Sharp, Granville 1735-1813
Born in Durham, England, on November 21 (November 10, old style), 1735, Granville Sharp is best known as being the prime mover in the abolition of slavery in England; one might even say that he was the force behind the British abolitionist William Wilberforce. He also launched a Bible society, saved a Christian denomination from annihilation, and even founded a nation. Such activities were matched only by his literary efforts. Although he had little formal education, his writings covered seemingly disparate topics—from Greek and Hebrew to theology, music, agriculture, and social causes, especially the cause of freedom for the black slave. An Englishman who never set foot outside his homeland, Sharp influenced the causes of liberty in three American wars (the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War) by his theological- political writings.
As an indefatigable abolitionist, Sharp initiated a legal case in 1772. A slave from Virginia, James Somerset, had come to England with his master. Sharp successfully argued that either none of the laws of Virginia applied in England or all of them did. The verdict was pronounced on June 22, 1772: “As soon as any slave sets his foot on English ground, he becomes free.”
On May 22, 1787, he was elected the chairman of the newly formed Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade because he was, in the words of his biographer, the “father of the cause in England.” Although Wilberforce was the spokesman for the society before Parliament, Sharp was especially active in getting public opinion on its side. After a twenty-year battle, in March 1807 Parliament banned the slave trade. However, the abolition of slavery from the British Empire—Sharp’s ultimate goal—would not occur until 1833, twenty years after his death, on July 6, 1813, in London.
After the American Revolution, many former slaves who had fought on the side of the British in exchange for their freedom were now homeless in the streets of London. Several of them wanted to return to their native continent, and they sought Sharp for advice. He was able to procure ships and funds from the British government, as well as a large piece of land in West Africa. The new colony, Sierra Leone, was founded in April 1787. Granville Town was the name they gave their first settlement in honor of Sharp, though the name was later changed to Freetown. In 1961 Sierra Leone became an independent state.
Sharp made three major contributions to the Christian faith, to which he was deeply committed. First, he rescued the Episcopalian denomination in America. The clergy were required to swear allegiance to the crown, an ethical impossibility after the Revolutionary War. Even as early as 1777, Sharp worked toward an independent Episcopacy in America. Ten years later, principally because of Sharp’s influence, American clergy could be ordained without taking such an oath of allegiance. Second, in 1804 he became the first chairman of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the first Bible society in the world. Third, Sharp’s many writings (nearly seventy books and pamphlets) focused especially on integrating social causes with Christian beliefs, as well as on the original languages of the Bible (Greek and Hebrew). He is especially known for the “Granville Sharp rule,” a principle of Greek syntax that he discovered as affirming the New Testament teaching of the deity of Christ.
SEE ALSO Slavery
Hoare, Prince. 1828. Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq. Composed from His Own Manuscripts and Other Authentic Documents in the Possession of His Family and of the African Institution. 2nd ed. 2 vols. London: Henry Colburn.
Wallace, Daniel B. 1998. Granville Sharp: A Model of Evangelical Scholarship and Social Activism. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41 (4): 591-613.
Daniel B. Wallace