Protestant Profiles # 19: Granville Sharp [and the British abolitionists]

Granville Sharp (1735 – 1813)

granville sharp

Born: Durham, England
Role: Champion of human rights and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire; Classical grammarian (and contender for Christ’s divinity against heretics in that capacity)
Emphases: The Divinity of Christ; the human dignity of slaves
Protested against: Slavery; Socinianism; Catholic influence in Church and State

Most of this profile is adapted from a biographical sermon on Sharp’s life, in relation to Titus 2:11-14. As a result, it is longer and more detailed than some of the recent installments. 

When it comes to selecting a representative from the notable Christian figures involved in the British Abolition movement, there are a handful that possess a kind of “X Factor” that makes them noteworthy in the timeless sense. William Wilberforce is the most famous and pushed the relevant legislation through the British Parliament after years of setbacks and defeats. Hannah More wrote poems addressing this contentious social issue in “one of the earliest propaganda campaigns for social reform in English history”[1]. John Newton, a slave-trader-turned-gospel-minister was a powerful spiritual companion to the leading abolitionist campaigners and author of America’s favourite hymn Amazing Grace. And Olaudah Equiano came from the opposite end of slavery to Newton – having once been owned as the property of men, but becoming the leading black voice against slavery in the UK in the years following his emancipation.


Newton_jOlaudah_Equiano,_frontpiece_from_The_Interesting_Narrative_of_the_Life_of_Olaudah_Equiano (1)

TL – BR: William Wilberforce, Hannah More, John Newton, Olaudah Equiano

Any of these figures are worthy of a dedicated profile and yet this series can only hone in on one Protestant opponent of nefarious 18th century human trafficking.

Granville Sharp was considered the elder statesman of the abolition movement – the “father” or “grandfather” of the cause that Wilberforce and others would take up with such zeal. His “X Factor” was that he so thoroughly loved God and his neighbour that he would work tirelessly to uphold the glory of His King and the rights, well-being and dignity of his fellow man. This is displayed in his defense of the biblical teaching on Christ’s deity and his advocacy for slaves and others whose suffering moved him to action.

A self-taught scholar and champion for Christ’s honour

As the grandson of an Archbishop of York in the Church of England, one would expect Granville Sharp to have had a privileged upbringing. But he was a younger son in a large family and lacked the educational opportunities his two elder brothers received. Yet he was raised in a devout Christian home and was privileged to know God’s truth from a young age.

But Granville’s privilege of knowing God and the teachings of Jesus would drive him to improve his knowledge in areas where he’d lacked education. And in turn, he seemed apt at utilising whatever new knowledge he gained to help him live more effectively as a Christian.

This was demonstrated early on in his career, while working as an apprentice for a linen draper. One of his work colleagues was a Socinian – a member of a group that denied fundamental Christian teachings on Jesus and the Trinity. This young man would debate Granville on those issues and others, and told him that his positions came from his lack of ability to comprehend the original Greek of the New Testament. In response to this, Granville began diligent private study of NT Greek over many years and paid careful attention to how to read the passages dealing with Jesus being fully divine. He also studied Hebrew after some discussions with a Jewish colleague, who likewise suggested that Granville misunderstood the Old Testament prophecies relating to Christ due to language.

Despite never receiving formal tuition in either language he became basically an expert in both and discovered a grammatical rule that’s still taught to students of New Testament Greek today. The “Granville Sharp Rule” as it has come to be known, addresses the grammatical issues in several key passages of the New Testament which Trinitarian Christians cite as evidence for the deity of Christ, while unitarian sects offer alternative interpretations of the grammar that produces wildly different theology.

Without going into technical detail that would be lost on readers with no acquaintance with NT Greek, Sharp’s contribution is key in passages such as Titus 2:13, which refers to “our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (the dispute being over whether this refers to one Person, i.e. Jesus Christ, who is [both] our Great God and Saviour OR two persons, i.e. 1) Our Great God & 2) [our] Saviour Jesus Christ) and 2 Peter 1:1, which refers to “the righteousness of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” Sharp proved convincingly that in such passages, the two titles in Greek refer to the same person: Jesus.

His important work has not silenced cultish opponents of Christ’s divinity, but Sharp’s rule gives greater confidence to orthodox Christian students of the New Testament in interpreting these crucial passages; provides a possible avenue of correction for those who have been led astray by false teaching employing these texts and increases the condemnation of those who reject the biblical teaching when confronted with their errors. Sharp provides a model for serious biblical scholarship motivated by a love for Christ and the truth concerning Him.

A tireless champion for the oppressed

When he was thirty – and already accomplished in his language capabilities – certain circumstances caused Granville’s life to take an unanticipated turn.

His brother William was a doctor, who allocated time each morning to provide medical treatment to the poorer members of their community. One day a black African slave who had been brutally pistol-whipped and cast out by his master turned up at William’s house for treatment. Granville met this man, whose name was Jonathan Strong, and learned of his situation. The Sharp brothers provided care for Strong and got him into hospital where he spent around four months recovering. Afterwards, they assisted him in finding employment in the services of a local pharmacist and his family.

sharp strong.jpg

Two years later, Granville received a letter from a man interned at a local prison. It turned out to be the same slave he and his brother had helped out earlier. He had been kidnapped in a plot hatched by his former master and was being sold on to someone else for £30 (maybe around $6000 Australian dollars today). Granville managed to get Strong released from prison by the Lord Mayor of London and set free – but his master, a lawyer named David Lisle sued Granville and his brother James, for depriving him of his lawful property. The slave – he maintained – had always belonged to him.

The odds were against the Sharps. Their legal counsel told them that the legal opinion of the day, including that of the Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, was that slaves do not become free upon coming to England and that therefore they lacked the grounds for a solid defence against the charges. With no realistic prospect of victory or even being able to secure professional legal representation – the Sharps were not in an optimistic situation.

But Granville, in a step of great boldness and faith in God, did not look for an easy way out of the situation, but instead, in his own words he was compelled “to make a hopeless attempt at self-defence” – despite never having opened a book on the subject of law in his entire life. But something amazing happened.

Over the course of two years, with the prospect of legal defeat and financial loss constantly hanging over his head, Granville Sharp made a dedicated, in depth study of English law – especially in matters that related to the entitlement of liberty belonging to subjects of the British Crown.

And after hours of diligent study, the man who discovered a principle in Greek grammar to use in defense of the truth about his Saviour, also discovered a principle in English law that he could use to defend the right to liberty of a black man made in the image of the God Granville loved and served.

Granville published a tract titled “On the injustice of tolerating slavery in England,” which he circulated to various eminent legal professionals, including those involved in his case. In it, he presented a compelling case against the way the legal status of slaves had been regarded by the courts in recent times and argued strongly that slaves were human beings on English soil and thus were entitled to all the liberty and legal rights of any other subject of the King. He also went to great lengths to demonstrate that slavery contradicted English law & that the supposed rights of masters over their slaves would never stand up in court.

His adversary’s lawyers were too intimidated to proceed with the case and the slave-owner was fined by the courts for wasting their time. Against all odds, Granville had triumphed and Jonathan Strong remained a free man.

jonathan strong.jpg
Artistic depiction of Granville’s intervention on behalf of slaves

Granville’s “good works” related to abolishing slavery included using his time, energy and money to assist black slaves in having their cases heard in court. While he succeeded in securing the liberty of several men through legal action, he had also began seeking opportunities to fundamentally challenge the entire status quo regarding slavery in Britain. He did this by writing, sending private letters to key members of society he felt could do something about the evils being suffered by slaves. But he also published tracts which he hoped would continue to influence members of the legal profession as his earlier work had, while also affecting attitudes towards slavery in the wider society.

His tracts presented strong cases for slaves’ welfare, not only based on English justice, but also on biblical grounds. Granville was convinced that God had judged slave-holding societies in the past and would do so with Britain and her colonies if there was no repentance. While many sought to justify slavery on biblical grounds and many non-believers continue to attack the Bible’s supposed endorsement of slavery today – Granville forcefully and consistently used the Old and New Testaments to condemn the existence of slavery in a professedly Christian society. All would have to answer to God for failing to love their neighbour as themselves and for subjecting Africans to a harsh form of slavery that went well beyond the kind of servitude that was temporarily permitted in Israelite society.

But he also contributed directly to many great developments in the fight against slavery. In 1772, he was the driving force behind a legal victory in the landmark Somerset Case. The result of the case was the release of James Somerset a slave originally from America who had been rescued by court injunction in the midst of being sent from England to Jamaica by his master for resale. The court found that there were no grounds in English law for the man to be regarded as enslaved to his master now he was under British legal jurisdiction. This didn’t mean immediate freedom for all slaves in Britain, but in principle it deprived slave-masters of a strong case for ownership of their slaves if ever brought to court.

In 1783, he learned of a horrific massacre that occurred at sea when the crew of a slave-trading vessel threw around 140 slaves overboard so they could claim them under insurance as jettisoned cargo. Granville failed in his attempts to have the ship captain prosecuted for mass murder, but he used the horrid nature of this event to awaken the British public about the horrors of the slave trade.


The Zong Massacre, which disturbed Sharp profoundly

In 1787 he co-founded and became the inaugural chairman of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This group worked hard to change public opinion about slavery, but also made a concerted effort to see legislative change in parliament. That change came in 1807, when Granville was 71 years old. British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, which prohibited all slave trading within the British Empire and was enforced by the Royal Navy.

Lasting legacy

While Granville Sharp died twenty years before the total abolition of slavery itself was achieved through the efforts of William Wilberforce and others in 1833 – he had provided both the groundwork and the inspiration for many of the men and women who fought and won that battle in their day. Through the various causes and societies he was involved in promoting or even initiating – he had shown himself zealous for good works in every way. A man who loved God’s truth and was determined to see it understood properly and applied to the benefit of his fellow men.

During his 78 years he had glorified God and sought the good of others, through his studies, through his writing, through his advocacy, through his philanthropy and through involvement not only in the cause of oppressed Africans, but in organisations like the British and Foreign Bible Society and at least two mission societies. In the final year of his life, he also helped found the Protestant Union in Britain, which sought to preserve British political and religious freedoms in the face of a possible Catholic resurgence in the nation (which he understood to preclude freedom to non-Catholics).

Granville Sharp’s life challenges us to think about what really matters in life and helps us consider how to live in light of the glorious truths of the gospel.

Some Christians think a lot about theology – but are putting very little time, energy and money into things that help the spiritual and physical welfare of their neighbours. Others care about social issues and try to do lots of stuff, but lack a deep appreciation of who God is and lack the ability to explain the gospel and important biblical truths for themselves and for the benefit of others. Others profess Christ but don’t do very much of either.

Granville Sharp shows us that what matters most in life is to know who Jesus is and what He’s done for us. He shows us that devotion to better understanding the Bible and how to share its truth with others is not simply the territory of Bible college students. He shows us that the goal of all our studies should be to glorify God by acquiring knowledge that can be utilised in seeking the good of others. He shows us what being “zealous for good works” in response to the gospel might look like.

Rather than being daunted by Granville Sharp’s obvious brilliance, we can draw inspiration from his determination. Ours is an age where precious, central biblical truths need defending and Christians need to be strengthened in the confidence that they are holding fast to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude v. 3). It’s also a time when human trafficking remains an enormous problem and Protestants ought to be protesting about the wicked treatment of our fellow human beings.

Sharp has shown us the way: love for Christ, love for our neighbours and hard work and determination to serve the interests of those we love.

[1] Anne Stott, Hannah More, 83.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s