Four Lessons from a Calvinist Slave
Gleanings from the Life of Olaudah Equiano
Your life is not that hard. Not compared to this.
In 1756, Olaudah Equiano and his sister were kidnapped from their home in Nigeria. They were separated a few months later, never to see each other again. In shackles, Equiano walked several hundred miles along the West African coast, sold from one trader to the next, until he eventually ended up in a European vessel set to sail for America.
Then came the horrifying Middle Passage across the Atlantic. In his own words,
The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. . . .
This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. (Chapter 2)
And all this even before Equiano turned twelve. To learn more in detail about the rest of his pilgrimage, read his Interesting Narrative, which richly rewards the effort. To whet your appetite, here are four lessons learned from his life, relevant for all of us.
1. God Is at Work in the Tiniest of Things
A sparrow does not fall to the ground except by God’s will and the hairs of our heads are all numbered. (Matthew 10:29–30)
These things we know intellectually, but we could know them so much better in our hearts. Equiano traced the hand of God ordering everything even in the movements of the minutest particles of dirt.
While I was in this ship an incident happened, which, though trifling, I beg leave to relate, as I could not help taking particular notice of it, and considering it then as a judgment of God. One morning a young man was looking up to the fore-top, and in a wicked tone, common on shipboard, damned his eyes about something. Just at the moment some small particles of dirt fell into his left eye, and by the evening it was very much inflamed. The next day it grew worse; and within six or seven days he lost it. (Chapter 3)
Equiano’s God searches out his path and his lying down and is acquainted with all his ways (Psalms 139:3). What comfort, confidence, zeal, and hope must he have had in his daily walk with such a belief. No other view of providence would do in the trenches of a slave’s daily warfare. There are no Arminians in the foxhole of Middle Passage. No, the only God who would do in such trauma instantly punished the foul-mouthed sailor by commanding a particle of dirt. In like manner, this same God is able to free Equiano, upon request, or relieve his misery if he so pleases.
2. Self-Examination Has a Role to Play
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5)
Equiano’s narrative is replete with instances where he examines his heart, speech, and actions. In one case, he laments his presumption in swearing that as soon as he reached London he would spend the day in rambling and sports. Smitten by conscience, he quickly ran to the throne of grace where he acknowledged his transgression and “poured out his soul in unfeigned repentance.” How beautiful is the tender conscience of a healthy Christian.
In another case, Equiano became irritated while pumping water on deck and cursed the ship. Later that night they were shipwrecked.
All my sins stared me in the face; and especially, I thought that God had hurled his direful vengeance on my guilty head for cursing the vessel on which my life depended. My spirits at this forsook me, and I expected every moment to go to the bottom: I determined if I should still be saved that I would never swear again. (Chapter 8)
The best case of self-examination, however, is the one that eventually would lead to his salvation. Protracted over several months, Equiano is in a deep state of repentance. Finally, one day in October, God opened his eyes.
The Scriptures became an unsealed book, I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law, which came with its full force to my conscience. . . . I saw the Lord Jesus Christ in his humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, sin, and shame. I then clearly perceived that by the deeds of the law no flesh living could be justified. . . . It was given me at that time to know what it was to be born again (John 3:5).
A sinner would never see the free grace offered in Jesus, except he knows that it is something he is in need of. How would he know unless he first looks into his wicked heart — unless he first examines himself? Self-examination is an ingredient in the start of our Christian pilgrimage and the sustaining of it. To truly pray after the way Jesus taught us, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), we must continually be examining our hearts.
3. Christ Can Give Contentment in Horrible Circumstances
Godliness with contentment is great gain. (1 Timothy 6:6)
We should be clear that Equiano did not accept slavery as being morally right. In fact, he eventually bought his own freedom back from his master and went on to become a major player in the abolitionist movement, this very narrative being perhaps his most valuable contribution.
The fruit of contentment evident in his life lies in the way he lived day by day before his heavenly master while under the power of slavery. Equiano determined early on that he would attempt to run away only if he felt he was mistreated by his master. He also decided that he would attempt to buy his freedom only if he could do it honestly. Although slavery is evil and ought to be vigorously combated, Equiano also acknowledged God’s providence in assigning him his station in life and considered it as a sacred calling.
As I was from early years a predestinarian, I thought whatever fate had determined must ever come to pass; and therefore, if ever it were my lot to be freed, nothing could prevent me, although I should at present see no means or hope to obtain my freedom; on the other hand, if it were my fate not to be freed I never should be so, and all my endeavors for that purpose would be fruitless. In the midst of these thoughts, I therefore looked up with prayers anxiously to God for my liberty; and at the same time, I used every honest means, and endeavored all that was possible on my part to obtain it. . . .
I met with buyers, white men, who imposed on me as in other places. Notwithstanding, I was resolved to have fortitude, thinking no lot or trial too hard when kind Heaven is the rewarder. (Chapter 6)
Equiano took his work seriously and was eventually blessed by God for it — and his diligence was one of the means through which he was able to buy back his freedom. Once, a captain told Equiano’s master that “he was better to him on board than any three white men he had.”
Now, recall the brief Middle Passage experience above, “the loathsome smells,” “the galling of the chains,” “the shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying.” Hold the thought for a moment. When Equiano puts pen to paper to write his story, he starts by summarizing his life in the following words:
Did I consider myself an European, I might say my sufferings were great: but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favorite of Heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life.
To Equiano, knowing Christ was worth it all. And therein lies the secret or mystery of Christian contentment referred to by the apostle Paul (Philippians 4:12).
4. God’s Wrath Is Being Revealed Even Now
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)
God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven. The apostle uses the present continuous verb to indicate that it is happening today, right now. In verses 24–28, he tells us that God’s wrath is expressed in his giving men over to various forms of sin. He gave them up to lust (verse 24), to dishonorable passions that led to homosexuality (verses 26–27) and to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done (verse 28). Therefore, the unruly child at the checkout line, being disobedient to his parents, and the powerful gay lobby in this country are both expressions of God’s judgment.
Likewise, the institution of slavery itself was a judgment from God on both the slave owners and the slaves themselves. Reading Olaudah’s narrative gave me a renewed sense of the utter sinfulness of sin in light of the severity of the celestial judgment brought upon man in the face of slavery.
And yet, mercy was mixed in it. A lifetime of slavery is put in different light when compared to what the wicked currently endure in hell. But we need not read a slave narrative to appreciate sin’s sinfulness. As Thomas Watson put it, “See the evil of sin in the price paid for it. It cost the blood of God to expiate it.”