It’s not uncommon for well-meaning Christians to assume they must mention Jesus’ name and include a steady stream of Scripture in as many conversations as possible – or they have failed the Lord. When Christ’s name is not front and center, they ask: “Where’s Jesus?” One friend put it this way: “Christians talk funny.” Yet if faith is supposed to give strength, perhaps it’s better to imagine it as studs in the wall rather than sheetrock. This might help people of faith connect Sunday to Monday… and with their friends. It certainly accounts for the impressive success of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and his Clapham England colleagues.
In 1787, William Wilberforce began to gather evidence against the slave trade in Africa. In 1792, he introduced a resolution to abolish the trade by gradual steps to the House of Commons. It was shot down. In February of 1793, Wilberforce introduced a motion to hasten the process of abolition of slavery through the House of Lords. It was rejected by 61 votes to 53. In 1804, Wilberforce piloted the Bill through the House of Commons, but again the House of Lords threw it out. In 1807, Wilberforce’s Bill was carried through two readings in the House of Lords. It was referred to the Commons on February 10, 1807. The debate took place in the House of Commons on February 23rd. This time, 283 Members of the House of Commons voted for the motion for the abolition of slavery with 16 Members voting against it. The Bill received the Royal assent on March 25, 1807.
How did Wilberforce and his Clapham colleagues do it? Not by quoting the Bible. They began instead by boiling down impenetrable research (often compiled by earnest Christians who talked funny) to understandable language. Thomas Clarkson, for example, led the effort by the Claphamites in publishing a brief Abstract detailing the slave trade between 1790 and 1791.
At a time in history when a large portion of all books and pamphlets were theological tracts or sermons, and in a book that quoted several clergymen as witnesses, the Abstract had no references to the Bible. Clarkson and his comrades somehow sensed that they could better evoke sympathy if they stood back and let the evidence speak for itself…1
The “patient saints of Clapham” educated the public by issuing a journal, writing letters, spearheading petition drives, distributing pamphlets, speaking, performing action-oriented “policy research” and making every effort to persuade by reframing how others imagined the slave trade. They pioneered the use of newspapers, distributing them to the more than five hundred coffeehouses scattered around London alone.
This movement was “one of the first great flowerings of a very modern belief that the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings. The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts, but in human empathy.2
William Wilberforce and the Clapham Christians understood that faith gives strength, just like studs in the walls. They felt no compulsion to quote Scriptures or recite Bible verses hidden behind the sheetrock to buttress their arguments. Their aim was to enlist everyone – people of faith, no faith or differing faiths – in the effort of erecting the sheetrock of statutes and laws abolishing the slave trade.
Their success should make us envious. It inspired a broad agenda of political and social reforms in late 18th and early 19th century England – including a ban on bull fighting and bear baiting, suspension of the lottery, prison reform, improved working conditions in factories, banking reform, founding Sierra Leone as a colony for refugee slaves, and setting higher standards of morality for public officials and politics.3
On February 23rd, two centuries after the Slavery Emancipation Bill was passed, the film Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce will open in theaters throughout the country. Every Friday until February 23rd, we’ll highlight one feature of Wilberforce’s work that we can emulate today. The difference between studs and sheetrock is our first take-away.
By the way, there are today twice as many slaves worldwide as in 1807. The film’s producers hope to enlist people like us in an effort to abolish the modern-day slave trade. To join the movement, go to: http://www.amazinggracemovie.com/amazing_change.php
1 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p.196
2 Ibid, p.366
3 The Clapham group included the lawyer Granville Sharp (who had already won a decision affirming that slavery was illegal in England), John Shore (Lord Teignmouth) sometime Governor-General of India, Charles Grant (a powerful member of the East India Council), James Stephen, who sat in court, literary celebrity and educator Hannah More, Henry Thornton (a banker and financial genius), Zacharay Macaulay (governor of Sierra Leone and estate manager in the West Indies who was disgusted with Jamaican slavery), Josiah Wedgwood (of Wedgwood pottery fame) and John Newton (a former slave trader and author of the hymn Amazing Grace).