The Clapham Sect and the abolition of the slave trade (5)
Within the Clapham Sect’s united endeavours William Wilberforce’s contribution was outstanding. He was more than an eloquent and engaging parliamentary speaker with a melodious voice; he fired all the others in faith and fervour.
He was, even for his day, small and slight in stature — ‘all soul and no body’ was one description of him. He was accessible to all kinds of people, maddeningly so in the opinion of his friends, who saw clearly enough that not all those soliciting his help were deserving of it.
He was highly sociable. Conversation poured out of him, but it was hard to keep his mind on one subject. The unique blend that was Wilberforce emerges in the account of family prayers in the Wilberforce household in the year 1828 as given by Marianne Thornton, who was a keen observer:
‘By degrees the family comes down to the entrance hall where the psalmody goes on; first one joins in and then another; Lizzy calling out, “Don’t go near mama, she sings so dreadfully out of tune, dear”, and William, “Don’t look at papa [William Wilberforce], he does make dreadful faces”.
‘So he does, waving his arms about, and occasionally pulling the leaves off the geraniums and smelling them, singing out louder and louder in a tone of hilarity: “Trust Him, praise Him, trust Him, praise Him, praise Him ever more”.
‘Sometimes he exclaims, “Astonishing! How very affecting! Only think of Abraham, a fine old man, just a kind of man one should naturally pull off one’s hat to, with long grey hairs, and looking like an aloe.
‘“But you don’t know what an aloe is, perhaps: it’s a tree — no, a plant which flowers” … and he wanders off into a dissertation about plants and flowers’ (The parting of friends, David Newsome; Eerdmans, 1993, p.33).
Who exactly brought about the end of the slave trade in Britain in 1807? Maybe, 200 years on, this seems a strange question to ask. But the recent bicentennial celebrations of the abolition revealed much confusion about this question.
There are three answers, each correct at its own level.
First, Christians (or those profoundly influenced by Christianity) were responsible for ending the trade. Even the sketchiest acquaintance with the historical data makes this obvious. Yet it is interesting to note the blatant revisionism of recent media accounts of the abolition movement.
Too many have portrayed it as a proto-liberation movement for blacks centred on the likes of former slave Olaudah Equiano. But Africans definitely did not abolish the trade — they were either its helpless victims or its willing co-perpetrators. Muslim and animistic Africans alike conspired with white European slavers to sell their countrymen into oblivion.
Nor did any one notable individual like William Wilberforce abolish the trade single-handedly (see article August ET, p.5). Five years after Wilberforce’s death in 1833, two of his sons, Samuel and Robert, published a long account of their father’s life in which they downplayed the important role of Thomas Clarkson. This was foolish. Wilberforce was already on record as saying that Clarkson ‘took up the cause before him’.
Clarkson himself had said, ‘I certainly do think that Mr Wilberforce could not have got on, as he did, without my aid and that of the Committee; but neither could the Committee have got on without Mr Wilberforce and myself; nor could I have worked to the effect attributed to me, without Mr Wilberforce and the Committee’ (William Wilberforce, William Hague; Harper Collins, 2007, pp.154-5).
The point is that both these great men were driven by Christian motivation and worked together. And so did the Clapham group and other abolitionists. Clarkson, admittedly half a Quaker, was an unashamed Christian believer. His last recorded words, moments before dying, were addressed to the Saviour while looking up to heaven: ‘Come, come, come, my Beloved’.
The abolitionists viewed man as created in the image of God. Their logo, designed by Josiah Wedgewood, was a manacled slave on his knees beseeching his captor, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’
Second, it was not only Christians but Evangelicals who were responsible for abolition.
The Clapham Sect comprised a highly talented group of people. Intermarriage between its members and other leading British families was later to result in a complex network of kinship and an ‘intellectual aristocracy’ that lasted well into the twentieth century.
But something far more important than intellectual genius distinguished Clapham’s first generation. Genius can easily work in the wrong direction, as some of Clapham’s physical descendents exemplified, namely the Bloomsbury Sect — famous for its sophistication and ‘alternative’ lifestyles.
That Sect’s members included Lytton Strachey, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Vanessa Bell, Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf. They rejected all that Clapham stood for, and not a few of its members were homosexual.
What was ebbing away, even in Clapham’s second generation, was its vital evangelicalism. The first generation had opposed the slave trade not just for humanitarian motives, but because they wanted England to be spared God’s judgements for its ‘execrable villainy’. Their underlying concern was that God should bless the nation and that Christ’s gospel should prosper at home and abroad.
Typical of their attitude was Zachary Macaulay’s account of his challenging meeting with a white slave trader in Sierra Leone: ‘He promised to read a Bible if I would send him one, which I certainly will do along with some tracts.
‘He appeared at last much frightened, and turned pale when I told him that last night’s conversation might aggravate his punishment in the day of judgement’ (Life and letters of Zachary Macaulay, Viscountess Knutsford; Edward Arnold, 1900, pp.127-128).
Finally, behind all these secondary causes, God himself was responsible for ending the slave trade.
The clamour for abolition came as a direct consequence of powerful, local religious awakenings across the British Isles during the 1790s transforming the moral outlook of whole communities.
In 1786, John Wesley had exhorted his Methodist preachers, ‘Fellow labourers, wherever there is an open door, enter in and preach the gospel. If it be to two or three under a hedge or a tree, preach the gospel. Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in the poor, the maimed, the halt, and the blind … And this was the way the primitive [early] Methodists did’.
The Primitive Methodist did just that in the closing years of the eighteenth and opening years of the nineteenth century. During those decades, thousands of ordinary people were brought to repentance and faith in Christ. The ‘Forgotten revival’ period of 1790-1840 was probably the most powerful revival and ingathering of souls into the kingdom of God that Britain has ever experienced
It was this direct working of the Lord in the hearts of British people that helped consolidate two convictions: first, that the radical programmes of Thomas Paine or the French revolution were not for this nation; and, second, that enslaving other human beings is completely inconsistent with loving God and loving one’s neighbour as oneself.
While from Clapham we can draw many other lessons — such as, how a small but united group of Christians can achieve much under God’s blessing; or how the Lord honours persevering faith; or how it is possible for Christians to change society without a violent revolution — this is the supreme lesson: it was God who ended the slave trade.
The Lord worked at both ends. He worked through Clapham (and other abolitionist groups), and he worked by changing the outlook of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.
It was as though God was putting on record, for all the world to see, what can happen to those communities that entrust themselves to the reign of his Son. ‘For he will deliver the needy when he cries, the poor also, and him who has no helper. He will spare the poor and needy, and will save the souls of the needy. He will redeem their life from oppression and violence; and precious shall be their blood in his sight’ (Psalm 72:12-14).
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not like the merciless deities of secularism and the myriad of ‘other faiths’ embraced by humanity since its fall. Unlike those no-gods, the living God is full of compassion and tender pity.
And when the time is ripe, he takes decisive action on behalf of the orphans, widows and strangers. Isn’t this exactly what our damaged world needs today? The abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago reminds us of this truth too easily forgotten — that God is love.
This article series has been edited from the author’s paper on the slave trade, found in
The truth shall make you free (Westminster Conference 2007), along with a full bibliography.