While growing up, to me America was a synonym for freedom. From time to time, I would hear about the persecution of Christians in China, the oppression of women in Iran, and the heinous violation of human rights in North Korea. I would read stories of immigrants sailing to America for religious freedom and a better life, and I felt immense gratitude to be born an American. I would think about the birth of a free nation, the victory for independence, the formation of a constitution that affirms the equality of every human being, and a thrill would race through me. To the younger me, America truly was the land of the free, the home of the brave.
Of course, I’m still grateful for this country and the principles it was founded on, but in more recent years, I’ve realized that even though slavery has been abolished, not everyone in America is free. Their bodies, their time, their earnings, and their dreams belong to their traffickers. With that realization comes a duty to speak up. Today, on July 4th, I wonder…what would it take for America to truly be the land of the free?
The beginnings of freedom
To find the answer, I examined the start of the original abolitionist movement. The appalling trans-Atlantic slave trade began in the 15th century, where Europeans and Americans trafficked more than 11 million Africans over the course of several centuries. On the Arabian peninsula, Arabs bought and sold just as many Africans during the same time period–a fact that seems to have been forgotten. Slavery was nearly universal, but around 1770, British abolitionists rose up in waves to protest the slave trade. In 1780, Americans started to wake up and protest the slave trade as well.
Why in these places, and why at this time? After hundreds of years of buying and selling human beings, what started the abolitionist movement in the West?
The Great Awakening
Amazingly, scholars note that the Great Awakening, which took place during the 1730s and 1740s, just preceded these widespread social reforms, and historians say the two are directly related. At this time, Christianity had become more formal and less personal after the Enlightenment, individual faith wasn’t seen as necessary, and the accumulation of wealth caused people to forget about God.
Under the preaching of men such as John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards, a revival spread across Great Britain and the American colonies. These men pressed the need for repentance and a personal relationship with Jesus instead of just going through the motions and participating solely in the outward forms of religion. Tens of thousands were converted during this time, devoting their life to the Lord and returning to the Bible, the Word of God that proclaims the worth and value and equality of every single human being.
Then, the Second Great Awakening began around 1790 and gained momentum by 1800, giving fuel to further reforms and anti-slavery organizations. Through the valiant and persistent efforts of people like William Wilberforce, a committed Christian, Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and in 1833 passed an act in parliament that freed all slaves already in Britain. In America, some states had already prohibited the importation of slaves before 1800, but in 1833, the first American Anti-Slavery Society was established. After the bloody Civil War, the 13th Amendment formally ended slavery in 1865…right about the same time the Second Great Awakening ended.
You know what’s interesting? All the abolitionist writers, orators, and reformers came from the Christian West. I couldn’t find any historical evidence of an abolitionist movement in the East, during the Arab slave trade. In fact, slavery wasn’t abolished in the Middle East until the 20th century, and that was only due to pressure from Western nations. Among the last were Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which finally abolished slavery in 1962, and Oman, which outlawed slavery in 1970.
I am in no way saying this makes Westerners better than Easterners; we both have our personal depravities and national atrocities to reckon with. What I am saying is that the gospel makes all the difference. The key to liberty and justice for all is a nation that knows Jesus and His Word.
Do I hear an objection?
I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t slave owners justify the practice of slavery using quotations from Scripture? Yes, many men took certain verses out of context and applied them falsely to justify their evils, but they didn’t know their Bible very well. Otherwise, they might have known that the Lord defines Himself as the God who delivers from slavery (Exodus 20:2, Luke 4:18). Kidnapping and selling a human being was one of the few crimes in ancient Israel’s theocracy that was punishable by death (Exodus 21:16). One of the reasons God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed in 587 B.C. was because Israel denied justice to the vulnerable (Isaiah 1:16-20, Jeremiah 7:5-7). And over and over, the inspired authors of the Bible made clear that every person has equal and inherent worth (Genesis 1:27, Matthew 22:37-40, Romans 12:5, Galatians 3:28).
We might have experienced this ourselves at some point, when we make a statement and someone takes a phrase out of context and applies it to a situation we never intended it for. The point is, if a person wants to justify their wrongdoings at any cost and isn’t looking for the truth, he or she can twist anything to suit their purposes.
Today’s rise of slavery
As America spirals downward toward naturalism and atheism, rejecting God and the Bible, do you think it’s a coincidence that human trafficking is spiking and child porn is exploding? As our culture pushes away anything to do with Jesus and pushes forward anti-Christian and anti-Scripture agendas, is it a coincidence that Americans are again devaluing other human beings on a larger scale and becoming polarized and angry?
This isn’t happening just in America. Europe is also becoming a post-Christian continent, and human trafficking is on the rise there as well. Is it a coincidence that there are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in history?
I think we all know that freedom and healing aren’t going to come at the hands of politicians. As many as fight for justice, an equal number seem to perpetuate slavery. Nor will it come purely through social reform. No culture will change unless individual hearts change. What America needs is another revival. A turning toward the Lord, who created all men and women equal. Only then is there hope of having liberty and justice for all.
Today, I’m going to enjoy the fireworks and family fun and thank God for my freedom, but I’m also going to pray for revival and leverage my freedom on behalf of those who aren’t free. Isn’t that really what America is all about?