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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Freedom Fighters: Two Small Men That Stood Tall Against Slavery

By Ken Horn
February 12, 2012

1784. George Whitefield is dead. John Wesley is in his final years. The United States is a nation, independent of Britain.

And a great change has come. This specific change has occurred in the life of one individual — a man of diminutive size, called a “shrimp” by some. But the change in this one man would eventually transform nations and revolutionize human rights. The “shrimp” was about to become a “whale.”

Across the Atlantic, a contemporary eight years his junior was being groomed for national leadership. He would eventually follow his British counterpart into championing the cause of those who could not win freedom for themselves.

This is the story of William Wilberforce and John Quincy Adams, two small men who stood tall against slavery.

William Wilberforce:

The Force That Stopped Slavery in England

We are all familiar with our own country’s Civil War. It purchased the freedom of slaves at a high cost to our nation. Most know the basics of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and the bitter blight of Reconstruction that permeated the South after the conflict. We also know that, though slavery had been overturned, prejudice persisted in both the South and the North — and equal rights had to be hard won.

But slavery was the giant that had to be felled before civil rights battles could even be fought. Before this giant called slavery was defeated in the United States, it had first been defeated in the mother country, Great Britain. Though the Revolutionary War had left a bitter taste in this country’s mouth for things British, the homeland had something to teach us. If we had learned from them, the rivers of blood shed between 1861 and 1865 may have never had to flow.

The story of slavery’s demise in England is less dramatic than ours. That’s why it is often forgotten. But it too involved a great price paid by those who fought the battles. And the big gun in the battle was wielded by a man of small stature named William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Wilberforce forcefully brought his Christian convictions to bear on the knottiest problem of the day.

The young Wilberforce grew up with an aunt and uncle who were staunch evangelicals and good friends of revivalist George Whitefield. Young William heard the preaching of John Newton, the former slave trader who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Years later, Newton’s message would come to life in his soul.

At 21, Wilberforce was elected to Parliament, placed there by God for a cause he knew nothing of at first. It was four years after his election that he experienced a deep conversion to Jesus Christ. He was drafted to lead the cause of the abolition of slavery. He prayed and sought God about it, and it eventually became the main crusade of his life.

Influential leaders had championed the cause of the slave in England. John Wesley had led that moral charge on a religious front. When Wesley was in Georgia as a missionary, he had been brash enough to actually preach to the slaves, a practice not looked upon with appreciation. He carried that burden back to his own country where the slave trade was prospering.

Now Wilberforce would carry the banner in the halls of power, where few others could go.

Frail, sickly and weak all his life, Wilberforce seemed an unlikely champion. But when he spoke, he was without peer. James Boswell said that when Wilberforce opened his mouth, “the shrimp grew and grew and became a whale.”

John Newton’s influence on Wilberforce is a vivid illustration of Romans 8:28 (“… all things work together for good …”). It was surely never God’s will for Newton to be a slaver. But once saved, his dramatic turnaround influenced a child who, years later, would conquer the sin from which Newton had been delivered.

The force that stopped slavery in Great Britain was a small force named Wilberforce — and a great force called the will of God. The triumph of this frail, sickly man over the devilry that was slavery is a lesson to all who think they can make no impact on our society.

Having seen its evils firsthand, Wilberforce was indefatigable in his crusade against it, considering it a mission from God. For 40 years he continually submitted anti-slavery legislation — unsuccessfully — though he was the prime mover in the 1807 abolition of the slave trade. But the institution of slavery continued.

During that time he was mocked, ridiculed and scorned by men of high station with too much to lose if Wilberforce had his — and God’s — way. He fought severe illness most of this time, clearly exacerbated by his strenuous efforts. He knew that it would be healthier for him to cease the campaign, but he would not relent.

Wilberforce was supported by a close-knit group of influential fellow believers known as the Clapham Sect. These godly men and women turned their resources to the betterment of society in many ways. But perhaps the greatest way was resourcing the battle against slavery.

It was not until Wilberforce lay on his deathbed in 1833, eight years after he retired from politics, that Parliament passed the legislation that would ban slavery throughout the British Empire.

He died three days later, at peace that his mission had been fulfilled.

John Quincy Adams:

Striking the Blow in America

Wilberforce had a contemporary counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic.

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was aged. As a former president of the United States, he had the right, if anyone did, to relax the rest of his life.

But his life’s work was not through, and he became another little man who struck a mighty blow against the ugly giant slavery.

Dubbed “The Last Puritan” because of his firm belief in and practice of obedience to God in the tradition of the Puritans, a disappearing quality, Adams had inherited a robust patriotism and firm disdain of slavery from his parents, John and Abigail Adams.

He had also been taught not to curry the favor of men. It was a good thing because, after being drafted to run for Congress in 1830 and winning in a surprising landslide, his battle in the House of Representatives against the institution of slavery was a very unpopular one. And despite his standing as a former president, he would be loudly defamed.

When Adams began his crusade in Congress, the slave trade had already been outlawed for some time. It remained legal to keep slaves obtained before that law was enacted, and there continued to be illegal smuggling of new slaves. “Old Man Eloquent,” as he was known, led a long battle that finally brought about the repeal of the “Gag Rule” that prevented the abolition of slavery from being discussed in the House of Representatives. Without this hard-fought, seemingly procedural victory, the debate necessary to sway opinion to end the evil could not have been joined.

Adams detested the contortions some professing Christians went through to justify slavery. In the May 27, 1838, entry in his diary, he wrote, “The neglect of public worship in this city is an increasing evil, and the indifference to all religion throughout the whole country portends no good.” He lamented “the counterfeit character of a very large portion of the Christian ministry” that were going to great lengths to find biblical justification for the institution of slavery, while “the abolitionists assume as the first principle of all their movements that slavery is sin.”

Adams detested slavery, and the blows he struck would topple the ugly giant. Adams himself would never see it fall. But his were the signal blows. He dropped the bomb on the institution of slavery, but he closed his eyes in death before he could see the cloud of destruction — or the sunrise of freedom for all. He would not have been happy to see the upheaval and needless loss of life brought about by the Civil War — but he would not have been surprised.

Adams could easily have refused to take this key role. He had been president and could have said, “I have done my part.” Instead he eschewed ease and gave the last 17 years of his life to the successful battle against a great evil, demonstrating that no one’s value or work is complete until God says He no longer needs him. As George Whitefield said, “I am immortal until my life’s work is done.”

Wilberforce and Adams were two small men who did God’s work, the work of freedom. Here’s some of what they taught us:

• Every human being must have freedom — regardless of race (or whether they are unborn or not).

• Professing Christians can be blind to — or even supportive of — things that are morally and spiritually reprehensible (slavery, abortion).

• A righteous cause requires sacrifice.

• If you believe in what you are fighting for, there will likely be times when you will have to stand alone.

• Great battles must sometimes be won a little at a time.

• No one is ever too small or weak or old to accomplish God’s work.

KEN HORN is editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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