This year is the two hundredth anniversary of the passing of the ‘Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’. It was the culmination of a long period of agitation against a trade which ran strongly in the face of every claim that Britain was a Christian nation.
Many of the leaders of the campaign were motivated by strongly-Christian principles, and most prominent among them was William Wilberforce, then an MP for Yorkshire – a man whose spiritual standing is indicated by the desire expressed in his diary: ‘O Lord, do Thou guide us right, and enable me to maintain a spiritual mind amid all my hurry or worldly business, having my conversation in heaven’.1
This Bill did not, however, affect slavery as an institution, only the shipping of slaves from Africa. A further long, hard struggle was needed before Parliament agreed to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Wilberforce supported this struggle enthusiastically but by then others had taken the lead, notably Thomas Buxton. But just a few days before his death in 1833 Wilberforce could express thankfulness to God on hearing that a bill to abolish slavery had passed its final stages in the House of Commons.
One of Wilberforce’s supporters in the struggle against slavery was John Newton, himself at one time a slave captain.2 After many years of ministry in Olney and in London, Newton was approaching his death in 1807. He told his niece:
It is a great thing to die; and when flesh and heart fail, to have God for the strength of our heart, and our portion for ever. I know whom I have believed, and He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day.3
He was ready to die; he had escaped from spiritual slavery. Yet, unless awakened by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, no one is conscious of that form of slavery. What Wilberforce fought against was iniquitous – as is people-trafficking today, which is opposed on all sides in Britain. But scarcely any effort is made to combat spiritual slavery. Sinners go on, oblivious to God’s authority – with their eyes blinded by the devil and without a thought of the glorious freedom which the children of God possess. And as Satan’s kingdom becomes stronger and the surrounding darkness becomes deeper, more and more sinners go on in sin, with no thought of the consequences. They have no power to escape – except by looking to Christ, who came into the world to rescue sinners from spiritual slavery. But they have no wish to escape, for they are willing slaves.
Wilberforce, Newton, and Buxton lived in an age when Christian principles were having an increasing effect on public life in Britain. That age has long since passed. Today, however clearly and forcefully Christian principles are presented to the Government in the UK, or elsewhere, they seem to make no impact. One area of special concern is abortion. In 2006 there were almost 200,000 abortions in England and Wales besides 13,000 in Scotland, and the total since the Abortion Act was passed 40 years ago is well over 6 million. A country where so many unborn human beings have been condemned to death has clearly lost all claim to a Christian conscience. The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons has been considering possible amendments to the law on abortion and, unbelievably, were not able to consider moral factors in their report. MPs considered suggestions that the 24-week legal limit for an abortion in England, Wales and Scotland should be reduced. But no, they rejected such suggestions, in spite of the fact that some infants born prematurely, at less than 24 weeks, do survive.
What need for men in positions of influence who, like Wilberforce and Buxton, would give themselves to promoting legislation based on Christian principles! Yes indeed, but in the face, not only of an unbelieving legislature, but also of an unbelieving electorate, we cannot be optimistic about the degree of success they would have. Our primary need is that God would graciously visit this generation, providing the means whereby the gospel would be spread everywhere, and powerfully accompanying it by the Holy Spirit. In another age when spiritual desolation reigned, Isaiah was given grace to cry, ‘Oh that Thou wouldest rend the heavens, that Thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at Thy presence’ (Isa. 64:1). We can scarcely find more suitable words to use today in prayer to God.
- Quoted in John Pollock, Wilberforce (Lion Publishing, 1978), p. 203.
- Rev. Iain Murray addresses the question of how Newton could continue in the slave trade for four years after his conversion. He quotes Newton: ‘My religious views were not very clear. Custom, example and interest had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly.’ One factor was that Newton had not, as yet, come under sound preaching. Yet the saving change he had experienced did make some difference to the way he treated the slaves in his ship: ‘I thought myself bound to treat the slaves under my care with gentleness and to consult their ease and convenience, as far as was consistent with the whole family of whites and blacks on board my ship’ (The Banner of Truth magazine, Issue 527/8 [Aug/Sep 2007], p. 17).
- Out of the Depths (London, 1925 reprint), p. 192.
Rev Kenneth D Macleod is minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Leverburgh, Isle of Harris, and Editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the December 2007 issue of which this Editorial is taken, with kind permission.
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