Evangelistic Enslavement: James Hervey’s “gift” of a slave to George Whitefield

James Hervey (1714–1758) was an English pastor in Weston Favell, England. Though not as well known as figures like John Wesley or George Whitefield, in his own day Hervey was ranked among the most influential of the evangelicals in England. While Whitefield was known for his preaching and Wesley for his organizing, Hervey was known for his writing, especially two works: Contemplations and Meditations (1747) and Theron and Aspasio: Or, A Series of Dialogues and Letters: Upon the Most Important and Interesting Subjects (1755).

J. C. Ryle said of Hervey, 

“I therefore boldly claim for him a high place among the spiritual heroes of the last century… let us not grudge Hervey his crown. He deserves to be had in remembrance.”

J. C. Ryle, The Christian Leaders of the Last Century: Or, England a Hundred Years Ago (1869), 356.

Another 19th century author said compared to Wesley and Whitefield: 

The person who contributed most effectually by his writings to revive evangelical doctrine in his native country was unquestionably the Reverend James Hervey.”

“No book was more popular [than Theron and Aspasio] in England in Scotland for many long years”

James Hervey and the Evangelism of His Times,” The British and Foreign Evangelical Review, (1853), 814, 820.

Luke Tyerman, the prolific Methodist historian, said this: 

“Hervey was one of the most godly men of the age in which he lived; and certainly, he was one of the most popular and successful authors.” 

Tyerman, The Oxford Methodists: Memoirs of the Rev. Messrs. Clayton, Ingham, Gambold, Hervey, and Broughton (1873), 326.

Baptist John Collett Ryland wrote an entire memorial to The character of the Rev. James Hervey (1791); and the preface to John Brown’s said this:

The Rev. James Hervey, the subject of the fol­lowing Memoirs, exhibits in his writings a most zeal­ous attachment to the great doctrines of the glorious gospel, and in his life a most eminent example of evan­gelical holiness

John Brown, Memoirs of the life and Character of James Hervey, 2nd edition [“considerably enlarged”] (1822), ix.

Hervey was a man highly esteemed in his own time, and by generations following him.

Slavery

If Hervey is as representative and prominent a figure as there was in 18th century evangelicalism, a question naturally arises (for me, at least): what, if anything, did Hervey have to say (or do) regarding the enslavement of Africans in the American colonies?

As far as I can tell, Hervey never visited America (though his works were published, read, and debated there), and never owned any slaves himself (though I am uncertain of the status of the “worthy domestic” cited below). Nevertheless, Hervey’s friendship with George Whitefield resulted in an active participation in slavery that is worth reflecting on.

Though Hervey pastored in Weston Favell, in 1750 he took a trip to London, about 70 miles away, at the behest of some of his friends:

“In June 1750, his health being much impaired by his great attention to duty, and his friends judging that the change of air might be of benefit to him, they formed a design, which they executed, of conveying him to London, under a pretence of riding a few miles in a friend’s post-chaise, who was going thither.”

Brown, Memoirs, 149. 

Hervey would remain there nearly two years, until April or May 1752, and during this time he stayed at a few places in London, including his friend George Whitefield’s house:

“One of the winters he staid in Lon­don, he lodged at the house of his good friend Mr. Whitefield, in Tottenham-court Road; here he was very happy”

Brown, Memoirs, 152.
George Whitefield

Hervey and Whitefield were lifelong friends, and Whitefield had previously visited him up on Weston Favell:

“A worthy domestic, yet alive (in 1811) intimates, his usual visitors were the Rev. Messrs. Whitefield, T. Jones, Cudworth, Doddridge, Ryland, and a pious young man, a stone mason ; these righteous men, their lips fed one another; in­deed almost none but religious persons called on him.”

Brown, Memoirs, 156.

Among the things Hervey and Whitefield did was review each others’ manuscripts (though, Hervey being the more literary of the two, this seems to have been a one-sided affair):

“In his friendship to Mr. Whitefield, he also review­ed his manuscripts. So this good man [Whitefield] writes Mr. Hervey; “ I thank you a thousand times for the trouble you have been at in revising my poor compositions, which I am afraid you have not treated with a becoming severity.”

Brown, Memoirs, 263.

Sometime in 1752, Hervey sent some of his own manuscripts to Whitefield for comment (Luke Tyerman thinks these were “Probably “Theron and Aspasio,” now in hand, though not published far three years afterwards” (Tyerman, Oxford Methodists, 277).) Whitefield wrote back:

“London, June 9, 1752.

“My very dear Friend,— I have received and read your manu­scripts; but for me to play the critic upon them, would be like holding up a candle to the sun. However, before I leave town, I will just mark a few places as you desire, and then send the manuscripts to your brother. I foretell their fate: nothing but your scenery can screen you. Self will never bear to die, though slain in so genteel a manner, without showing some resentment against its artful murderer.”

The Works of the Rev. George Whitefield, 431–32.

However, in the same letter sending the manuscripts to Whitefield, Hervey had also said this:

“When you please to demand, my brother will pay you £30, for the purchase of a negro; and may the Lord Jesus Christ give you, or rather take for himself, the precious soul of the poor slave.”

Brown, Memoir, 215.

Whitefield replied:

“You are resolved not to die in my debt. I think to call your intended purchase Weston, and shall take care to remind him by whose means he was brought under the everlasting Gospel.”

Whitefield’s 1252 letter to Hervey

It seems unlikely to me that Whitefield literally thought Hervey was repaying a debt, especially not for his editorial comments on his manuscript. It is more likely that Hervey meant this as a “gift” to his friend, and Whitefield’s response is a courteous reply. Whitefield likely named the enslaved man “Weston” after the town where Hervey was pastor (Weston Favell).

Historiography

How was this incident received and transmitted by historians and biographers? Luke Tyerman called it an “act … too curious to be omitted” and emphasizes its strangeness like this:

“Every one knows, that, Whitefield believed, that, the keeping of slaves was sanc­tioned by the Scriptures; that, hot countries could not be cultivated without negroes; and, that, the lives of numbers of white people had been destroyed in Georgia, and large amounts of money wasted, for want of negro labour. Hold­ing such principles, Whitefield, in 1751, bought a number of slaves, partly to cultivate the land attached to his Orphan House, in Georgia: and partly to instruct them, and to make them Christians. Strange to say, the gentle Hervey ap­proved of this procedure; and having, during his residence in London, largely shared in Whitefield’s hospitality, he gave to him, as a souvenir on leaving,—what ? A slave!”

Tyerman, The Oxford Methodists, 277.
Whitefield’s Orphanage in Georgia

However, other biographers of Hervey tried to frame this act in an entirely different light. One of Hervey’s earliest biographers, John Brown, called this an instance of charity:

“Among other instances of his charity, he proposed to buy a slave, to instruct him in the Christian religion.”

Brown, Memoirs, 215.

A whole book was edited in honor of Hervey, called Herveiana; Or, Graphic and Literary Sketches Illustrative of the Life and Writings of the Rev. James Hervey (1822) edited by John Cole. Cole actually attempts to compare Hervey to the great English abolitionist William Wilberforce:

“The following splendid instance of his charity is noticed by Brown, which shews that he possessed alike the spirit that animated Wilberforce, and that which influences Christians of the present day. Mr. Whitefield, being in America, Mr. Hervey proposed to buy a slave, (whom his friend there had opportunity to purchase) to in­struct him in the Christian religion…”

Herveiana, 98.

Cole goes on:

““The above account displays that Hervey did as far as was in his power as an individual in the cause of humanity, what Wilberforce as the repre­sentative of a body of individuals completely effected in the total overthrow of the cruelty in­flicted upon our fellow creatures. Our country­men of this age are endeavouring with a laudable zeal to convert heathens, and give them the glorious light of the gospel. Hervey used his power to effect the same desirable object in this brilliant and beneficent purchase, which is in every instance worthy of the man.”

Herveiana, 99.

Remarks

To modern eyes, (mine at least), this appears to be a bizarre incident. Yet, in other respects, it is to be expected of evangelicals, who seamlessly wedded enslavement of others with their own evangelical theology (for another example, see “The Edwards of History: A Reply to Douglas Wilson”). In fact, it seems clear that Hervey meant this as a form of evangelism: “may the Lord Jesus Christ give you the precious soul of the poor slave.” For those who believed that God providentially intended the trans-Atlantic slave trade so that  enslaved Africans could hear the “gospel,” this is a completely consistent act.

This incident also tells us about how Whitefield was known amongst his friends. Hervey knew that Whitefield would appreciate the “gift” of an enslaved person, and perhaps knew all about the enslaved workers at the Bethesda orphanage in Georgia. When you spend good money on a gift for a friend (£30 was no small sum), you want to be sure they will appreciate it, and whatever Hervey knew of Whitefield, he knew he would appreciate this.

Consider further that Whitefield had said that he would “take care to remind him by whose means he was brought under the everlasting Gospel.” Imagine being Weston, and imagine if Whitefield held true to his promise. Imagine constant reminders to “Reverend Hervey” — another link in the chain of events that brought you from your home in Africa, across the middle passage, to a slave block in London. All along, you are treated as “transferrable property,” such that you could be “given” as a “gift,” from one evangelical preacher to another.

In all, the ethical distortion in the original episode, and the further distortion in the historical reception of it (Tyerman excluded), are illustrative of 18th and 19th century evangelicalism.

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