Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Revival for Justice

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Revival for Justice

Article excerpt

Some years ago on a trip to the U.K., I walked through the historic Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common in South London. This Anglican parish was the home church to William Wilberforce, the abolitionist parliamentarian who wrote Britain's anti-slave-trade legislation. Wilberforce and a group of Christian fellow parliamentarians and lay people known as "the Saints" were behind many social reforms that swept England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The current vicar was very proud to show me around. On the wall were pictures of these typically English-looking gentlemen who helped to turn their country upside down.

Finally, the vicar pointed to an old, well-worn table. "This is the table upon which William Wilberforce wrote the antislavery act," he said proudly. "We now use this table every Sunday for communion." I was struck--here, in dramatic liturgical symbol, the secular and the sacred are brought together with powerful historical force. How did we ever separate them? What became of religion that believed its duty was to change its society on behalf of justice?

William Wilberforce and his group of friends profoundly changed the political and social climate of their time. Wilberforce was a convert of the religious revivals that transformed 18th-century England. His life and his vocation as a Member of Parliament were profoundly changed by his newfound faith; Wilberforce became a force for moral politics. His mentor, John Newton, who worked in the slave trade before he became a minister, became well known for writing the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace." Later, he used his influence as a religious leader to lead the battle against slavery. In the light of his efforts, we can read his immortal words "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me" not merely as a testimony of private guilt and piety, but also of turning away from the sin of trafficking in human flesh. His conversion produced a social and political transformation as well as a personal one.

The same became true of Wilberforce, who first heard Newton speak when he was young but regarded his real conversion as confirmed following a series of conversations in 1785-86. At the conclusion of their conversations, Newton said: "The Lord has raised you up for the good of the church and the good of the nation." Two years later Wilberforce introduced his first anti-slave-trade motion into Parliament. It was defeated, and would be defeated nine more times until it passed in 1807. It was a historic and moral victory, but Wilberforce wouldn't be satisfied until slavery was abolished altogether. A new Wilberforce biography notes, "probably the last letter" John Wesley ever wrote encouraged Wilberforce: "Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might." Wilberforce continued working tirelessly toward that goal, year after year. Finally, in 1833, the House of Commons passed a bill abolishing slavery, and Wilberforce died three days later, his work finally done.

SIMILARLY, in 19th-century America, religious revivalism was linked directly with the abolition of slavery and movements of social reform. …

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