How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind, but now I see’
So wrote John Newton (1725-1807) in 1772. Newton had been actively involved in the slave trade in his earlier life but following his progressive conversion to Christianity and eventual ordination in 1764, he later became an active supporter of the abolition of the slave trade. In 1788 he published a pamphlet ‘Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade’ by which time he was also encouraging William Wilberforce (1759-1833) to promote an act in Parliament abolishing the slave trade. This endeavour eventually succeeded in 1807 and paved the way for the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
The film ‘Amazing Grace’ (2006) gives a vivid portrayal of the struggle by Wilberforce and his associates to bring this legislation about. The broader history of events around that time and the influence of the ‘Clapham Group’ is also described by Rev Dr Clifford Hill in ‘The Wilberforce Connection’ (Monarch Books, 2004). The impact of this legislation on world history, in the face of strong contemporary opposition from those with vested interests, is surely something for which we can give thanks.
Recent events have once again shone the spotlight on racial prejudice and inequality which has been an ever-present evil since time immemorial, and continues to manifest itself daily in myriad ways, not least in modern day slavery. In his letter to Galatians, St Paul shows what our attitude to others should be: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Perhaps the imminent exhibition at the Cathedral is a good opportunity for us to consider how we can emulate the active Christian faith and determined social action of those like Wilberforce who sought to end injustice in their day.