Some years ago on a trip to the U.K., I walked through the historic Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common in South London. This Anglican parish was the home church to William Wilberforce, the abolitionist parliamentarian who wrote Britain's anti-slave-trade legislation. Wilberforce and a group of Christian fellow parliamentarians and lay people known as "the Saints" were behind many social reforms that swept England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The current vicar was very proud to show me around. On the wall were pictures of these typically English-looking gentlemen who helped to turn their country upside down.
Finally, the vicar pointed to an old, well-worn table. "This is the table upon which William Wilberforce wrote the antislavery act," he said proudly. "We now use this table every Sunday for communion." I was struck—here, in dramatic liturgical symbol, the secular and the sacred are brought together with powerful historical force. How did we ever separate them? What became of religion that believed its duty was to change its society on behalf of justice?
William Wilberforce and his group of friends profoundly changed the political and social climate of their time. Wilberforce was a convert of the religious revivals that transformed 18th-century England. His life and his vocation as a Member of Parliament were profoundly changed by his newfound faith; Wilberforce became a force for moral politics. His mentor, John Newton, who worked in the slave trade before he became a minister, became well known for writing the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace." Later, he used his influence as a religious leader to lead the battle against slavery. In the light of his efforts, we can read his immortal words "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me" not merely as a testimony of private guilt and piety, but also of turning away from the sin of trafficking in human flesh. His conversion produced a social and political transformation as well as a personal one.
The same became true of Wilberforce, who first heard Newton speak when he was young but regarded his real conversion as confirmed following a series of conversations in 1785-86. At the conclusion of their conversations, Newton said: "The Lord has raised you up for the good of the church and the good of the nation." Two years later Wilberforce introduced his first anti–slave- trade motion into Parliament. It was defeated, and would be defeated nine more times until it passed in 1807. It was a historic and moral victory, but Wilberforce wouldn't be satisfied until slavery was abolished altogether. A new Wilberforce biography notes, "probably the last letter" John Wesley ever wrote encouraged Wilberforce: "Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might." Wilberforce continued working tirelessly toward that goal, year after year. Finally, in 1833, the House of Commons passed a bill abolishing slavery, and Wilberforce died three days later, his work finally done.
SIMILARLY, in 19th-century America, religious revivalism was linked directly with the abolition of slavery and movements of social reform. Christians helped lead the abolitionist struggle, efforts to end child labor, projects to aid working people and establish unions, and the battle to obtain voting rights for women. Here were evangelical Christians fighting for social causes, an activity that evangelicals have not been associated with in more recent times. Nineteenth-century U.S. evangelist Charles Finney didn't shy away from identifying the gospel with the antislavery cause. He was a revivalist and also an abolitionist. For him, the two went together.
Wilberforce's life is a testament to the power of conversion and the persistence of faith. I have often said that I am a 19th-century American evangelical born in the wrong century. But now, 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. Whether they know it or not, they are really 19th-century American evangelicals (or 18th-century British evangelicals) for the 21st century.
Recently, I was preaching at an evangelical Christian college in the American Midwest. I called for a new generation of Martin Luther Kings and William Wilberforces. Afterward, two young women were waiting to talk to me at the end of a long line of students. When they finally got their turn to speak, they looked me straight in the eye and said, "We are going to be the next Martin Luther King Jr. and William Wilberforce, and we just wanted to tell you that." I told them I was glad to meet them now before they became famous! But they were serious, and so was I. The history from earlier centuries can inform a new generation of Christians in the struggle about how to reunite faith and social justice for our time. I know two young Christian women who will be eager to read it.
An important new movie is about to be released, Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce. Sojourners previewed the film for the first time in the U.S. at our September 2006 conference in Pasadena, California. I was impressed and moved by the Wilberforce saga and believe America will be too. Along with the film a new campaign is arising called "Amazing Change" which is focused on modern- day slavery—that's right, modern slavery. In his book Not For Sale, which will accompany the Wilberforce film, David Batstone writes:
Many people bristle to hear the word slave used to describe the modern practice of exploitation. ... Indeed, more slaves are in bondage today than were bartered in four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. Nowhere has its impact been felt more brutally than on children in the underdeveloped nations. Slaveholders prey on the defenseless, and children so easily become vulnerable. The U.N. report Ten Million Children Exploited for Domestic Labor ... indicates that children remain in servitude for long stretches of time because no one identifies their enslavement.
We preview the book in this issue. Read it and get involved. A new generation of abolitionists, perhaps, is about to be born.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.