At the close of the eighteenth century the slave trade was a thriving and very big business. Prominent families held slaves and interests in the slave business, a vast swathe of people depended on slavery for their livelihoods, and public opinion was undisturbed by it. When Clarkson threw in his lot with a small group of Quakers in opposition to the trade the odds of success were seemingly impossible.
On May 22, 1787 Clarkson and about a dozen others met in the James Phillip Bookstore for the first official meeting of the Committee of the Slave Trade. They devised a strategy to gather intelligence on the trade, expose it’s inhumanity via pamphlets, posters and public lectures, and build momentum for a banning of the British slave trade. Clarkson became their only full time anti slavery campaigner. He travelled tirelessly throughout England seeking to gather intelligence on the slave trade and to draw people’s attention to its cruelty and inhumanity.
The task was incredibly difficult. Few of those involved in the slavery business would talk to him; he received death threats, and at least one attempt on his life; many mocked him. In that first year he noted
I began now to tremble, for the first time, at the arduous task I had undertaken, of attempting to subvert one of the branches of the commerce of the great place which was then before me…. I questioned whether I should even get out of it alive.
Yet the tide of opinion began to turn. Petitions containing thousands of names started to find their way to Parliament. More people joined themselves to the cause, including the potter Josiah Wedgewood, who crafted a relief of a kneeling slave with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” that became a popular and influential adornment, and parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who championed the cause in Parliament. Hundreds of thousands stopped using sugar, the major slave produced good in England, and slave-free sugar started appearing. The autobiography of freed slave Olauda Equiano became a best seller and many heard him speak.
Within five years of that first meeting at the James Phillip bookstore public opinion had turned against the slave trade. Parliament however would take longer to conquer. William Wilberforce was the spearhead of the parliamentary campaign.
So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would; I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition
Like Clarkson, Wilberforce met with fierce opposition and derision. Admiral Horatio Nelson for example, condemned “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”. He also found the support of colleagues such as the Prime Minister, William Pitt.
Bills against the trade were moved in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805, all without success, until on February 27, 1807 a bill for the abolition of the slave trade passed the House by a vote of 283 to 16.
The anti slavery activists had assumed that once the shipping of slaves was outlawed slavery would collapse. This assumption proved naive. While no more slaves were shipped, slaves continued to be held on British owned plantations in the West Indies and their children enslaved. This set off continued campaigning. A mass uprising of slaves in 1831 signalled the oppression of slaves was no longer sustainable, and in 1833 the Emancipation Act finally saw the end of British slavery.
It took fifty six years, but who’d have thought that from that meeting of a dozen people in the James Phillip Bookstore on May 22, 1787, armed with nothing but their determination and their voices, would issue such a result?
Many historians believe that central to the rise of Christianity was the simple fact that Christians generously loved each other and their neighbours. They point out that in the ancient world mercy was widely seen as a character defect that ran counter to justice. Justice demanded people get what they deserved and was seen as appropriate, where mercy extended grace, love, and kindness to people who had done nothing to deserve it. Yet the Christians valued mercy. Christian communities became places where people tended to live longer and healthier lives, for when they suffered sickness, poverty or mishap they had brothers and sisters in Christ who provided for their need. And Christians extended love way beyond the boundaries of family and congregation to their pagan neighbours.
In 251 A.D. for example, a great plague struck the Greco-Roman world. Memories were revived of a plague a century earlier in which more than a third of the population died. Fear was everywhere. Those who could afford it fled to the countryside. Those who could not remained in the cities. When they went to the temples they found them empty, the priests having fled. The streets were filled with those who had become infected, their families left with no option but to push them out the door. Christian communities however took an entirely different approach. They saw it as their responsibility to love the sick and dying, so they took them into their homes and nursed them. This action meant that many people recovered who otherwise would have died. Historians suggest that elementary nursing could have reduced the mortality rate by as much as two thirds, but it also cost a number of Christian carers their lives.
In The Early Church, Henry Chadwick comments:
The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success. The pagan comment ‘see how these Christians love one another’ (reported by Tertullian) was not irony. Christian charity expressed itself in care for the poor, for widows and orphans, in visits to brethren in prison or condemned to the living death of labour in the mines, and social action in time of calamity like famine, earthquake, pestilence, or war.
So striking was the Christian commitment to generous love that when the fourth century Emperor Julian sought to restore paganism to the Empire he instructed the pagan priesthood to follow the example of the Christians:
Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their [Christians] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [Julian’s word for Christianity]? I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues… For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
Source: Historical data derived from Henry Chadwick, The Pelican History of The Early Church and Rodney Stark, the Triumph of Christianity
At the turn of the 5th century the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse. With it’s power crumbling, the coast of Britain was subject to attacks by violent Irish slave traders. In 401 a 16 year old boy named Patrick was taken in one of these raids. Stripped from the comforts of his home life and a future which would have included a classical education and career, Patrick was made the slave of an Irish chieftain and assigned the role of shepherd. The life of a shepherd-slave was miserable – isolated for months on end in mountains that were bitterly cold, in a land where he did not know the local languages, and experiencing times of severe hunger.
Such severe circumstances drove the young man to God. His grandfather had been a Christian priest, and Patrick turned to his family’s faith. He spent his bitter days in constant prayer. As he did, a deep love of God and a profound sense of God’s Spirit at work within him grew in the young man.
Six years after his kidnapping Patrick had a dream-vision. In his sleep he heard a voice say “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home.” He sat up, startled, and the voice continued: “Look, your ship is ready.” Patrick got up and started walking. Two hundred miles later he came to the coast and saw a ship. No ship was about to give passage to a fugitive slave and the captain told the young man to move on. But Patrick knew this was his ship. He spent some time in prayer and before he had finished one of the sailors came after him with the message that he could sail with them.
It takes him two years but finally the young man arrives home to Britain. His overjoyed parents beg him not to ever leave them again. But one night Victorious, a man who he knew in Ireland, appears to him in a vision. Victorious holds a letter with the heading “The Voice of the Irish”. The young man then hears a voice of a multitude crying “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.”
Try as he might Patrick cannot put the Irish out of his mind. The visions keep coming until finally he gives in. He enrolls to be trained for the ministry and emerges some time later an ordained priest and bishop. And so a young bishop by the name of Patrick heads off to become the first known missionary to Ireland. His mission is astonishingly successful. The Irish rapidly embrace the Christian faith. By the time of his death Christianity has been established across Ireland, the Irish slave trade has ended, and murder and inter-tribal warfare have markedly decreased.
One of Patrick’s greatest achievements was the salvation of Western civilisation. After the “barbarians” overran the Roman Empire nearly all the great literary works were destroyed. Hundreds of years of learning literally went up in flames. But there was a place the Latin books were copied and preserved – in the monasteries established by Patrick throughout Ireland. When Europe emerged from its Dark Ages it was to the monasteries of Ireland that they turned to recover their learning.
Source: Reported in Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilisation (Hodder, 1995)
There was a group called ‘The Fisherman’s Fellowship’. They were surrounded by streams and lakes full of hungry fish. They met regularly to discuss the call to fish, and the thrill of catching fish. They got excited about fishing!!
Someone suggested that they needed a philosophy of fishing, so they carefully defined and redefined fishing, and the purpose of fishing. They developed fishing strategies and tactics. Then they realized that they had been going at it backwards. They had approached fishing from the point of view of the fisherman, and not from the point of view of the fish. How do fish view the world? How does the fisherman appear to the fish? What do fish eat, and when? These are all good things to know. So they began research studies, and attended conferences on fishing. Some travelled to far away places to study different kinds of fish, with different habits. Some got PhD’s in fishology. But no one had yet gone fishing.
So a committee was formed to send out fishermen. As prospective fishing places outnumbered fishermen, the committee needed to determine priorities.
A priority list of fishing places was posted on bulletin boards in all of the fellowship halls. But still, no one was fishing. A survey was launched, to find out why… Most did not answer the survey, but from those that did, it was discovered that some felt called to study fish, a few to furnish fishing equipment, and several to go around encouraging the fisherman.
What with meetings, conferences, and seminars, they just simply didn’t have time to fish.
Now, Jake was a newcomer to the Fisherman’s Fellowship. After one stirring meeting of the Fellowship, Jake went fishing. He tried a few things, got the hang of it, and caught a choice fish. At the next meeting, he told his story, and he was honoured for his catch, and then scheduled to speak at all the Fellowship chapters and tell how he did it. Now, because of all the speaking invitations and his election to the board of directors of the Fisherman’s Fellowship, Jake no longer has time to go fishing.
But soon he began to feel restless and empty. He longed to feel the tug on the line once again. So he cut the speaking, he resigned from the board, and he said to a friend, “Let’s go fishing.” They did, just the two of them, and they caught fish.
The members of the Fisherman’s Fellowship were many, the fish were plentiful, but the fishers were few.
Marco Polo is one of the most famed explorers of history. It seems he inherited the travel bug from his father. In 1260, when Marco polo was 6, his father and uncle traveled to Mongolia (part of modern day China). When they arrived there the Mongol emperor revealed an interest in Christianity. He asked the brothers to take a letter to the Pope requesting as many as 100 wise men to spread the Gospel among his subjects.
Three years later the brothers arrived home, and two years later set out on their return trek. Did they take the 100 wise men with them? No. Just two friars, for this was all the church felt they could spare. And even those two didn’t make it, turning back shortly into their journey.
What a tragedy! Imagine if the Kublai’s request had been fulfilled. Perhaps the whole history of China may have been changed.
Source: Information found in National Geographic, May 2001.
Will Campbell was a Baptist minister and civil rights activist and award winning author, based in Mississippi in the 1960’s and 70’s. Campbell’s prophetic ministry earned him death threats and opposition as well as helping others gain insight into what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus.
As a Baptist Will was familiar with the practise of the altar call, where people are invited to indicate a response to Christ by walking to the front of the church and being prayed for. Yet in a sermon Campbell once turned the idea of the altar call on it’s head. “I hope that someday there will be an evangelistic service in which, when the preacher gives the invitation and people start coming down the aisle, he yells back at them, ‘Don’t come down the aisle! Go to Jesus! Don’t come to me! Go to Jesus!'” said Campbell.
“Upon that declaration, the people who were coming down the aisle turn around and exit the auditorium and get in their cars and drive away. He then yells at the rest of the congregation, ‘Why are you hanging around here? Why don’t you go to Jesus too? Why don’t you all go to Jesus?’ The people rise en masse and quickly leave the church, and soon the parking lot is empty.”
“What I imagine is that about a half hour later the telephone at the police station starts ringing off the hook, and the voice at the other end says, ‘We’re down here at the old-folks’ home and there’s some crazy people at the door yelling that they want to come in and visit Jesus, and I keep telling them Jesus isn’t in here! All we have in here is a bunch of old ladies who are half dead. But they keep saying, “But we want to visit Jesus! We want to visit Jesus!”‘
“The next call is from the warden down at the prison. He’s saying, ‘Send some cops down here! There’s a bunch of nuts at the gate and they’re yelling and screaming, “Let us in there! We want to visit Jesus! We want to visit Jesus!” I keep telling them that all we have in this place are murderers, rapists, and thieves. But they keep yelling, “Let us in! We want to visit Jesus!”‘
“No sooner does the cop at the desk hang up the phone than it rings again. This time it’s the superintendent of the state hospital calling for help. He’s complaining that there are a bunch of weird people outside begging to be let in. They, too, want to see Jesus! The superintendent says, ‘I keep telling them Jesus isn’t here. All we have here are a bunch of nuts, but they keep yelling at us, “We want to see Jesus.”
Source: Biographical information from University of Southern Mississippi website. Sermon reported in Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You A Story