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A Word on Behalf of Black Neighbors


Acts 10 & 11


I: — William Wilberforce had long known his vocation to be the emancipation of slaves. He had long expected — and received — frustrations, setbacks and persecution.  As assaults on him intensified and discouragement lapped at him, he received a letter from an eighty-eight year old man.  It turned out to be the last letter the aged fellow would write.         The letter said, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing [‘your glorious enterprise of opposing that execrable villainy’ — slavery] you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God is with you, who can be against you?  Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.”  The letter was signed, “Dear sir, your affectionate servant, John Wesley.” One month later Wesley was dead. His letter was life-giving to Wilberforce, for Wilberforce did “go on in the name of God and in the power of his might”.  Britain abolished the slave-trade in 1807 and ended the practice of slavery in 1833. Wilberforce died in 1833; the news of Britain ’s slavery-ending legislation was brought to him on his deathbed.


Black slaves appeared in the New World in 1619, brought to Virginia on board a Dutch ship. By 1681 there were 2,000 slaves in Virginia , working the tobacco fields. (Later it would be sugar and cotton.) European ships, loaded with liquor, firearms, textiles and trinkets, sailed for Africa where they exchanged their cargo for black people.         The next leg of the voyage, Africa to the new world, found slaves packed into the ship’s hold, chained in place to prevent both rebellion and suicide.  There were no sanitation facilities whatsoever on slave-ships; anyone downwind of a slave-ship could smell it thirty kilometres away.  John Newton, a slave-ship captain whom God’s grace eventually rendered clergyman, hymn-writer and spiritual counsellor, was eager to deliver as much of his black cargo alive in the new world as he could.  To this end Newton occasionally had the slaves brought up on deck (shackled together, of course) while the ship’s crew scraped the accumulation of human sewage out of the hold, then fumigated the hold with tar, tobacco and brimstone, and finally washed it down with vinegar. Even so, at least 20% of the cargo died en route.

After the slaves had been put ashore the ship loaded up with staples, including molasses. The molasses was processed into rum, and the rum was used to purchase slaves on the next trip. By 1860 there were four and a half million slaves in the United States alone. The business of buying and selling slaves was so lucrative by now that slave-trading was more profitable than trading in the agricultural items that the slaves produced.


Then must be it be concluded that the heart of the white person is extraordinarily cruel? Are white people fallen creatures who are extraordinarily fallen?  Is white rapacity unparalleled?   No. While white enslavement of black people is without excuse, the first black slaves in Africa weren’t enslaved by white Europeans but by black fellow-Africans. For centuries tribal warfare in Africa had yielded countless prisoners of war. Prisoners of war are useless as long as they are merely standing around in a compound. Since they have to be fed anyway, why not turn them into slaves and get some useful work out of them? The first black slaves anywhere in the world were black prisoners of war who had been enslaved by fellow-blacks in Africa . The prophet Jeremiah writes, “The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt. Who can understand it?” No one can understand the human heart, just because it’s so desperately corrupt.

When white Europeans appeared who were willing to exchange trade goods for slaves, African tribes competed with each other to sell their prisoner of war slaves for export to the New World .


The first black slave to be transported directly from Africa to Canada was Olivier Le Jeune, assigned a French name while crossing the Atlantic . The first, he was by no means the last; slaves were regularly imported from the West Indies and from New England; by 1759 there were 1132 slaves in New France.  Slavery, however, didn’t flourish in New France . For one reason, the cold weather was exceedingly hard on someone from a hot country; for another, the economy never flourished in New France, since France ’s principal export to New France was soldiers, and soldiers, however skilled militarily, do little for a country economically. With the British defeat of the French in 1760 even more slaves were brought to Canada . Like slaves everywhere, they were restricted to doing the most menial, dehumanizing work – and thereupon they were accused, according to stereotype, of lacking independence, lacking initiative, lacking education, suited only for servility.

The American Revolutionary War found United Empire Loyalists flocking to Canada and bringing black slaves with them.  In addition many slaves appeared in Canada who weren’t attached to Loyalists but who were simple fugitives, hoping that the bondage they were fleeing in the United States they wouldn’t find in Canada . There appeared in Canada as well 3,500 free black loyalists; they had been American-owned slaves and had been granted their freedom by the British when they sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. In fact they had been promised the same privileges and rights as the white Loyalists. These free black loyalists settled in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia . As government officials found themselves overwhelmed at having to process so many newcomers at once, delays mounted in the assigning of land-grants.  Needless to say, the people who had previously been at the bottom of the social order (if they were even in the social order) found themselves at the end of the line-up: the result was that the black newcomers who had been promised land as loyalists were granted no land at all, for the most part; the few who did get land were assigned land that was virtually useless. All they could do was deliver themselves into the hands of white people eager to exploit them.  At the same time the black victims of broken promises were now segregated in churches and schools or even excluded from churches and schools. All of this was rendered the more distressing in a class-conscious society whose rigid social distinctions were rooted in centuries of European prejudice.

Fifty years after the American Revolutionary War the War of 1812 broke out. Thousands of black American slaves fled to the British for protection.  Once again they were promised land and freedom in Canada . Formally known as “Black Refugees”, the first of them arrived in Halifax in 1813. They were welcomed enthusiastically as a large supply of cheap labour.  Immediately following the War of 1812, however, a severe economic recession, along with a sudden influx of white immigrants from Britain , pushed the black people even farther down the social order and removed the little economic opportunity they had had.  In 1815 legislation was passed in Nova Scotia banning further black immigration. The British parliament overturned this legislation, but the mood of white Canadians was clear. Their mood didn’t improve when part of their taxes was used to keep black people from starving.

In Ontario black people were used to construct roads and clear land.  When in 1793 the Provincial Assembly attempted to phase out slavery in Ontario , objectors insisted that cheap labour (i.e., free labour) was still needed. By the 1840s poor Irish immigrants were competing with blacks for the most menial jobs; at the same time farm-mechanization eliminated much of the work that black people had always done.

While Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833 ( France in 1848) slavery continued to thrive in the United States . In 1850 the USA passed the Fugitive Slave Act, promising even harsher treatment for runaway blacks and anyone who assisted them.  Not surprisingly, many more slaves fled to Ontario , whose black population now numbered 40,000.  In the same year (1850) Ontario reacted by passing the Common School Act.  This act permitted separate schools for blacks.  If no separate school existed, then black children could be made to attend class at separate times from white children, or be made to sit on segregated benches. We must note that while black/white segregation was legal in Ontario only in the school system, de facto segregation occurred everywhere else (e.g., black people in Ontario could neither vote nor sit on juries; interracial marrying was enough to provoke a riot).

In the 1850s black people in California who had never been slaves ( California never was a slave-state) nevertheless found themselves set upon.  Seven hundred of them moved to Victoria , B.C., in 1858. These people, never having been slaves, possessed employable skills, business experience and investment capital — all of which were put to use immediately in Victoria . But the city of Victoria also accommodated white Americans who spoke loudly of annexing Victoria to the USA . The black people, fearing annexation, formed the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company to defend the city (not merely themselves) against American aggression.  Despite their loyalty to Britain , and despite their moderate affluence, they found churches that allowed them to sit only in segregated sections, public institutions that refused to serve them, and theatres that permitted them to sit only in the balcony. The Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company was forbidden to parade or take part in public ceremonies. Physical intimidation was rife — and all of this in a society that accorded blacks full legal equality.

Violence always simmered beneath the surface.  Violence erupted in the Maritimes in the 1780s when a black preacher baptized white Christians, in St. Catharines in 1852 when blacks formed a militia unit, in Chatham ( Ontario ) in 1860 when a black man married a white woman, in Victoria in 1860 when black people left the balcony of a theatre and sat in ground-floor seats.


After Confederation (1867) huge numbers of white immigrants came to Canada . This influx rendered the black minority that much smaller a minority, with the result that their social and economic situation worsened.  Then in 1907 living conditions worsened for black people in Oklahoma . Between 1910 and 1912 1,300 immigrated to Canada . They settled in Alberta and Saskatchewan . Immediately white people on the prairies demanded legislation to preserve the Canadian West for Caucasians. Public petitions and municipal resolutions from all three Prairie Provinces urged Ottawa to end all further black immigration and segregate all black people already residing in the prairies. Newspapers in Ottawa , Toronto and Montreal supported the demand for legislation.  The Canadian government prepared the legislation but never enacted it out of fear of damaging relations with the USA . Less formal means were deployed to prohibit black people from entering Canada ; for instance, the physical and financial qualifications for black immigrants were made insuperably difficult, while Canadian immigration officials who disqualified blacks were surreptitiously rewarded.  The result was predictable: by 1912 all black immigration to Canada had been halted without Canada ’s ever having declared a racist policy formally.

Despite the prejudiced treatment they had received from Canada ’s people and government, black men volunteered for overseas service in World War I. Commanding officers were permitted to reject black volunteers, and most did just that. When black men persisted they were allowed to form a black battalion in 1916 — but were not allowed to fight the enemy.  They were allowed only to perform auxiliary services for white troops. Canadian soldiers and Canadian civilians attacked them with impunity.

After the war black people found they could get only the most menial jobs. Sleeping-car porters were almost exclusively black, for instance, while dining-car waiters were exclusively white. Even the federal government permitted racial restrictions in hiring and promotion practices within the civil service.  Housing discrimination abounded.  In fact when I was a teenager in the late 1950s I knew that black players on Toronto ’s professional minor league baseball team regularly responded to advertisements for rental accommodation only to be turned away when they appeared in person.

There’s a point about all of this that we must note carefully.  Canada (after 1867) has never enacted race-legislation; nevertheless, race-discrimination has been upheld by Canadian courts as legally acceptable.         In 1919 a Quebec appellate court deemed it legal for a theatre to restrict blacks to inferior seating. In 1924 Ontario courts upheld a restaurant which refused to serve blacks.  In 1941 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Montreal Forum Tavern in its refusal to serve blacks.  The courts consistently upheld racial discrimination as legal in a country that boasted of having no racial legislation.

Improvement appeared in the 1940s and 50s as most provinces and some municipalities passed laws against discrimination.  In 1945 Ontario courts declared that racial discrimination was contrary to public policy. The Canadian Bill of Rights and the Human Rights Commission were steps in the direction of justice. Passing legislation, however, does nothing to alter attitudes in individuals.  Black people, faced with persistent discrimination, have formed the Black United Front in Nova Scotia and the National Black Coalition of Canada.  Studies undertaken by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have revealed that most employment agencies will agree, if asked by prospective employers, to screen out non-white job applicants.  Once hired, black people as a group appear at the lowest end of the wage scale without regard for training or experience. An Ontario Human Rights Commission study has disclosed that blacks who hold a Master of Business Administration degree earn 25% less than whites with the same degree and the same professional experience.


On the 10th of February, 1806 , a Toronto newspaper carried the following advertisement:  “For sale. Two slaves. Peggy, aged 40, adequate cook, $150. Her son, Jupiter, aged 15, $200.” Two hundred dollars for a fifteen year old black boy was a great deal of money in 1806. Whoever purchased these slaves was clearly expecting enormous work from them, since a horse would have cost far less.  We must never forget too that the last segregated school in Ontario was shut down as recently as 1965.


II: — I noticed in the “Children’s Moment” part of our service this morning how nervous the adults were lest they be asked to eat snake soup.

If you are queasy about eating snake soup you will understand how the apostle Peter felt when he had his dream or vision of the sheet let down by God, and inside the sheet were “clean” animals (those he could eat) and “unclean”, those he would never eat. As the sheet came closer and his aversion grew, God spoke to him: “What God has cleansed you must not call unclean”.

A short time later three messengers came from Cornelius to tell Peter that Cornelius wanted to see him.         Cornelius was a gentile and an officer in the Roman army.  He was also what was known as a “God-fearer”.         God-fearers were gentile men and women who had become disgusted with the pagan religiosity which surrounded them, together with its immorality; they were attracted to the monotheism and ethics of Judaism.  They remained on the fringe of the synagogue, however, inasmuch as they didn’t conform to the dietary laws of Judaism or submit to circumcision.
Cornelius sends word that he wants to see Peter, a Jewish believer in Jesus, and Peter responds. It was a miracle of grace — nothing less than a miracle — that Peter went to the home of Cornelius, because Jews never entered the home of a gentile. After all, every morning a Jewish man thanked God that he hadn’t been born a gentile. No help was to be given a gentile woman in difficulty during childbirth, because to help her would only add one more gentile to the world.  And a gentile man, uncircumcised, was spoken of as a dog.

And then the God-ordained dream/vision and the God-spoken word: “What God has cleansed you must not call unclean”.  Whereupon Peter goes to the home of Cornelius and defiles himself (according to the Judaism of that era) as he eats with a gentile.  Peter commends the gospel to the Roman officer, with the result that Cornelius and his household joyfully embrace Jesus Christ in faith.   The conclusion of the story is found in Acts 11:18: Peter and his fellow Jewish-Christians “glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.’”

Do we grasp how crucial this episode was in the history of the young church? Apart from this episode you and I wouldn’t be here today.  Apart from this episode the gospel would have been confined to Judaism. Let me tell you how crucial Luke, the writer of Acts, regards this episode.  Luke wrote Acts in an era when there were no books (a book being a convenient, cheap way of bringing together a vast amount of detail).  People wrote on papyrus scrolls, papyrus being made from the pith of the bulrush plant. Scrolls were exceedingly cumbersome. A scroll couldn’t be longer than 35 feet (unrolled) or else it couldn’t be handled. Because of its bulk and its cost and the fact of its being hand-lettered, a scroll contained relatively little (compared to a modern book): you were very careful what you put into it, there being space only for what was crucial. Acts, for instance, would have taken up an entire scroll.  Luke had reams of material he could have put in and no doubt wanted to put in; yet so crucial was the episode of Peter and Cornelius that Luke uses two precious chapters in order to tell the story twice.  “Then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life”.

When Cornelius came to faith in Jesus Christ and found himself invigorated by the Holy Spirit his first reaction was to kneel before Peter as a sign of reverence; after all, Peter was the spokesperson of that gospel which brings repentant people like Cornelius from death to life. But Peter refused to accept such subservience from Cornelius: “Stand up”, Peter said, “for I am only a man, just like you.”

In Christ there is no subservience; within the fellowship of Christ there is no grovelling. By his grace God grants repentance of sin, faith in Jesus Christ, and obedience to the master; by his grace God grants this to any and all, regardless of racial distinction. Any and all whom God brings to repentance, faith and obedience thereafter embrace each other without distinction.  After all, everyone whom the cross has drawn knows that the ground at the foot of the cross is level.  Peter says, “What God has cleansed I must not call unclean”.  Paul says, “All Christians are one in Christ Jesus…in him there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free”.


We must note one last feature of Peter’s episode in Acts 10 and 11. According to Luke, Peter sets off for the home of Cornelius, saying, “The Spirit told me to go; six brethren accompanied me, and we seven entered the man’s house”.         According to Egyptian law (which first century Jews knew well) seven witnesses were necessary to prove a case.         According to Roman law (which first century Jews also knew well, since they were governed by it) seven seals were needed to authenticate a legal document. When the seven Jewish Christians enter the gentile home of Cornelius and break down centuries of deadly prejudice, the fact of the seven witnesses renders the case proved. It stands proved and sealed that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free. It stands proved and sealed that what God has cleansed we are not to call unclean.

This morning you and I and all Christ’s people aren’t charged with proving or sealing anything. We are charged simply with living, day by day, so as to demonstrate the truth of what has been proved and sealed already, never yielding any support to those who want to contradict it.


                                                                       Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                       

March 2007