In Christian Activism

It is 200 years since British MP William Wilberforce’s bill to abolish the slave trade was finally proclaimed into law in 1807, after a 20 year battle. The world, including Australia, is celebrating that well-known achievement.

But it is less well-known that William Wilberforce was a committed evangelical Christian. Moreover his Christian friends— who formed a type of home fellowship group—played a key role in the long and bitter anti-slavery campaign. They prayed for, encouraged and advised William in the face of powerful enemies including big business and even some Church of England leaders.

Australian historian Keith Windschuttle reveals some of the story in an article in Quadrant magazine (Abolition of the slave trade: the Australian connection, April 2007). He notes that most of those in the grass roots movement opposing slavery were evangelical Christians. G R Balleine’s A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England (Church Book Room Press, London, 1951) tells further fascinating details.

John Newton, the former slave trader who committed his life to Christ during a violent storm at sea and later wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, made a deep impression on the young Wilberforce—as did John Wesley, the famous evangelist and founder of Methodism. Both men encouraged Wilberforce to use his parliamentary power for good.

Wilberforce was a member of a group of Christians known by their detractors as the “Clapham Sect”—influential citizens who lived near and worshipped in HolyTrinityChurch on Clapham Common in south London. Under Rev John Venn’s faithful biblical ministry, men including MP and financier Henry Thornton and East India Company chairman Charles Grant and their families lived near each other, prayed, studied the Bible and encouraged one another.

“Clapham Sect” members (also known derisively as “Saints”) were wealthy, but lived modestly. They used their money to finance projects which included helping and teaching the poor at home and spreading the gospel of Christ overseas. Wilberforce and his friends founded the Church [of England] Missionary Society—which still flourishes in Britain and Australia today. He also founded a group similar to Festival of Light, quaintly titled the Society for the Reformation of Manners.

Wilberforce never set foot in New South Wales, but played a key role there. Windschuttle says: “The Australian colony harboured a vigorous evangelical movement … It aimed to apply the principles of the gospels to social life. Its main causes were penal reform, the abolition of slavery and missions to the native people of the empire …

“Although Wilberforce’s main project was the abolition of slavery, he was also concerned with improving the living conditions of convicts, Aborigines and Pacific Islanders. From the outset he took a close interest in NSW, soliciting reports from his evangelical followers in the colony and acting as patron of their appointments.”

Wilberforce successfully nominated the colony’s first two chaplains, Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden. Colonists who had dealings with Wilberforce or who gained positions in NSW on his recommendation included Matthew Flinders and Charles La Trobe. Ralph Darling and George Arthur were governors who owed their appointments in part to their actions against the slave trade.

Elizabeth, the second wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, was also highly influential. She had a strong Christian faith and opposed all forms of slavery, believing that human creatures are equal in the eyes of God. Her respect for all human life made a deep impression on her husband.

“Macquarie radically reformed the punitive regime for convicts, turning it into a program for their regeneration,” Windschuttle says. “He moderated corporal punishment, reduced life sentences to 15 years and reprieved numerous convicts sentenced to death. Where Bligh had granted two pardons during his 18 month term as governor, between 1810 and 1820 Macquarie gave 366 absolute pardons, 1365 conditional pardons and 2319 tickets of leave … He granted land to [pardoned and expired] convicts and even invited some to dine with him.”

Sadly, it was Lachlan Macquarie’s generosity and mercy led to the dissension among Sydney’s free settlers which finally brought him down. But Macquarie’s policies worked. A significant number of the 160,000 convicts transported in 80 years were transformed from the criminal subculture of their youth into useful citizens, farmers, tradesmen, soldiers and in a small but notable number of cases, successful professional and business men and women.

Moreover Macquarie implemented Wilberforce’s Aboriginal policies. He established an institution to teach Aboriginal children; settled Aboriginal adults on a farm at George’s Head; built huts for others at ElizabethBay and gave them a boat, tools and supplies. In 1814 he held the first annual gathering and feast for all Aboriginals in the Sydney region. While his policies were unsuccessful in the long term, his efforts are a reminder that Christian values were promoted by some leaders in the new Australian colony from the beginning. William Wilberforce’s contribution is well known because as a great MP and orator his words were widely reported. But those compassionate policies would not have existed without the prayer and encouragement of the many less prominent members of the Clapham Common “home fellowship”.

The Wilberforce influence was not the “power of one”. Rather, it was the power of God—when “two or three” are gathered together in His name.

Roslyn Phillips is Research Officer for Festival of Light Australia.
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