Canadian Mennonite
Volume 11, No. 19
October 1, 2007


Christians speaking out

Tim Miller Dyck


Tim Miller Dyck

News reports this past month have been examining the legacy of the nine black schoolchildren who dared, 50 years ago, to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Those nine, and the ugly violence they faced, moved a nation to see that injustice was happening.

It brings to mind another anniversary. It was in 1807 that the British parliament passed a momentous bill outlawing that country’s slave trade. It was the climax of a 20-year effort by Christians, convinced of the sin of enslaving another human being, to get wider society and government to see how wrong the trade was.

Member of Parliament William Wilberforce gets much of the credit for his utterly determined efforts to keep the issue in front of lawmakers. Perhaps some of you have seen the film Amazing Grace, a film that fortunately does not skip over how important his faith in Christ was in motivating him to act.

Wilberforce was a member of the state church, the Church of England—he had to be in order to be a Member of Parliament—but, especially relevant to the issue of slavery, he was also an ardent Evangelical. He sometimes slipped a pebble into his shoe to remind himself that his thoughts should be on holier things. At his conversion to Evangelicalism, Wilberforce felt shaken to the core by “a sense of my great sinfulness in having so long neglected the unspeakable mercies of my God and Saviour.”

Evangelicals back then were passionate about both the health of people’s souls and the care of their spirits and bodies. Evangelicals were leaders in the anti-slavery movement, in establishing hospitals and orphanages, in the campaign against gambling and drinking, and in reformations to the brutal prison system of the time. They also led in teaching personal Bible study and prayer, starting foreign missions, in allowing women and lay people greater roles in church, and in interdenominational Christian efforts.

Wilberforce dedicated much of his career to ending the slave trade, but also said that the greatest of all causes he served was the introduction of Christian missionaries to India. (See “Education and fellowship build Indian church” on page 21 learn how Mennonites are still helping evangelize the country.)

It’s a loss to the North American Evangelical movement that it has now come to focus more on the inner spiritual life than caring for the disadvantaged and downtrodden for whom Jesus showed so much passion. The Mennonite emphasis of holding these twin values more in balance is a gift our church brings to the wider Evangelical Christian movement.

But going back 200 years, the 1807 bill seemed completely unrealistic and foolish just a generation earlier. Slavery was nasty and unfortunate, but the majority attitude was that the ends justified the means. Trading slaves wasn’t “an amiable trade,” said a Member of Parliament at the time, “but neither was the trade of a butcher an amiable trade, and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a very good thing.”

Historian Adam Hochschild, in his book Bury the Chains, traces the role of Christians in convicting the public of the wrongness of slavery to those who led the way long before Wilberforce.

It was a small denomination—the Quakers—that really started the abolition movement in both Britain and the United States. There were less than 20,000 Quakers in Britain at the time. Many had been imprisoned for their beliefs in previous years. Many had fled to North America seeking religious freedom. They dressed and spoke simply, and believed that obedience to God was more important than obedience to the king. They were pacifists. They were politically shut out due to laws restricting government posts to members of the Church of England. Many of them, interestingly, were businesspeople (and quite successful businesspeople at that), because it was one of the few areas of the economy open to them. The similarities to Mennonites are clear, I hope!

I’ll have more to say on this next issue. Slavery has not, unfortunately, disappeared from the world. Segregation lasted a long time in the United States. But it’s also true that almost no one in modern-day society would see it as acceptable or morally right, either. That’s thanks to the determination, organizational skills and financial generosity of Quakers, combined with the determination, public preaching and persuading of wider society by Evangelicals. It was a combination that changed the world.

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