A letter to Kettering: William Knibb's history has been "whitewashed"

In a letter to the people of Kettering, a historical theologian said not all is as it seems with William Knibb

Rev Dr Doreen Morrison, a historical theologian, says William Knibb was not an abolitionist in the way we think - he was concerned with spiritual rather than physical freedom.
Rev Dr Doreen Morrison, a historical theologian, says William Knibb was not an abolitionist in the way we think - he was concerned with spiritual rather than physical freedom.

In recent weeks, many people in Kettering have supported calls for a statue or memorial for William Knibb to be erected in the town but a historical theologian has written an open letter urging "caution".

Reverend Dr Doreen Morrison, a Baptist minister and leading historical theologian on Jamaican emancipatory history, has written to the people of Kettering to shed light on the full story surrounding William Knibb, who is widely regarded as an abolitionist who helped bring about the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

Here is Rev Dr Morrison's letter in full:

Firstly, may I say that what Ben Humphries was inspired (to do) by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and removal of the Colston statue, in seeking to establish a statue to William Knibb is to be commended. We do need ‘all hands to the pump’ today, in order to create a more just and equitable society.

However, I want to caution you against channelling your enthusiasm into erecting such a statue, declaring him to have been a friend of enslaved Africans and a great abolitionist, perhaps in the vein of Grenville Sharpe, Rev Thomas Clarkson or the Quaker movement of that time.

Let me explain. I speak as an ordained Baptist Minister, a historical theologian, a member of the Baptist World Alliance, Heritage and Identity Commission (2015 – 2020) and a direct descendant of enslaved Africans brought to Jamaica.

I also speak as one who knows that even to the present day much of Jamaican history has been written by British academics and therefore from a British perspective, celebrating events as seen through their lenses.

William Knibb was not an abolitionist in the sense that he strove for the freedom and equality of enslaved Africans on earth.

He was an evangelical Christian who strove for spiritual freedom and equality – the right to worship – before God. He, like all other British missionaries of mainline denominations, travelled to Jamaica having accepted his commission, which included that he did ‘not interfere with politics, but simply to preach the Gospel of Christ.’

Knibb opposed the strike led by the enslaved in 1831 – otherwise known as the ‘Baptist War’ which ultimately signalled the death knell on slavery in the British Caribbean. His position on enslavement in and of itself never changed.

What actually happened was that the enslaved led by Ethiopian Baptists (African Baptist missionaries led by George Liele, a once enslaved African American) had been on the island since 1783.

They heard that Emancipation was coming and thought that the plantocracy was keeping it from them and so they went on strike that Christmas and would only return if they received a day's wage for a day’s work. Suffice it to say, the plantocracy disagreed and the strike resulted in plantations being set on fire across the north of the island.

Knibb was against the strike. However, the plantocracy, not believing that any black person had the ability to ‘outsmart’ them and organise a revolt, blamed the white Baptist ministers and went after Knibb and his colleagues. Things got so bad that many were arrested and churches burnt, the planters wanting to not only cede from Britain, but if they couldn’t kill, remove all non-conformist ministers from the island.

The war was on and Knibb then became the leader of Baptists whose primary goal was to maintain religious freedom in Jamaica, and the only way of doing so, was by removing the power of the plantocracy, and that could only happen with the abolition of slavery.

The Africans wanted their physical freedom and Knibb and his colleagues wanted spiritual freedom.

Knibb therefore ‘highjacked’ the Ethiopian Baptists civil rights movement, to achieve his ultimate purpose the removal of the plantocracy – and how do know that he was not an abolitionist primarily concerned about the enslavement of Africans and their physical freedom? Well, we have his family approved biography, ‘Memoir of William Knibb' written by John H Hinton, in which when questioned by both Houses of Parliament in 1832, the following exchanges took place (Knibb's responses are in bold).

What were the doctrines at all bearing on the temporal condition of the black population, which you inculcated? – I never touched upon the subject in my life.

In preaching to the slave population, have you not found it very difficult to keep altogether separate spiritual concerns of that black population from their temporal situations? – It is difficult, but every good man would do it.

Is it possible, in addressing an unlettered audience, in inculcating the doctrine of the freedom of the faith of Christianity, not to expose yourself to misinterpretation as to temporal freedom, as contrasted with spiritual freedom? -Whenever I have had the occasion to speak on that subject, I have explained, that when freedom is mentioned in the word of God, it referred to the soul and not to the body; that there were slaves in the times of the apostles as well as at present.

Did you find it necessary to abstain from quoting particular passages of scripture for the purpose of avoiding the exciting any undue feeling in the mind of the negro on the subject of liberty? – I thought it my duty to do so.

As the slaves who can read having access to these scriptures would naturally find passages of that description, did they never come to you to ask you questions on passages of that kind? – They never did.

No inquiries were made with regard to passages of that kind, which occur frequently in the holy scriptures? – No; whenever we received a member in the church we always enforced the duty of obedience to masters, which would lead them to suppose that we considered slavery quite compatible with Christianity.

William Knibb inherited a civil rights movement of over 30,000 African Christians in Jamaica, he belittled the work of their leaders and black lives only mattered in that he could manipulate the people to achieve his purpose – the removal of the power of the plantocracy.

As you can see from his own words, he never forsook his oath to preach obedience to slave masters and spiritual freedom – a life of hell on earth - rewarded with eternal joy in heaven!

History states that once the Baptists had achieved their goal and Jamaica became a crown colony following the riots in Morant Bay in 1865, the Baptists affirmed the status quo and were promoters of the Empire’s culture and practices above that of those who became indigenous Jamaicans.

So, if you are minded to celebrate Knibb, then please do celebrate him primarily as a defeater of the plantocracy and planter politician in Jamaica, but not as an abolitionist or great friend of Africa.

A part of Black Lives Matter as I and many people see it, is the need not to undertake historical revisionism, by changing the facts as they happened, but instead, to no longer ‘whitewash’ black achievement out of the history books – as has happened throughout the British Empire - by continuing to give ‘credit’ to those who are undeserved, as William Knibb is in this instance.