Monday, 29 December 2014

Shrimps can Become Whales

WILLIAM WILBERFORCE, aged eight when his father died, might have found it difficult to believe that two hundred and fifty years on, his own picture would feature on British postage stamps, to mark the passing of a Parliamentary bill abolishing the slave trade, following a long campaign spearheaded by himself and an army of associates and trusted colleagues.

Issued, March 22nd, 2007

The momentous story has now been well catalogued in TV programmes, film and the printed page. An poorly nourished-looking child, young William was small for his age, and when he read aloud before the other pupils at Hull Grammar School, he had to be lifted onto the table by Isaac Milner, brother of the headmaster, the Rev Joseph Milner.

Later he was to study at St John’s College Cambridge, where his time was frittered away, but he was to meet again with Isaac Milner, and toured Europe with him. It was arising out of their conversations together that William’s conversion to a personal faith in Jesus Christ took place. By then he was already a member of Parliament. And still he remained a physically unimposing shrimp-like figure.

But as history has recorded, it was in and through his lifelong exertions in Parliament that his opposition to the Atlantic slave trade was to bring its reward in the finally successful bill of 1807.  As the Scottish writer and chronicler, James Boswell, observed,“The shrimp grew and grew, and became a whale.”

In the teeth of opposition from vested commercial and political interests, Wilberforce – spurred on by the Quakers who were first to condemn the slave trade – joined hands with the most powerful group of Christian lay people in the land, known as ‘The Clapham Sect.’ No sectarians in fact, they were all Evangelicals, and all were associated with the Anglican parish church of Holy Trinity Clapham, led by the Rev John Venn, their   

John Venn, 1759-1813
(from ‘John Venn & the Clapham Sect’, by Michael Hennell, Lutterworth Press)

inspirer and theologian. Charles Grant (Chairman of the East India Company), Zachary Macaulay (former Governor of Sierra Leone), Lord Teignmouth (former Governor-General of India) Henry Thornton (wealthy banker and merchant) and the brilliant London celebrity and playwright Hannah Moore – these and others were all associated with the work emanating from Holy Trinity, perhaps the most influential single church that the world has ever known. As well as these there was the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ - the Rev John Newton - whose turbulent past as a slave trader provided a dramatic background to the role he played in support of Wilberforce’s campaign.

In his book of ‘England’, covering the years 1870-1914, the radical historian RCK Ensor commented that no one will understand nineteenth century England who doesn’t understand its Evangelical influence. He wrote, “If one asks how nineteenth century English merchants earned the reputation of being the most honest in the world (a very real factor in the prominence of English trade), the answer is, Because hell and heaven seemed as certain to them as tomorrow’s sunrise, and the Last Judgment as real as the week’s balance sheet” (page 137).

The slave trade was not going to escape attention from the Clapham Sect. Wilberforce’s maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1789 saw it as a world issue:
“When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House – a subject in which the interests , not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity are involved, I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty – we ought to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others.”
Let John Wesley have the final word. In the last letter that he ever wrote - six days before his death - he encouraged Wilberforce in his campaign:
“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils, but if God is with you, who can be against you? O be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.” (Feb 24, 1791)
The story of Wilberforce, like that of David and Goliath, is given to encourage the feeblest contender for righteousness in the face of widespread hostility, that love and goodness must have the final victory. A minority movement, perhaps; but if God is in it, then it represents the overwhelming minority. The smallest shrimp can become a whale!