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Michael Willis and Anti-Slavery
  By the Rev. David Nicholson, retired minister living in Durham, Ont.
“Black slavery is the culmination of all crime. It is that ‘God defy- ing’ outrage of all that is dear to mankind and the spoiler of all that is characteristic of man himself. It makes man a beast, a chattel and a saleable commodity...It is contrary to the law of nature and the law of God and is inconsistent with the rights of man.” (Slavery- Indefensible, 1846)
The person who wrote the above quotation was to become a bridge that spanned British and Canadi- an anti-slavery. He was a leading advocate for the immediate elimi- nation of Black slavery wherever it was practiced or tolerated.
His name was Michael Willis. Born in Scotland in 1799, Wil- lis became minister of Renfield Church in Glasgow, Scotland, at the age of 21. In 1847, he emi- grated to Canada to become a professor and was the first prin- cipal of Knox College in Toronto (1847–1870). He was: the found- er and only president of the Anti- Slavery Society of Canada; one of the founders of William King’s Elgin Settlement in North Buxton, south of Chatham, Ont.; a corre- spondent with Abraham Lincoln; a defender of fugitive slaves in the civil courts; and a dynamic orator. Whenever and wherever he had an opportunity, he spoke and spent for enslaved people’s welfare and freedom. Willis once said, “Religion is meaningless without self-sacrifice for others.”
One of the reasons Michael Willis emigrated to Toronto in the
fall of 1847 was due to the strong anti-slavery stance he took. He “locked horns” on the floor of the Free Church of Scotland General Assembly with the principal of the church college in Edinburgh, Wil- liam Cunningham, in advocating for the return of money received from churches in the Southern United States who practiced or tolerated slavery. Willis believed there was no compromise with the practice of slavery. Cunning- ham publicly accused Willis of being “an ingenious device of Sa- tan” in perpetuating his arguments for returning the money and ter- minating any further relationship with the churches. It was a seri- ous confrontation and prevented the appointment of Michael Wil- lis to a vacant teaching position at the college. The invitation to a professorship at Knox College in Toronto, in June of 1847, was a welcomed relief, not only for the situation in Scotland but also for Michael Willis himself.
After fighting slavery for over two decades from pulpits and in public arenas in Scotland, it didn’t take Michael Willis long to become involved in promot- ing anti-slavery in Canada. For example, in his first address to the students and faculty of Knox College, he said, “The practice of slavery deprives the light of truth from God’s rational offspring and annihilates and dissolves relation- ships which the law of God and of nature has made inviolate.” This was just the beginning of his 22-year involvement in the anti- slavery movement in Canada.
Early in the first year of Michael Willis’s tenure at Knox College, a
submission was received by the church synod from a Mr. William King proposing that a settlement be established in the southern part of the province for Black refugees escaping from slavery in the United States. The synod agreed with the proposal and set up a committee to “aid and advise Mr. King” with none other than Michael Willis as the chair.
In the committee’s first report, it was proposed that a 9,000- acre tract of land be purchased in Raleigh Township, south of Chatham, to be divided into 50 acre lots and sold to the refugees. Within two months the stock had been sold. At the first meeting of the stockholders, they named themselves “The Elgin Associa- tion” in honour of Lord Elgin, the Governor General of Upper Cana- da. Subsequently, they elected of- ficers, with Michael Willis as one of the vice-presidents, and named the location of the settlement “Buxton” in honour of Sir Thomas Buxton, a champion of emancipa- tion in the United Kingdom.
During the next few years, Mi- chael Willis visited Buxton on nu- merous occasions. He suppor ted and advertised the Elgin settle- ment in congregations, courts of the church, Knox College and in his numerous trips to Great Brit- ain. In addressing the commis- sioners at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland in 1852, Willis reported that 83 families settled on Raleigh lands, where they had access to good school education for their children. He was also proud to announce that a small part of the land in British North America was
now an asylum for the Black es- capees from slavery.
Michael Willis was not only dedicated to the physical free- dom of enslaved people but was deeply concerned about their social, educational and spiritual dimensions of life. It is difficult to overstate the influence and contri- bution of Michael Willis to the an- ti-slavery movement in Canada in the mid-1800s. He was a “major bridge that spanned British and Canadian anti-slavery” (Stouffer, p. 32). The over two decades that Willis devoted to his appointment as professor and principal of Knox College were also spent in challenging Black slavery wher- ever it was practiced or tolerated.
Rather than compromising his
anti-slavery convictions, Wil- lis risked his personal position and promotion within his church denomination. He passionately believed that slavery was against “The light of nature and the law of God” (Stouffer) and was commit- ted to its elimination.
Nicholson, David. “A Master of The- ology Thesis on the Life of Michael Willis,” Toronto School of Theology, 1973.
Stouffer, Allen. “The Light of Nature and the Law of God: Anti-Slavery in Ontario,” 1833–1877, McGill- Queen’s University Press, 1992 Ullman, Victor “Look to the North Star” (a biography of William King), Beacon Press, 1969.

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