Universe Column, July 1st 2007
If I have any criticism of the film Amazing Grace, which I recently took my children to see, it is in their use of the phrase “one man’s battle against injustice” to describe William Wilberforce.
Remarkable man though he undoubtedly was, the slave trade was not ended by one man alone.
It took the creation of a nationwide grass-roots movement, a popular coalition, and the insurrection of slaves themselves to provide the climate in which Wilberforce persuaded Parliament to abolish the slave trade. And it would take the persistence of another 26 years before slavery itself was outlawed – and, in parenthesis, let me add that it is to our shame that slavery persists in many guises and in many parts of the world today.
The composition and work of the anti-slavery coalition is not simply of arcane historical interest.
Though the original inspiration of Quakers, it was a Cambridge University Divinity student, Thomas Clarkson, who became the indefatigable organiser who would spend more than 60 years of his life addressing meetings, organising petitions, and tramping the length and breadth of the country. The remarkable coalition he assembled included Ouidah Equiano, who bought himself out of slavery and whose books describing his captivity sold in their thousands; Granville Sharpe, who used his formidable lawyer’s skills to take the fight to the judiciary, the poet and polemicist, William roscoe and Josiah Wedgwood, whose potteries produced, in their millions, lapel badges and hair braids, declaring the simple truth “Am I not a man and a brother?”.
In our contemporary Britain aggressive secularists increasingly argue that those who have religious beliefs should keep them to themselves.
Clarkson, Equiano, Sharp and Wilberforce, who were all Christians, passionately believed that their private beliefs should animate their public concerns – which, from the point of view of the slaves, is just as well.
Suppression of religious faith would have suppressed the impulses which were the motivation and the very life blood of the abolitionist movement.
Doubtless religious adherents are guilty of all the same faults and sins of omission and commission as the next, but a secular intolerance that seeks to suffocate religious opinion will not help to create a tolerant or respectful Britain.
Last December Tony Blair gave a lecture entitled “Our Nation’s Future – multiculturalism and integration” – at an event hosted by the Runnymede trust. I agree with a lot of what he has to say about past mistakes and the time for a new approach to diversity. Where I part company is with the implication in his remarks that it should be the objective of the State to privatise faith out of the public square. He draws a distinction between what he says “defines us as citizens” rather than “as people.” If the implication of this is that we can be Christian or Jewish or Muslim people but not Christian or Jewish or Muslim citizens and that British values cannot really be Christian values – in a country where 71% in the 2001 Census declared themselves to be Christian – it will lead to systemic alienation and to greater fragmentation not to cohesion.
Culture and religion shape national identity – not politicians.
Religion is too often blamed for man’s failures; a sentiment brilliantly summed up by our British Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, who says “Don’t ask where was God at Auschwitz, ask where was man.”
Abolitionists asked the same sort of question and they found men avariciously selling and degrading other human beings. All over the country Clarkson exhibited manacles and implements used to torture slaves, purchased in Liverpool, and he roused the conscience of the nation.
Every time you have put your name on a petition, taken part in a boycott, worn a lapel badge or a wrist band, joined a grass roots movement, read a report by an investigative journalist, or been encouraged to combine a religious belief with practical action, you can trace the origins of your actions to this first human rights campaign.
With 27 million people enslaved today – including 8.4 million children – with trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour, child labour, racially and caste based slavery, there are no shortage of contemporary dragons waiting to be slain. And there are many other causes too.
Wilberforce once said “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”
If today’s political leaders were identified more with great causes and less with narrow party interests – and showed some of Wilberforce’s gritty tenacity, passion and determination – it might inspire a new generation to enter our civic life and transform their view of politicians.