The Legacy of James Stephen

Article excerpt

The interpenetration of missions and politics has been complicated, often ambiguous, and consistently fraught with conflict. The caricature entrenched in the popular imagination-missionaries were nothing more than the religious accomplices of the marauding Western imperialists who took hostage much of the non-Western world between 1492 and 1900--will not stand up to close scrutiny. (1) The mutual suspicion of missionaries and government officials has produced endless grief. It is a story that starts with the first apostles and continues in an unbroken line right up to the present.

The name James Stephen (1789-1859) is not one associated with the history of missions. Indeed, Stephen is a largely forgotten figure. But he was the indispensable civil servant who labored largely out of public view throughout his career yet exerted considerable influence on policy formation and administration of the British colonial empire during a crucial period. As this essay will show, he also left his imprint on mission theory and practice.

The Stephen Family

James Stephen was born at Lambeth, then a village of South London, on January 3, 1789, to James and Anne (nee Stent) Stephen. James Stephen Sr. had been called to the bar in 1782 and a year later went to Saint Kitts, where his older brother had taken over their late uncle's plantation. There he began practicing law. His years in the West Indies exposed him at first hand to the cruelties of slavery and the slave trade. The Stephen family spent the winter of 1788-89 in London, and during this time Stephen was in contact with William Wilberforce, who was in the first stages of organizing his campaign to end the slave trade. They quickly forged a lifelong bond.

On his return to the West Indies, Stephen continued to gather information on the slave trade and the terrible conditions slaves had to endure on the sugar plantations. This intelligence was indispensable to Wilberforce as he continued marshaling his forces to overthrow the system. In 1794 James Stephen moved his family to London, where he established a successful legal practice. At the same time, he was now able to work closely with Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, and others in the uphill struggle against the slave trade.

James Stephen immediately became a part of the Clapham Sect. (2) Often referred to as the "Saints," the members of this remarkable group of Evangelical Anglicans, formed in the early 1790s, included John and Henry Thornton, Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Charles Grant, James Stephen, John Shore, Hannah More, and John Venn. For a period of thirty-five years this well-connected, pious, and activist group was the creative center of an extraordinary range of missionary, social, and philanthropic initiatives that would leave an enduring mark on British society. The catalyst for these wide-ranging developments was opposition to the slave trade.

An early initiative was the establishment of a settlement in 1787 on the coast of West Africa at the site of the future Freetown, Sierra Leone. Here freed slaves could be settled and given opportunity to start a new life. In 1791 Henry Thornton and Wilberforce took the lead in founding the Sierra Leone Company, and the following year 1,100 former slaves from the American South who had moved north to Nova Scotia were settled in Freetown. (3)

When Macaulay stepped down as governor of Sierra Leone in 1799 and returned to London, he was accompanied by twenty-four African children, whom he brought to Great Britain to be educated and prepared for leadership in the emerging "Colony of Freedom." Not all of the children survived the transition to the climate of the British Isles. These African children lived in Clapham while they attended school. This association with the Africans left a deep impression on the children of the Clapham Sect.

As leader of the campaign against the slave trade, Wilberforce leaned heavily on associates such as Macaulay and Stephen. …