James John Garth Wilkinson’s tract The African and the True Christian Religion,[10] repeatedly commending its value for those who have no access to Swedenborg’s works. He considered Swedenborg and the Swedenborgians to be among the fathers of this nation, and he is himself today remembered as the father of Pan-Africanism.

Rule of law and proclamations neither suffice nor permit us to rest in oblivious satisfaction. Neil Kent maintains that slavery considerably declined in medieval Christian Europe, as it had increasingly been deemed immoral. Indeed, in the city of Florence, ruled by the Arti Maggiori, slavery was abolished in the year 1289, according to the published Chronology of the Guilds. Nevertheless, a Florentine exile, the fourteenth-century traveler Francesco Petrarch, with Genova and Marco Polo’s Venice as his homeports, observed that the Mediterranean merchant ships carried more slaves than grain.[11] As we have seen, there have been many great words offered in the cause of condemning slavery. And there is still time to set “examples”—for anyone, of whatever faith!

Anders Hallengren (editor) is a former Harvard history fellow, a research affiliate of Stockholm University in the Department of Culture and Aesthetics, and a fellow of the Linnean Society of London. He served as president of the Swedenborg Society of London from 2011 to 2013, and he was vice president from 2013 to 2015. Anders has published books on Swedenborgian thought (Gallery of Mirrors, 1998; The Grand Theme, 2013), ethics and natural law (The Code of Concord, 1994, doctoral dissertation), international law and African affairs (Kuba i Afrika, 1984), and integration in a multicultural world of change (Nobel Laureates in Search of Identity and Integrity, 2004); and he is internationally renowned for his Nobel essay “Nelson Mandela and the Rainbow of Culture,” first published on September 11, 2001, by Nobelprize.org.

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[1] Sven Lindqvist, The Skull Measurer’s Mistake: And Other Portraits of Men and Women Who Spoke Out Against Racism, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate (New York: The New Press, 1997); Susanne Everett, History of Slavery: An Illustrated History of the Monstrous Evil (New York: Chartwell Books, 2014); The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, accessed December 19, 2018, http://www.slavevoyages.org.

[2] From Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage (Geneva: ILO, Walk Free Foundation, and International Organization for Migration, 2017), accessed August 29, 2018, http://​www.ilo.org/​global/​topics/​forced-labour/​lang–en/​index.htm.

[3] There are two international reports by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that are of particular value: Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage (Geneva: ILO, Walk Free Foundation, and International Organization for Migration, 2017); and Global Estimates of Child Labour: Results and Trends, 2012–2016 (Geneva: ILO, 2017).

[4] Anders Hallengren, “Russia, Swedenborg, and the Eastern Mind,” Hulme Hall Lecture (Manchester, 1991). This article was published with a bibliography in the American journal The New Philosophy, vol. XCIII, no. 4 (Oct.–Dec. 1990): 391–407. Another version was delivered as “Religion and Politics: Radical Humanism and New Church Spirituality—From the Decembrist Conspiracy to the Emancipation of the Serfs” at the conferences in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Sept 7–14, 1991, on “The Recovery of the Russian Philosophical Tradition” (Transcript, with a Russian summary [Moscow: The Transnational Research Association and Norwich, Vermont: The Transnational Institute, 1991]). A revised and developed account is found in the author’s more recent Gränszon: Swedenborgessäer (Stockholm: Poetria, 2017), Ch. “Ryssland utan gräns,” with an extensive bibliography.

[5] Anders Hallengren, “Swedenborgianism in the Caribbean: A Social Force in the Nineteenth Century West Indies,” in Annual Journal of the New Church Historical Society for the Year 2005 (Chester, England: The New Church Historical Society, 2005): 21–50. This includes a full bibliography.

[6] A Directory of Churches World Wide Based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (The New Church of the New Jerusalem—The Lord’s New Church, 2015).

[7] “Speech on the Past, Present, and Future of the African,” in Morning Light [a General Conference journal published in London] (1892): 261–65.

[8] The author of A Historical Account of St. Thomas, W. I. (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1970).

[9] Edward Wilmot Blyden is the author of such notable titles as From West Africa to Palestine (Freetown, 1873) and Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (London: W. B. Whittingham & Co., 1888).

[10] The African and the True Christian Religion, His Magna Charta: A Study in the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (London, 1892).

[11] Cf., for example, Sally McKee, “Domestic Slavery in Renaissance Italy,” in Slavery & Abolition 29 (2008): 305–26; and the “Chronology” in Edgcumbe Staley, Guilds of Florence (London: Methuen & Co., 1906). Petrarch’s witness report of the late 1360s is found in his autobiographical letters of old age, the Epistolae Seniles X.2. “Whereas huge shipments of grain used to arrive by ship annually in [Venice], now they arrive laden with slaves.”

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