Savage systems of the 18th and 19th centuries and their impact on the progress of 21st century British Methodism. 

By the Revd Dr Kennedy Gondongwe Ph D, LLB Hons.

Please note This article features historic language that some may find upsetting. The words are used in the context of their time.)

“The Parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. Ezekiel 18 v 1-4


The world’s vilest savage systems to haunt world peace in the last 400 years are slavery and colonialism. It is a settled matter in scholarship that these savage systems have had an immediate and devastating effect to the people of colour and their successive generations. The case of George Floyd in the United States of America, the case of Stephen Lawrence in the United Kingdom and the development of the Black Lives Matter Movement across the globe has helped to amplify the resultant issues. What remains totally or partly unearthed is the extent to which these savage systems impacted not only on the practices of the Methodist Church but also on its theology and democratic processes. This write-up will also examine how these savage systems have impacted firstly the former colonies and their institutions and secondly it will examine how it has impacted Britain’s Multiculturalism and the Government’s attitude towards refugees.


Slavery is defined as a form of institutionalised domination of the black people who did not have ownership of property or birthrights. These people were subject to control in all aspects of their lives with no enforceable limits. The phenomenon of slavery was a global crisis.  The philosophy behind this heinous act was the belief that black people were inferior to their white counterparts. In London there was a popular belief that black people where inferior to whites and learned men of the 18th century almost without academic dissent were unanimous in their thinking that Africans were intellectually inferior to Europeans. Armed with this philosophy, slavery became prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was mainly practiced in North America and in Europe. The target of slavery were the black people.  “Black” is variously used to apply to African, Afro-Caribbean, and African American persons, and / or to apply to all persons of Negro descent or people of mixed Negro and Caucasian and other ethnic descent. Contemporary sources also included as “black” the Lascar seamen and other persons originating from South Asia: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

In the United Kingdom slavery became a major source of production and development. The same is true for the United States and other places within Europe. John Wesley first came face to face with slavery when he visited Georgia in the United States of America in 1736/7. Further to this, John Wesley preached against slavery on various occasions including in Bristol, one of the entry points for slaves.    In 1774, he wrote a book entitled “Thoughts upon Slavery” and in this book he bemoaned the abuses associated with slavery. I am aware that over the years the Methodist Church has been opposing, not only the old practice of slavery, but also modern-day slavery in all its forms.


Colonialism is best described in the famous letter of King Leopold II. This letter was written to the Reverends, Fathers, and Compatriots. In this letter, the King of Belgium laid bare the sole purpose of the presence of missionaries, fathers, and compatriots in the Congo. He wrote:

“Reverends, fathers, and dear compatriots. The task that is given to fulfill is very delicate and requires much tact. You will go certainly to evangelise but your evangelisation must inspire above Belgium interest. Your principal objective in our mission in the Congo is never to teach the Nigga to know God, this they know already.  Have courage to admit it, you are not going to teach them what they know already, your essential role is to facilitate the task of administration and industrials which means you will go to interpret the gospel in the way it will be best to protect your interests in the rest of the world. For these things you must keep watch on. Disinterests our savages from the richness that is plenty in the ground…”

Whereas the above is true in respect of the Congo. This scenario symbolises what was happening throughout the continent and even beyond. The colonial project was about primitive accumulation of natural resources. Unfortunately, missionaries and fathers were also implicated in this international looting of grand scale. This has given credence to the view that colonialists and missionaries were different sides of the same coin. They were strange bedfellows. In many parts of Africa and Asia missionaries were seen as torch bearers for the colonialists. This was true for Rhodesia and certainly true for other parts of Southern Africa. On the other hand, it must be noted that there were indeed some missionaries who stood by the indigenous people and abhorred their subjugation and domination and therefore to generalise the attitudes of missionaries is not only impoverishing but it is misleading.

Whereas the essence of slavery was the export of human capital from the colonies to the citadel of the slave master, it is important to note that colonialism was about the stealing of natural resources, intellectual property and the potential of all colonies involved. The response of British Methodism to this was somehow ambivalent. This is because some of its missionaries served as logistical officers for the colonial army and were instrumental in the subjugation of the people of colour.  This paper has already pointed out that some of the Methodist Missionaries were always on the side of the indigenous people and in the case of Zimbabwe the name of Rev John White stands out.

The impact of the savage systems on colonies and their institutions

The savage systems left a legacy of poverty in the colonies where these systems were deployed. They introduced a new form of economy that depended not on traditional riches such as cattle and agricultural produce but anchored to gold and the world markets. This has left the indigenous people very poor hence their current movement to the western world. Apart from this, the savage systems left a legacy of violence, and it created despots. Most African leaders suffered persecution under the hands of the colonialists and upon their countries being granted independence, the individual leaders got a sense of entitlement to power, hence their clinging to power. All this is a legacy of the savage systems. When Africans and other people from former colonies seek to relocate to the western world, they would be running away from what the western world created albeit unintentionally.  Additionally, it is sad to mention that primitive accumulation is continuing in former colonies, and it is a legacy of the savage systems. This explains why very few people are rich in Africa and yet the rest are wallowing in poverty.

On the religious front, it is noteworthy that the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe was for a long time a synod of British Methodism. The system established in Zimbabwean Methodism was the same system operating in the British Methodist Church. This relationship translated in several missionaries serving in Zimbabwe, and it also explains the current huge presence in Britain of the Zimbabwe trained Methodist ministers. Therefore, the savage systems produced a universal Church hence the need to have in British Methodism systems that gives equal opportunities to all.  

The impact of savage systems on British Methodism

The Methodist Church in Britain was impacted by the savage systems in both positive and negative ways. The positivity of these savage systems includes the spreading of Methodism in colonies. In many African Countries Methodism was planted on the strings of slavery and colonialism. In South Africa Methodism was introduced by British soldiers stationed at the Cape of Good Hope. In Gambia Methodism was brought by freed Slaves. In Nigeria Methodism was introduced by slaves who had escaped from their captivity. In Liberia Methodism was introduced by freed slaves sent by the American Colonisation Society. In Britain, and certainly in the United States of America too, descendants of slaves became strong members of the church, and all these are good things flowing out of a very bad practice.   

The major negative consequence of the savage systems is the growth of racism, violence and ethnicism. The Methodist Church in Britain responded to this scourge by adopting the theology of imago dei or image of God. This entail that all were created in the image of God. It also developed concepts such as Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and unconscious bias. This was a way to mitigate the effects of societal diversity. We are aware that even within a monoculture concept such as Equality, Diversity and Inclusion as well as unconscious bias would be needed, but we are also aware that their need and purpose was magnified by the diversity of the population of the people called Methodists. The trajectory of the Methodist Church in Britain is clear, and it must be supported by all who care for an egalitarian society. It is always the most viable way to reverse the effects of “Privilege” as well as to address the historical injustices and imbalances.

We are aware that some sections of our community of faith question the correctness of these interventions. Their view is that these interventions interfere with democracy within the Church and by pushing for inclusion of people from the minority communities at every level of the Church, the church is compromising on quality. To argue this way is not only to be ahistorical but it’s a sure sign of a Church that seeks to erase the memory of its people. Additionally, to erase people’s memory is equal to committing genocide on a huge scale.

In the quest to establish a church for everyone, the Methodist Church in Britain has established solidarity circles for race, disability, gender and LGBTQ2+. This must be commended, and the call is for these solidarity circles not to confine themselves to issues of solidarity but move a step further and embrace peer review processes to ensure that within these groups’ issues of ethnicity and power dynamics remain under check.  

Savage systems and their impact on the British wider society

At the wider British Society level, the savage systems have contributed to the growth of multiculturalism. The British Government’s position as articulated by its Secretary of State for Home Department, Rt Hon Suella Braverman is that multiculturism has failed in Britain. Haunted by the influx of immigrants, the British Government is of the view that the United Nations Convention on Refuges has lost its relevance. I want to believe that the Secretary of State for the Home Department is right, especially when she looks at things from the economic point of view and from the vantage point of a 21st century individual.  It is refreshing to note that the government’s position is not necessarily the Church’s position.  The exhortation is for the Methodist Church in Britain to however look at things holistically and this includes looking at things from the rear. Black History month offers the Church an opportunity to reflect on its past and dream about its future.


Whilst the savage systems are a sad reality of our society, we must all know that when the ghosts of the past stand in the path of justice while worse off humanity crank their medieval chains, the proper course is for the church to pass through them undeterred.  The church needs to develop a transformative theology as well as entrench its prophetic vocation. The church must continue to operate from a theological bases and not from a sociological basis. Sociology would require the Church to adapt to the sociological realities whereas theology would require the Church to transform the sociological realities and it is only through this that the Church will be regarded as not offering “cheap” grace.