The Man Who Changed the Course of History
26 March 2007
God's Politician is probably the best light introduction to the life of William Wilberforce, says Mike Smith. In 174 pages, Lean tells the moving and gripping story of Wilberforce's 20-year campaign in the British parliament to abolish the slave trade. Its abolition, 200 years ago this March, was a turning point in the affairs of the world.
The abolition followed one of the most shameful periods of British and European imperial history. African slaves were treated as ‘goods and chattels’; the captain of the slave ship Zong threw 132 slaves overboard after 60 had died of disease on board; and in Jamaica, slaves outnumbered whites by 16 to one. The profits from such exploitation were huge, the deaths were appalling and the numbers of slaves shipped across the Atlantic were vast: an estimated three million by Britain alone.
But the abolition law might never have been passed if Wilberforce had not undergone a profound religious conversion. He was the rising star in the political firmament and the close friend of the Prime Minister, William Pitt. He could have become Prime Minister himself. Instead, he felt that God had laid on him two great tasks: the abolition of slavery and the 'reformation of manners', or morals, in British public life, which was rife with corruption and sleaze. Indeed, the book is as much about this as it is about the campaign against the slave trade. Wilberforce knew that in undertaking such a calling he was sacrificing the top political job: those who conspired against him would see to that. Lean tells in detail how Wilberforce came to his new conviction and the people who influenced him, including the former slave ship captain and convert John Newton, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.
Wilberforce would never had done it alone, and Lean's book—first published in 1980 and reissued in an attractive new edition—tells of the 'Clapham saints', in parliament and churches, and including former African slaves who had won their freedom, who campaigned together.
In his foreword, Jim Wallis, the author of God's Politics and President of Sojourners/Call to Renewal in Washington DC, writes that 'Wilberforce profoundly changed the political and social climate of his time. His life is a testament to the power of conversion and the persistence of faith.' Wallis hopes that Lean's book 'will inspire this generation of Christians to reunite faith and social justice in our time.'
The book is also launched to coincide with the new movie Amazing Grace, about the life of William Wilberforce, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Romala Garai, Rufus Sewell and Youssou N'Dour. A friend of mine in Boston, MA, said that it was one of the greatest films he had seen. He rated it alongside the film Gandhi. On a Saturday matinee, he said, the cinema was packed and the audience applauded at the end.
And what are the equivalent issues for today? Wallis says that, 'Today a new generation of evangelical students and pastors is coming of age. Their concerns are the slavery of poverty, sex trafficking, the environment, human rights, genocide in Darfur, and the ethics of war and peace.' At the book's relaunch, Geoffrey Lean, the author's son, who is the Environment Editor of the Independent on Sunday, said that the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaigners were the inheritors of the Wilberforce spirit. And that sleaze was not unknown in British politics today. He might have added that saving the planet from global warming, which challenges our lifestyles and in which everyone can play their part, is also in the Wilberforce tradition. Like the abolition of slavery, it also cuts across vested political and economic interests. The selfishness of Western consumerism and the gap between the world's rich and poor are certainly unsustainable. As Al Gore writes in An Inconvenient Truth, the climate crisis is 'a moral and spiritual challenge'.
The reviewer is an elder at Trinity United Reformed Church, Wimbledon, London.
God Politician, by Garth Lean
Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007
£10.95; ISBN: 0 232 52690 7