Research into the Bishops of Bath and Wells, starting from when the transatlantic trade in enslaved people was gaining momentum in the second half of the 1600s, has unearthed that two of our bishops – Bishop George Henry Law and Bishop Richard Beadon – supported the abolition cause. Evidence also suggests that a third bishop, Charles Moss, may also have been pro abolition.
Other research undertaken to date has shown that, apart from possibly two bishops (Bishop Edward Willes and Bishop Charles Moss), none profited directly or indirectly from this trade.
Bishop Edward Willes (Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1743 to 1773) owned stock in the South Sea Annuities, deriving from the South Sea company which, amongst other activities, traded in enslaved people from Africa from 1713 to 1750. The company continued trading until 1853. It is unknown when Bishop Willes acquired a financial interest in the company; it may have been after it ceased trading in enslaved people.
Bishop Moss appears to have been a shareholder in the British company running Virginia, a plantation state. It is not clear whether slaves were used on the Virginian plantations in question but Moss would have possibly received income from his shareholding.
Bishop Charles Moss
Bishop Moss was born in 1712, the son of a grazier and landowner. He was Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1774 to 1802. He was translated from the Diocese of St Davids, Wales, where he was bishop from 1766-1774.
The British abolition movement started in earnest in the 1780s, spearheaded by protestant groups such as the Quakers. Whilst the Church of England, as an entity, played little part in the early days of the abolition movement, some individuals within the Church of England were active. Bishop Moss was Bishop of Bath and Wells throughout this key period and research points to the likelihood of him supporting the abolition movement; he moved in social circles which included leading abolitionists of the day including Hannah Moore and there is evidence of connections to the notable abolitionist Granville Sharp.
However, research has also uncovered that Bishop Moss had shares in the Colony of Virginia from which he may have derived an income. This colony was a plantation state.
Bishop Beadon was Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1802 to 1824. Prior to this he was Bishop of Gloucester. He was born in 1737 to a landowning family.
Beadon was supporting the anti-slavery campaigns in the early 1800s. In 1807 he became a member of the African Institution (an abolitionist and antislavery group in Britain during the early nineteenth century, members of which included royalty, prominent lawyers, Members of Parliament, and noted reformers such as William Wilberforce), and continued his support until at least 1822.
In the same year he attended an anti-slavery meeting in London, attended by well-known abolitionists. The following year he was at a dinner for ‘The Friends of the Abolition of the Slave Trade’. These weren’t the only times he encountered significant figures in the abolition movement. He was friends with Hannah More who actively supported William Wilberforce, corresponded with her and came across her at a social event in 1805 attended by another campaigner, the Duke of Gloucester.
The anti-slavery movement was quiet for much of the first quarter of the 19th century whilst the country’s focus moved to the Napoleonic Wars and other matters of national importance. The movement didn’t get going again until 1823 when Beadon was 87 yrs.
Bishop Law was born in 1761 and was the youngest son of the Bishop of Carlisle, the Right Rev. Edmund Law. He was Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1824 to 1845 and before this had been Bishop of Chester.
Law was a man who cared for the plight of people. He was noted for his concern for the poor and disadvantaged: he spoke out about, and supported, factory reform particularly relating to the working conditions of children; he was an active supporter of the allotment movement in the 1800s, providing allotments in his Willingham parish (1807) and later at Wells and Banwell, Somerset. It is thus, unsurprising that he was against slavery.
It is during his time as Bishop of Bath and Wells that we see Law speaking out against slavery and supporting movements to abolish it. Other family members shared his views: his father was one of a number of abolitionist bishops working with Granville Sharp, one of the first abolitionist campaigners; his wife’s father (General J W Adeane, MP) had voted for a 1791 parliamentary bill to abolish the slave trade; a brother, Edmund Law, Ist Baron Ellenborough, was an abolitionist speaking out against slavery in several parliamentary debates; and a nephew, 1st Earl of Ellenborough also supported the abolitionist cause in parliament.
Law showed his public support for the abolition movement in several ways: presenting petitions to Parliament from parishioners and groups across Somerset and Devon; attending public meetings against slavery; and, speaking out in Parliament.
On the 3rd February 1826, Bishop Law chaired an antislavery meeting in Bath. The meeting was widely reported. The bishop is quoted as showing “how diametrically opposed slavery was to Christianity and to the dictates of humanity”. He also participated in two further antislavery meetings, one again in Bath, and the other in London of the leading campaigning organisation, the Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1826, Law also spoke out in a key House of Lords debate on the Abolition of Slavery. He described slavery as a ‘foul spot’ against ‘all the dictates of justice and humanity’. However, like other churchmen and leading abolitionists at the time (including William Wilberforce), he believed that slaves should not be freed immediately but should first receive religious instruction and education saying: “emancipation of the mind should precede the emancipation of the body” so that they could lead successful free lives.
The 1834 Slavery Abolition Bill freed enslaved people but required them to be apprenticed to their former owners for between 4 and 6 years. The system was almost as bad as slavery. In 1838 Bishop Law had changed his mind from his position in 1826 determining that the apprenticeship of slaves was not fair and just and joined campaigners in demanding the end of the apprenticeship scheme: “How could I be a Christian, or how could I lay down my head in peace, if I should not be ready for the immediate abolition of slavery”. Law didn’t stop there. In 1842 he was Vice president of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade – seeking to abolish slavery elsewhere, particularly America.