Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

William Knibb: Missionary and Social Prophet

Continuing my irregular series on personal saints and heroes from church history, we come to a figure that has always fascinated me: the early British Baptist missionary to Jamaica, William Knibb (1803-1845). A popular contemporary stereotype is that Christians concerned with global evangelism and missions are tone deaf to questions of social justice and those concerned with the latter have no evangelistic or missionary impulses. Like most stereotypes, there are enough examples of this pattern to explain the prejudice, but, also like most prejudices, closer examination finds plenty of counter-examples. In fact, in Anabaptist and Baptist history, I have often found missionaries to be among the pioneer campaigners for social justice and their communications “back home,” have often served to “raise consciousness” in churches previously unconcerned with a pattern of abuse. (Alas, it is also true that mission agencies have usually wanted missionaries to be apolitical and have had a hard time with the justice-seeking impulses of the missionaries. Mission agency administrators have usually not wanted to “rock the boat” either in the sending country or the host country. Fortunately, many missionaries have taken more risks than the bureaucrats wanted.)

This was definitely the case with Knibb. A former apprentice to Andrew Fuller, printer and Baptist minister-theologian, Knibb and his older brother, Thomas became enthusiastic supporters when Fuller and his friend William Carey launched the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS). Carey is often said to be the first missionary of the modern era, but this is not strictly true. Black Baptists in America had already sent George Lisle (sometimes spelled “Leile”), founding pastor of several of the earliest black Baptist congregations, to Jamaica to minister to the slave and free black populations. Lisle repeatedly wrote the BMS for aid and they sent first Thomas and then, when he died quickly, William Knibb.

Knibb’s ministry among the slave and free black populations led him to become one of the pioneer abolitionists among British Baptists. He worked first to end the slave trade in British colonies, then for emancipation, and finally for equal citizenship–all of which earned him the enmity of the Jamaican planter class and the pro-slavery voices in the British Empire. Knibb, committed to nonviolence, was even falsely accused of fomenting slave rebellions instead of trying to stop them.

Knibb had blind spots–he never questioned whether Britain should be an imperial power in the first place, for instance. And, by today’s standards, he would certainly be judged to have racial prejudices and patnernalistic attitudes. But, for the 19th C., he was a remarkable voice of liberty and equality who referred to slavery as a “monster,” and who even convinced British Baptists to send representatives to Baptists in the American South–where slavery was increasingly accepted despite earlier Baptist opposition–to plead the abolitionist cause. (The British Baptists were not well received and Knibb died the same year the Southern Baptist Convention split from American Baptists in order to defend the right of home missionaries to own slaves!!) Knibb also knew that “Christian” support for slavery and other social injustices created resistance to the spread of the gospel. He argued against those who claimed that the spiritual liberation of new birth had nothing to do with social and political aspirations for liberation. The gospel sets free both souls and bodies.

Hat’s off to William Knibb–may God give us more like him, today.

December 4, 2006 - Posted by | church history, heroes


  1. Michael,

    I say “hats off” to you! Thanks for reminding us of those “little” giants in history who never seem to get a well deserved amount of ink.

    Grace. With that, I am…


    Comment by peter lumpkins | December 4, 2006

  2. […] day!” He died three days later. When the news reached British Baptist missionary to Jamaica William Knibb, a strong abolitionist, he gathered his congregation at the shore, threw chains in the water and […]

    Pingback by A Week in Church History: 23-29 July « Levellers | July 22, 2007

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