Legacies of Slavery
The General Assembly received and approved a report ' The Church of Scotland and the legacies of slavery' outlining the Church of Scotland's legacies of slavery in 2023.
We cannot talk about racism and transforming unjust structures in society without also considering the legacies of Black slavery. The movement of black men, women and children across the Atlantic Ocean as ‘chattel' in the 17th-19th centuries generated vast amounts of wealth and had a profound effect on Scottish society.
The practice of slavery helped to shape a worldview which saw Black people treated as lesser than White people. Many of the offensive attitudes that fuel racist behaviours today stem from ideas and beliefs that were used to justify the transatlantic slave trade.
Researching the legacies of slavery and the Church
The research, conducted between 2021 and 2023, focused on three questions:
- What physical evidence remains in Church of Scotland buildings today that reveals involvement in the transatlantic slave trade?
- To what extent did the Church of Scotland benefit both directly and indirectly from the profits from transatlantic slavery?
- What is the cultural legacy of slavery in the Church today?
The Church of Scotland's association with the enslavement of people involved a broad array of activities. These included ministers benefiting from enslaved labour with the profits used to build architectural features in churches, build financial legacies and the receipt of funds from slave owners for philanthropic causes. Records also point to the presence of ministers on plantations across the Caribbean, ministering to both Scottish workers and enslaved people. The research also highlights the wider economic portrait of 18th century Scotland to demonstrate how the infrastructure and financial systems and trade fortunes were bound so intricately to enslaved labour. This wider context helps us examine the general acceptance slavery would have had for a very long period of time both in the Church and in wider society.
The General Assembly expressed satisfaction immediately following the abolition of slavery in 1834, condemning it as incompatible with religious and moral principles. With this in mind, the research into the Church of Scotland's association with slavery also affirms that acceptance of slavery was not universal in the Church and many of its leaders and members were instrumental in the movement to bring it to an end.
The slavery is incompatible with religious and moral principles.
Attitudes in the Church today – cultural legacy of slavery
In order to better understand the links between the Church's historical legacy and contemporary perspective a consultation with congregations was conducted. Responses to this provided a sense of what many ministers and members of congregations thought the Church should do to acknowledge and act on the Church's legacy of slavery.
In January 2023 a focus group was held involving ministers and congregation members from across Scotland.
Participants acknowledged Scotland's historical ties to transatlantic slavery. Following findings in the research the group spent a lot of time reflecting on the fact that profits from enslaved labour formed a significant sum of capital to support the building of Scottish infrastructure.
The group highlighted the need to dispel the perception of Scotland as a slavery-free country and discussed challenges and discomfort involved in raising awareness without causing division and defensiveness.
Concerning the Church's role in racial justice, participants suggested; revising liturgy and resources, and considering reparations, emphasising engagement with ethnic minorities in the UK and fostering international church relationships with those who live at the sharpest end of this legacy.
Next Steps & Recommendations
The Legacies of Slavery Project Group has recommended five key actions and asked the General Assembly to endorse them. The Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Group are now working on the following recommendations:
- Develop a statement of acknowledgment and apology in collaboration with the Faith Impact Forum, Theological Forum, and the EDI group. This process should involve consultation with the wider Church for a comprehensive approach.
- Establish a permanent acknowledgment of slavery legacies by creating a dedicated page on the Church website.
- Commit to becoming an anti-racist Church, encouraging congregations and presbyteries to engage with topics of historic slavery and racial justice, including marking Racial Justice Sunday.
- Commission appropriate artwork to facilitate conversations on historic slavery and racial justice within congregations and local contexts.
- Support an academic scholarship in collaboration with a Scottish University, providing student support. The scholarship should be open to students affiliated with partner churches in Africa and the Caribbean, with minimal restrictions on the study topic.
The General Assembly accepted these recommendations in May 2023 and work is underway to develop a consultative apology and engagement with Caribbean partners.
This research findings, recommendations and ongoing racial justice programme are also complementary to our position on modern-day slavery and human trafficking. We believe in the value of every individual person, who is made in the image of God, and we know that the sale and exploitation of human beings is contrary to the will of God. The Church of Scotland has joined Christians across the world in the fight against modern slavery, and we support partners and other organisations who are working in rescue, prevention and rehabilitation.