On this day in history the famous clergyman and hymn writer John Newton wrote to Christian MP and anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce urging him not to give up his campaign against slavery.
Newton, a close friend and mentor of the campaigner, had previously persuaded a young Wilberforce to serve God in public life.
Eleven years later, at the start of 1796, Wilberforce put forward a Bill in Parliament aiming to abolish the slave trade.
Despite previous disappointments he was convinced that on this occasion he could win the support of the majority of Parliament and put an end to slavery in the British Empire.
As the Bill approached its final reading in the House of Commons on 15 March 1796, Wilberforce’s hopes were high.
He had considerable backing from many influential politicians and the House of Commons seemed well attended that night.
His only concern was that five or six of his supporters had gone to the opera to hear a new work from Italy.
As it turned out, their absence was crucial: he mustered seventy votes for the abolition of the slave trade. There were seventy-four against.
Wilberforce was devastated by the defeat. He walked out of Parliament utterly dejected.
Later that evening he noted in his diary: “Enough at the opera to have carried it. Very much vexed and incensed at our opponents.” Wilberforce’s spirits had been crushed.
In July 1796 William Wilberforce wrote to his mentor and friend John Newton, writer of the Christian hymn Amazing Grace, saying that he was considering retirement from public life.
Wilberforce had campaigned tirelessly for nine years to bring about the abolition of the slave trade. All his hard work now seemed fruitless.
On 21 July 1796 Newton replied to Wilberforce. It was a powerful and persuasive letter.
In it Newton wrote that he believed Wilberforce had been called by God to serve in the House of Commons as a witness to those who did not know him.
Newton wrote: “The example, and even the presence of a consistent character may have a powerful, though unobserved, effect upon others.
“You are not only a Representative for Yorkshire. You have the far greater honour of being a Representative for the Lord, in a place where many know him not, and an opportunity of showing them what are the genuine fruits of that religion which you are known to profess.”
Newton also encouraged Wilberforce, by likening his situation to that of Old Testament prophet Daniel.
Like the Bible’s Daniel, Newton wrote, Wilberforce would face many trials, but if he looked to the Lord and trusted in Him in all his ways then he had no need to fear evil.
“It is true, that you live in the midst of difficulties and snares, and you need a double guard of watchfulness and prayer. But since you know both your need of help and where to look for it, I may say to you, as Darius to Daniel, Thy God whom Thou servest continually is able to preserve and deliver you.”
The result was that Newton’s wise counsel persuaded Wilberforce not to leave Parliament but to stay there in order to accomplish the will of God.
One cold morning in February 1807 the House of Commons voted to end the practice of trading in human beings. The Members of the House rose to salute William Wilberforce.
Britain became one of the first countries in Europe to abolish the slave trade, and the move became a catalyst for the adoption of similar legislation around the world. It became a moral benchmark of which other societies rightly took note.
My very dear Sir
Necessity obliged me to run beyond my usual time, but I have long had my present 2 or 3 days retreat in prospect, and purposed if I could attain it, to make my payment. You were very good to write first, and without taking notice of my tardiness.
You say true, My dear Sir, I seem to myself, to stand upon a cliff, from whence I can contemplate, with compassion and thankfulness the many whom I see tossed about upon the tempestuous sea of public life. But you have no claim to my pity, though you have a just right to my prayers, and a frequent place in them. Because I believe you are the Lord’s servant and are in the post which he has assigned you; and though it appears to me more arduous, and requiring more self-denial than my own, I know that He who called you to it, can afford you strength according to your day, and I trust He will, for He is faithful to his promise.
I answered for you in my own mind, that if after taking the proper steps to securing your continuance in parliament, you had been excluded, it would not have greatly grieved you. You would have looked to a higher hand, and considered it as a providential intimation that the Lord had no farther occasion for you there. And in this view, I think you would have received your Quietus with thankfulness. But I hope it is a token for good that He has not yet dismissed you.
Some of his people may be emphatically said, Not to live to themselves. May it not be said of you? Would you not be glad to have more command of your time, and more choice of your company, than your situation will admit? You meet with many things which weary and disgust you, which you would avoid in a more private life. But then they are inseparably connected with your path of duty. And though you cannot do all the good you wish for, some good is done, and some evil is probably prevented, by your influence and that of a few gentlemen in the House of Commons, like-minded with yourself. It costs you something, many hours, which you could employ more to your own personal satisfaction, and exposes you to many impertinencies from which you would gladly be exempted; but if upon the whole you are thereby instrumental in promoting the cause of God and the public good, you will have no reason to regret, that you had not so much leisure for more retired exercises than some of us are favoured with. Nor is it possible at present to calculate all the advantages that may result from your having a seat in the house, at such a time as this. The example, and even the presence of a consistent character may have a powerful, though unobserved, effect upon others. You are not only a Representative for Yorkshire. You have the far greater honour of being a Representative for the Lord, in a place where many know him not, and an opportunity of showing them what are the genuine fruits of that religion which you are known to profess.
Though you have not fully succeeded in your persevering endeavours to abolish the slave trade as yet, the business is still in train, and since you took it in hand the condition of the slaves already in our Islands has been undoubtedly meliorated. I believe likewise it is wholly owing to you that Johnson and Marsden [clergymen] are now in New Holland [Australia], and I trust that notwithstanding all discouragements, the seed sown and sowing then, will yet spring up to the glory of God and the good of souls. And to have been, even remotely, the instrument of saving one soul, is a blessing and an honour. I consider Dr Coulthurst’s appointment [as vicar] to Halifax in a similar light. It is an important stand and might have been very differently disposed of, if you had not been concerned in it. These instances, to which others that I am not acquainted with I suppose might be added, are proofs that you have not laboured in vain.
It is true, that you live in the midst of difficulties and snares, and you need a double guard of watchfulness and prayer. But since you know both your need of help and where to look for it, I may say to you, as Darius to Daniel, Thy God whom thou servest continually is able to preserve and deliver you. Daniel likewise was a public man, and in critical circumstances. But he trusted in the Lord, was faithful in his departments, and therefore though he had enemies, they could not prevail against him.
Indeed the great point for our comfort in life, is to have a well grounded persuasion that we are where, all things considered, we ought to be. Then it is no great matter whether we are in public or in private life, in a city or a village, in a palace or a cottage. The promise, My grace is sufficient for thee, is necessary to support us in the smoothest scenes, and is equally able to support us in the most difficult. Happy the man who has a deep impression of our Lord’s words, Without Me you can do nothing, who feels with the Apostle, That he has no sufficiency of himself even to think a good thought – provided he has likewise a heartfelt dependence upon the Saviour, through whom we can both do and bear all things that are incident to the post allotted us. He is always near. He knows our wants, our dangers, our feelings, and our fears. By looking to him we are enlightened and made strong out of weakness. With his wisdom for our guide, his power for our protection, his fullness for our supply, and proposing his glory as our chief end, and placing our happiness in his favour, in communion with him, and communications from Him, we shall be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand.
Many books have been written on religion, but the whole subject lies in a short compass. It is only the love of God and the love of our fellow creatures for God’s sake.
We cannot love Him, till we begin to know how he has loved us. And then we must love him of course. His real character, his whole Name, if I may so speak, is exhibited by the Cross. Holiness, justice and truth, wisdom, mercy and grace, are as the several letters which when put together give us his name, and we read God is LOVE. Herein is love indeed; that when we were enemies, God gave his only Son, and the Son freely gave himself, to redeem us from misery and sin, to reconcile us to God, to ourselves, and to each other.
Through mercy I continue well, and hitherto competent for my public work. But I feel I grow older. I am within a fortnight of entering my 72nd year. I think I have lived long enough for myself. The world indeed appears a poor thing to me now. Yet I have no reason to be weary of living, for I am surrounded with comforts and mercies. I can think of nothing worth wishing for to make me more happy than I am in temporals. But alas! I dwell in Mesach and alas! Mesach dwells in me. What with the evils I feel within, and the sin and misery which I see on every side without, I should faint, were it not that I know whom I have believed, and am satisfied that all is in his hands and that he does and will do all things well.
My dear Miss Catlett returns you thanks for your obliging remembrance of her, and presents her best respects. How glad should we be, were it possible to hide you with us, for a few days at No. 6.
I came hither yesterday, to see my friend Mr Simons, of whom I believe you have heard, and hope to dine at home on Saturday.
May the Lord bless you my dear Sir. May he be your sun and shield – and fill you with all joy and peace in believing.
I am, Your very affectionate and much obligedJohn Newton
Paul’s Cray Kentye 21 July 96