For escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad, a heritage tree in Ontario was a symbol of freedom. But Who will bring true freedom to a world enslaved by sin?
A majestic white oak is growing beside a serene hiking trail within the Westminster Ponds nature conservation area in London, Ontario. The tree is about three metres in diameter and roughly the height of a ten-story building. It is one of the oldest trees in the city, estimated to be 675 years old—well past the normal lifespan for the species. As a tree, it is impressive and beautiful. But there is more to this tree than its physical appearance and age. In 2012, the province of Ontario and the city of London officially recognized it as a heritage tree, a designation that only two trees in London have obtained. This white oak, known simply as “the Meeting Tree,” has an important historical significance. It was one of about two dozen terminal stations within Canada for passengers travelling from the United States on the Underground Railroad.
From the early 1800s to 1865, the Underground Railroad helped thousands of enslaved African Americans in the U.S. escape to freedom. It wasn’t an actual physical railroad with trains and tracks, but rather an elaborate secret network of people offering shelter, transportation, and aid. British North America—now Canada—was the primary destination. Some 30,000–40,000 fugitive slaves travelled the arduous route, following the North Star (Polaris) to find freedom in Canada. Some would have experienced their first taste of legal freedom in London, Ontario, under the welcoming, sheltering branches of the Meeting Tree.
Those taking the Underground Railroad often saw their plight as analogous to the biblical Exodus account and viewed Canada as their Promised Land. Why did these fugitive slaves see Canada as such a favorable haven?
Economic conditions in Canada were unlike those in other regions of the Americas. Some 12 million enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Only a tiny fraction of such slaves—between 4,000 and 5,000—were taken to Canada. The Canadian economy did not require a vast labour force, and at the height of slavery, slaves within Montreal—Canada’s largest municipality at the time—made up less than 1 percent of the population (Tamara Extian-Babiuk, “Slave Ads of the Montreal Gazette 1785–1805,” Library and Archives Canada, February 2006, p. 7). In comparison, based upon census information, the percentage of slaves in the United States just prior to the Civil War was 13 percent—4 million slaves in a total population of 31 million—concentrated mainly in the southern states.
The climate and soil of the U.S. Southeast made it suitable for commercial agriculture, and slavery was a primary labour source for massive plantations, making it integral to the economy. Legislation protected owners’ rights to use slave labour. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 imposed harsh penalties on escaped slaves in the U.S. and on those who aided them or interfered with their recapture. These laws gave U.S. slave owners the legal right to search for and capture escapees anywhere within the nation. With no place safe from capture, American fugitive slaves had to flee the country to find freedom. Furthermore, there were rumors of a changing legislative environment regarding slavery in Canada.
In 1793, the province of Upper Canada, under the leadership of Lord John Graves Simcoe, passed An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude, known less formally as the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada—one of the first pieces of anti-slavery legislation within the British Empire. While the Act did not outright free any slaves, nor did it prevent the sale of slaves within the province or across the border into the United States, it did pave the way to emancipation. Enslaved persons in the province at the time of enactment remained the property of their owners for life or until their owners freed them—however, the children born to these slaves after the law came into effect were to be freed upon reaching 25 years of age. Former slave owners were required to provide security for freed slaves to ensure that they would not become a burden upon society. This part of the legislation encouraged slave owners to hire their former slaves as indentured servants under contractual arrangements regulated by the Act. Furthermore, the Act made it illegal to import slaves into Canada, which meant that any slaves brought—or fleeing—into Canada became free upon arrival and were outside the jurisdiction of the United States Fugitive Slave Laws.
In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law, abolishing slavery—more than three decades after Canada had ended the practice. Slavery in Canada, and throughout most of the British Empire, ended with a piece of legislation entitled An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to Services of Such Slaves (later known as the Slavery Abolition Act). This act of Britain’s parliament received Royal Assent on August 28, 1833, and came into effect on August 1, 1834. Under this legislation, all slaves below the age of six were freed. Those older than six years of age were required to compensate their former owners for the loss of future services by working as unpaid apprentices 40 hours a week for four years, receiving full emancipation on August 1, 1838. It was after this emancipation that the greatest number of U.S. slaves began “riding” the Underground Railroad into Canada, continuing until slavery in the U.S. ended in 1865.
God created all people in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26) for an amazing purpose (1 John 3:2). The Apostle John made a simple, yet profound statement about God: God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Because He is love, and because mankind bears His image and likeness, God’s goodness and mercy extends to all people (Psalm 145:8–9). God condemns oppression and will punish those who practice it (Exodus 22:21–24).
While God did not abolish slavery when He delivered the people of ancient Israel from their hard bondage in Egypt, He did regulate the practice of it through the laws and statutes He gave the Israelites, which demanded that they acknowledge the inherent value and dignity of all human life. He intended for the Israelites to model and showcase His way of life, in which all human beings are valued and respected. Yet the Israelites turned away from God, failing to become that model nation.
Examples of oppressive slavery can be found throughout history in almost every empire, nation, or culture—and it still exists today. But the end of all oppressions and slavery is on the horizon. All nations—including the modern nations descended from ancient Israel—have turned away from God, just as their ancestors did. But He will break mankind’s pride and arrogance, and we will return to Him. Then, in the Kingdom of God, under the perfect rulership of Jesus Christ and the resurrected saints, our world will become a model of righteousness—a true Promised Land (Ezekiel 39:25–29). At that time, “the Meeting Tree” will take on new meaning, for “everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). For more information about this incredible time to come, request a free copy of The World Ahead: What Will It Be Like? or read it online at TomorrowsWorld.org.