In 1853, John Leighton Wilson was 44 years old. He and his wife Jane had spent the last 18 years doing mission work in West Africa.
Why? Because Wilson believed the South had wronged Africa by kidnapping and enslaving so many of its people. Bringing the Gospel to Africa was his gesture toward repaying that enormous debt. He also felt called to this mission. His “lifelong interest in the spiritual welfare of the Negro” (1) began in the Presbyterian church of his South Carolina childhood. The congregants there included both whites and slaves.
But why did Wilson return to the United States in 1853? There are hints that he was exhausted and worried about his health, and perhaps his wife’s health also. The record also shows, I believe, that he wanted to write about Africa and slavery—to educate whites, and especially his fellow Southerners.
Upon his return in 1853, Wilson was made secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in New York City. His position, held from 1853 to 1861, allowed him time to write Western Africa: Its History, Conditions, and Prospects (Harper and Brothers: 1856), a book now digitized by Google. He had traveled widely in West Africa, taking many trips into the interior and along the coast.
Wilson also wrote to protest against the slave trade. His protest writing began in Africa. In 1850, on a trip near the African coast, he noticed ships from Spain and Portugal. Natives told him those ships belonged to slave traders, who by night collected cargoes of slaves to sell in Brazil.
Those activities were illegal. The slave trade had already been abolished in 1807, by both England and the United States.
Wilson took action. He wrote to a friend in England, who convinced the prime minister to print Wilson’s letter and distribute it as a pamphlet. As a result, British warships were sent to the African coast. By 1855 the slave trade there had been choked off.
A few years later, back in the United States, Wilson again found himself writing to protest the slave trade. For in the 1850s, many Southerners were pressing to revive the slave trade and legalize it.
Wilson must have felt a strong call to answer these Southerners. As a minister, he was a credible author for an article in the Southern Presbyterian Review, entitled “The Foreign Slave-Trade: Can It Be Revived without Violating the Most Sacred Principles of Honor, Humanity, and Religion?” (October, 1859). (2)
Wilson’s article suggests several nuances in his character. Not only was he a good man – he was a strategic writer and a powerful persuader. I would make three points about his article:
First, Wilson knows his audience – the slaveholding Southerners. More than anything else, these people want to believe they are good and honorable. They would turn a deaf ear to anyone calling them callous or greedy. Wilson knows that. He says:
- We have too high an estimate of the good sense, the Christian moderation, and the honorable bearing of the Southern people, to believe that they ever will, either from motives of retaliation, or the hope of gain, lend their countenance knowingly to the revival of a traffic which, in its progress, must necessarily trample in the dust every sentiment of honor, humanity, and religion.
Whether or not Wilson fully believes this statement, it makes an excellent persuasive strategy.
Second, Wilson knows that many Southerners (and others) in his audience have persuaded themselves that slavery is good for Africans, that it “civilizes” unfortunate savages. Instead of disagreeing, Wilson folds this same pro-slavery idea into a theological concept. Slavery itself is inherently evil, but God in his mercy has turned it into a good:
- Whatever wrong-doing there may have been in connection with the original establishment of [slavery] . . . every right-minded and honest man must see that it has been overruled by a kind and merciful Providence for the good of those of the African race who were brought to this country. They are happier, better, and more useful men and women, than they would have been if born and brought up in the wilds of Africa, or than they would have been if their forefathers, upon their arrival here, had been turned loose to roam the swamps and woods of America . . .
. . . and so forth, elaborating on a concept that is transparently paternalistic to us today. Does Wilson believe what he is saying? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s hard to reconcile his words here with his own conviction that the South has wronged Africa by kidnapping its people, or with his wife’s decision to free her 30 slaves in 1833. I can’t help doubting whether Wilson is totally behind his argument here.
Still, it would be plausible to Wilson’s readers for him to express this popular idea—an idea voiced by such others as Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. And Wilson’s theology does help to win over his audience, for he’s implicitly claiming that slaveholders are instruments of divine Providence. If Wilson is being less than thoroughly candid, he’s doing so for a cause he deeply believed in—keeping the slave trade outlawed.
Third, Wilson purposely leaves a loophole in his own argument, only to close it swiftly and with an expertise that overrides all objections. The loophole is built into the second point. It goes like this: “If God has now made slavery into a good thing, then we should probably buy some more slaves so that we can do some more good.” Wilson easily counters this mischievous conclusion:
- [Resuming the slave trade is] not only to practice a deception among ourselves, but is virtually doing evil that good may come, and sanctioning the odious Jesuitical dogma, that the end justifies the means.
Wilson’s article is really a kind of Story. The heroes are Southerners. The plot is that they are brave enough to let go of the slave trade, thereby keeping their honor and nobility.
By writing this particular Story, Wilson chooses not to abandon his friends and neighbors and family members. Instead, he exhorts them to be heroes. If he hates the sin of practicing slavery—and I believe he does—he still loves his own people who are complicit in that sin.
Wilson finally returned to the South in 1861, by coincidence on the last day the trains were running before the Civil War changed life for everyone. He and his wife rented a small farm near his boyhood home and lived there throughout the war and afterwards until their deaths.
As home mission secretary for Southern Presbyterians, Wilson helped arrange the chaplain service for the Confederate armies.
When Sherman burned Columbia in 1865, not far from his home, John Leighton Wilson was the first one to send food to that shattered city.
(1) The Daily Item of Sumter, SC, August 13, 1970, 23.
(2) Wilson’s article can be found in “From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1824-1909,” in the Library of Congress.