The fight against slavery in England, with John Newton and William Wilberforce

Photo credit

This series covers the story of the fight in Britain to outlaw the slave trade, and eventually slavery itself. Beginning in 1750 with slave ship captain John Newton, it follows a typical voyage to Africa and then on to Jamaica with his human cargo. It is personal in that it traces the development of Newton’s growing awareness that there was something very wrong in the entire business to the epiphany that turns him from slave captain to anti-slavery champion.

From there it moves to the initial social and legal situations which led to the political fight in Parliament, a fight which dragged on for years. Finally, it covers the missionary efforts in the islands which gave slaves a sense of their rights as men before God, and which gave the home populations an accurate understanding of what slavery in the islands really was about. That led to the growing demand by the population for legal change. Photo below – credit wikipedia.

English: Stowage of the British slave ship Bro...

Unlike the recent film, „Amazing Grace” which focuses on William Wilberforce, this series looks at the history of the trade from many viewpoints: from that of Newton, the slave ship captain, to planters in the West Indies like David Lisle, to social reformers like Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, to political figures like Wilberforce, Fox and Pitt, to missionaries such as Rev. William Knibb, to articulate, former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano, and finally, to ordinary slaves. It displays their fate by first portraying raids on slave villages, following them through the middle passage and then to the difficult „seasoning” on the plantations. Although it embellishes the victories somewhat and condenses incidents in the manner typical of most „faction” (as opposed to fiction) nevertheless, it is a sometimes painful but honest assessment of the system and fairly covers a difficult, complex topic in a balanced way.

It depicts the role of Christian faith as a catalyst, driving those who spearheaded the abolition movement and then continuing as an integral part of that movement over the decades. That may be why it is a little remembered, seldom-seen mini-series which is unavailable today, since it is more honest than politically correct. Produced by the BBC in 1975, it rates 9.4 of 10 on IMDB and was nominated for a Bafta award. It has first rate acting and a credible, fact-based screenplay by Jamaican Evan Jones, a man who has both slaves and slave-owners as ancestors and so is uniquely qualified to present a balanced view. Jones also narrates it. Photo credit wikipedia.

Part 1 deals with Newton’s experiences as a captain and the initial legal battles over slaves physically present in England.

Part 1 (90 min)

Part 2 (90 min)

Part 2 deals with the incident which raised awareness enough to bring the matter of the trade before Parliament, and the struggles there.

Part 3 (90 min)

Part 3 covers the growing missionary presence and the hostility of the planters toward such activity, the slave revolts of the early 19th century and the changing economic/political climate.

The last letter that John Wesley wrote was to William Wilberforce + 1 more (letter)

There has always been a dividing line within the protestant church as to whether as Christians we ought to be politically involved or not. I came across this letter recently and thought it might be of interest noting that it was the last letter to be written by Wesley before he died.

(via) The United Methodist Church or

Letter to William Wilberforce

The last letter that John Wesley wrote was to William Wilberforce, a man who had been converted under Wesley’s ministry and who was a member of Parliament. The letter concerns his opposition to slavery and encouragement for Wilberforce to take action for change. Parliament finally outlawed England’s participation in the slave trade in 1807. The year 2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the the abolition of British-US slave trade.1

Balam, February 24, 1791

Dear Sir:
Unless the divine power has raised you us to be as Athanasius contra mundum,2 I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God before you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a „law” in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?

That he who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things, is the prayer of, dear sir,

Your affectionate servant,
John Wesley


1. Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life, p. 56.
2. „Athanasius arrayed against the world.”

The graphic of John Wesley writing his letter to William Wilberforce was scanned from A. B. Hyde, The Story of Methodism Throughout the World (Springfield, MA: Willey & Co., 1889), p. 237. and is in the public domain.

John Wesley

A remarkable letter from the founder of Methodism via
You can click on this link  The Karpeles Manuscript Library and see a letter Wesley wrote that is housed in the Karpeles private Library. Here a the tidbits the site offers in the form of quotes from his letter, I especially like the quote where Wesley states that „everyone has a right to think for himself….”:

This is an example of how the study of ones letters allows us to probe deeply into the thoughts and ideas of the world’s great personalities:”…..two must go to Quarrel; & I declare to you I will not be the one……””…..O beware of bigotry! Of an undue attachment to opinions or phrases!….”

„…..Christ is heightening, justifying, sanctifying weighing the believing Lord…..”

„…..we tasted each others spirits & after took sweet counsel together…..”

„…..I think and let think…..”

„…..everyone has the right to think for himself & (in some sense) to speak for himself, I mean, to use any mode of expression which appears to him most agreeable to Scripture…..”

Evidently at one time this letter was almost lost by fire (natural or otherwise?!)

See Wesley’s letter here.

Christian Biography

William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a tribute to William Wilberforce, written by John Piper in 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave:

It was 4 A.M. February 24, 1807. Wilberforce was the chief human instrument in God’s hands for overturning what he called “this horrid trade.” In honor of this anniversary it is fitting to take a few glimpses at the man. Two glimpses encourage us to be ready to give our encouragements to good causes. John Newton, author of the hymn „Amazing Grace,” and John Wesley gave crucial words to Wilberforce. Here’s a snapshot.

To resolve the anguish Wilberforce felt over what to do with his life as a Christian, he resolved to risk seeing John Newton on December 7, 1785—a risk because Newton was an evangelical and not admired or esteemed by Wilberforce’s colleagues in Parliament. He wrote to Newton on December 2:

I wish to have some serious conversation with you. . . . I have had ten thousand doubts within myself, whether or not I should discover myself to you; but every argument against it has its foundation in pride. I am sure you will hold yourself bound to let no one living know of this application, or of my visit, till I release you from the obligation. . . . PS Remember that I must be secret, and that the gallery of the House is now so universally attended, that the face of a member of parliament is pretty well known. (Robert Isaac Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, abridged edition [London,
1843], p. 47.)

It was a historically significant visit. Not only did Newton give encouragement to Wilberforce’s faith, but he also urged him not to cut himself off from public life. Wilberforce wrote about the visit:

After walking about the Square once or twice before I could persuade myself, I called upon old Newton—was much affected in conversing with him—something very pleasing and unaffected in him. He told me he always had hopes and confidence that God would sometime bring me to Him. . . . When I came away I found my mind in a calm, tranquil state, more humbled, and looking more devoutly up to God (ibid., p. 48).

Wilberforce was relieved that the sixty-year-old Newton urged him not to cut himself off from public life. Newton wrote to Wilberforce two years later: “It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation” (ibid). One marvels at the magnitude of some small occasions. Think what hung in the balance in that moment of counsel, in view of what Wilberforce would accomplish for the cause of abolition.

Another encouragement came from John Wesley in the last letter he ever wrote before he died. When Wesley was eighty-seven years old (in 1790) he wrote to Wilberforce and said, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of man and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you” (ibid.).Two years later Wilberforce wrote in a letter, “I daily become more sensible that my work must be affected by constant and regular exertions rather than by sudden and violent ones” (ibid., p. 116). In other words, with fifteen years to go in the first phase of the battle, he knew that only a marathon mentality, rather than a sprint mentality, would prevail in this cause. Thank God for Wesley’s counsel to Wilberforce. from You can read further about Wilberforce here and here. You can also read John Piper’s online book Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce here.

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