The International Carl Bernhard Wadström Conference on Human Rights and the Abolition of Slavery, held in London on June 2-4, opened with a sobering reminder that slavery is as much about current events as it is history.
At the opening reception on June 2, visitors not only heard from professor Neil Kent of the University of Cambridge about the politics and economics of the historical slave trade between Europe, the Americas, and Africa, but also about modern-day human trafficking. Mark Florman of the Centre for Social Justice in London told the audience that there are an estimated 28 million people in every country in the world are being held against their will and forced to work, usually in the sex trade, agriculture, or construction. Only three months before, in March 2015, the British Parliament passed a bill designed to protect the victims of these crimes and institute harsher legal penalties for offenders.
Against this backdrop, the academic conference began on June 3, hosted by the Swedenborg Society. The subject of the conference, Carl Bernhard Wadström (1746-1799), was a Swedish economist, writer, and Swedenborgian who, after witnessing the horrors of the slave trade in Guinea in 1787, became an ardent abolitionist. His books describing the realities of slavery became key texts in the budding abolitionist movement, and his testimony before the British Parliament helped lead to Britain’s first anti-slavery laws in 1808. The purpose of the conference was to bring out new information on Wadström’s role in abolition by encouraging dialogue between researchers in various disciplines.
Fredik Thomasson of Uppsala University in Sweden and Brycchan Carey of Kingston University in the United Kingdom provided context for Wadström’s activities by talking about the antislavery discussion during the 1780s and 1790s, when Wadström was most influential. In both Sweden and England there was a growing awareness of the horrible conditions endured by slaves in the colonies. In England in particular, this awareness led to an emerging abolitionist movement that coincided with Wadstrom’s journey and subsequent books and testimony. Adding to this analysis, Klas Rönnbäck of Gothenburg University, Sweden, showed that Wadström’s testimony stood out among his contemporaries because of Wadström’s social status as well as his authority as someone who had actually witnessed the activity firsthand.
Jim Lawrence of the Pacific School of Religion in the United States provided context from an American perspective by looking at the American Swedenborgian reaction to abolition. Abolitionism took shape in the United States later than in the British Empire, particularly in the fifty years leading up to the Civil War. During that time, American Swedenborgians were largely silent on the issue. In the Pacific School of Religion Swedenborgian archive, one of the largest in the world, there were only twenty published opinions on slavery (counting pamphlets, sermons, letters to the editor, and similar sources), and only one of them called for an immediate end to slavery, with a few pro-slavery and most in some sort of moderate position.
Other presenters spoke about antislavery in literature and culture. Anders Mortensen of Lund University, Sweden, spoke about Wadström’s influence on the English writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Swedish poet Johan Gabriel Oxenstjerna. Robert William Rix of Copenhagen University analyzed both the Swedenborgian influence and the antislavery commentary in William Blake’s poem “Little Black Boy,” concluding that Blake was ultimately criticizing the paternalistic attitude that even the abolitionists took toward the Africans.
Among Wadström’s writings is a plan for creating a new colony in Africa. Similar to plans for utopian communities in the United States, the plan was a vision of an ideal community as envisioned not only by Wadström but by his friend August Nordenskiold, who co-authored the plan. Both men were Swedenborgian, and the influence showed clearly in their model for a new society.
Jane Williams-Hogan of Bryn Athyn College in the United States identified three major themes from Swedenborg’s theology in the colonization plan: first, the emphasis on the preeminence of God; second, by incorporating the concept of usefulness; third, by stressing the importance of marriage. Ronny Ambjörnsson of Umeå University picked up on the theme of use by elaborating on the economic aspects of the plan. Nordenskiold wanted to abolish money and use labor as capital, putting the power in the hands of the people who worked, in sharp contrast to the system of slavery. David Lindrooth, also of Bryn Athyn College, highlighted two other Swedenborgian aspect of the colonization plan: the importance of freedom of choice in spiritual development, and the role of divine influx in guiding an enlightened society.