O ye who revel in the ills of Slavery, O feeders on the groans of the wretched, insolent sons of Excess, shedders of own brothers’ blood, does not the inescapable Eye see these things? Does not Nemesis threaten ﬁre-breathing reprisal? Do you hear? Or do you not hear? How winds shake the ground at its roots, and the recesses of earth groan beneath, and the depths roar terribly, pledging those below to wrath against the killers!
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from Ode on the Slave Trade
On this day, February 23rd in 1807, after 20 years of work by William Wilberforce, the House of Commons voted for abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Though the process required two decades of his life, success could be measure by his influence well in advance of the passing of legislation.
Wilberforce inspired the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s developing social consciousness during his college years, and he leveraged an academic assignment to challenge slavery. The university offered a prize for a Greek ode in imitation of Sappho, and for Coleridge, the forum was compelling. He joined his voice with Wilberforce and others for a cause still many years from legal resolution while it was still unpopular (if not dangerous) to do so.
As Malcolm Guite wrote in Mariner:
Wilberforce introduced the bill a third time in the spring of 1792, right in the midst of the period in which Coleridge was preparing his poem. This may have inﬂuenced the Latin title he gave his Greek ode, Sors misera servorum in insulis indiae occidentalis—“The unhappy fate of the slaves in the West Indian islands.” In spite of support from Burke, Fox, Pitt, and Sheridan, in a debate which Burke described as containing “the greatest eloquence ever displayed in the House”—in spite of all that, the anti-slavery bill was again defeated. Le Grice’s account of those evenings in which Coleridge recited Burke refer in fact to 1792, while Coleridge was composing the ode, so it is clear that he was still following the debates in Parliament.
The foreground to moral achievement in often long, and its path, unpredictable. In the case of abolition, one of its greatest opponents became an essential cornerstone. John Newton was a slave trader long before he wrote Amazing Grace.
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :
Newton continued to work in the slave trade for many years, until health issues necessitated that he give up the life at sea and settle down. Some years later his conscience began to bother him in regard to his former vocation, and he began to see the great evil he had perpetrated against other human beings. He became an ardent and outspoken opponent of the slave trade and began to work with the young William Wilberforce and other abolitionists. His voice of authentic experience was a valuable help in bringing the evils of slavery to the attention of the populace of England and exposing its inhuman cruelties. It is not unlikely that in the composition of his great hymn, Newton had in mind his own wretchedness when he pondered his earlier blindness toward the evils of slavery.
D I G D E E P E R
London, 1817. The Italian statesman Count Pecchio was present for the start of a new session of Parliament. As he watched, one event fastened itself upon his memory: the arrival of William Wilberforce. ‘When Mr Wilberforce passes through the crowd,’ Pecchio observed, ‘every one contemplates this little old man, worn with age, and his head sunk upon his shoulders, as a sacred relic; as the Washington of humanity.’
Wilberforce had led the twenty year fight to end the British slave trade. It was a victory known the world over. He had persevered despite death threats, chronic illness and the long war against Napoleon’s France. Yet Wilberforce was no dour, stodgy icon. Rather, friends and family were hard put to adequately describe his winsome personality. Historian Sir James Mackintosh perhaps said it best: ‘I never saw anyone who touched life at so many points.’ Mackintosh was commenting three years before Wilberforce’s death. He had, along with so many others, witnessed Wilberforce’s unceasing charitable interests. A conservative estimate puts the number of these at seventy. Educational reform, better working conditions in factories, legislation for the poor and public health initiatives—these and many more had been the focus of his parliamentary life.
Mackintosh had also known the character of the man—as at ease with children as with statesmen—and whose natural eloquence was described by Prime Minister William Pitt as ‘the greatest I have ever known.’
Wilberforce’s last victory came two days before his death. At long last, slavery itself would be abolished throughout Britain’s colonies. His legacy lives on today. Colleges and universities bear his name. For kings, presidents and many others, his life remains a beacon—representative of a persistent and genuine commitment to principled leadership.
Kevin Belmonte, Travel with William Wilberforce: The Friend of Humanity, ed. Brian H. Edwards (Leominster: Day One, 2006), 5.
Kevin Belmonte holds a BA in English from Gordon College, an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second master’s degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He has twice been a finalist for the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and in 2003, his biography, “William Wilberforce,” won that award.
On several occasions, he has served as a script consultant for the BBC, and also for the PBS documentary, “The Better Hour.” For six years, he was the lead script and historical consultant for the critically-acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace.” He has spoken in a wide array of noteworthy settings, from the Houses of Parliament in London, and gatherings of legislators in Washington, D.C., to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
For several years, his biography of Wilberforce has been required reading for a course taught by David Gergen on leadership and character formation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.
(1725–1807), *Evangelical divine. The son of a shipmaster, he was impressed into naval service, in the course of which he was converted on 10 Mar. (NS 21) 1748, though for some years he continued to be a slavetrader, From 1755 to 1764 he was Tide Surveyor at Liverpool. At this time he came under the influence of G. *Whitefeld, and also began studying Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac. He considered entering the Dissenting ministry, but on being offered the curacy of Olney, he was ordained by the Bp. of Lincoln in 1764. Here he collaborated with W. *Cowper in the production of the Olney Hymns (1779). In 1780 he was appointed rector of St Mary Woolnoth, London, and held this post until his death. Among the better-known of his hymns, which are remarkable for their directness and simplicity, are ‘Glorious things of Thee are spoken’ and ‘How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds’. He was also the author of several prose works, including letters and sermons. In theology he was a moderate *Calvinist and much influenced many leaders in the *Evangelical Revival, among them T. *Scott, W. *Wilberforce (whom he also aided in his campaign against slavery), C. *Simeon and Hannah *More.
Sources and Resources
“The Life and Times of John Newton 1725–1807,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 81: John Newton: Author of “Amazing Grace” (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2004).
Coll. edn. of his Works by R. Cecil (6 vols., London, 1808). Newton pub. much of his religious correspondence anonymously in Omicron (1774), Cardiphonia (2 vols., 1781), Letters to a Wife (2 vols., 1793), and Letters to the Rev. W. Bull (posthumous, 1847). Journal of a Slave Trader (John Newton) 1750–1754 ed. B. [D.] Martin and M. Spurrell (1962) F. J. Hamilton (ed.), ‘Out of the Depths’, being the Autobiography of the Rev. John Newton (1916). Memoir by R. Cecil (London, 1808). Other Lives by J. Bull (ibid., c. 1868), B. [D.] Martin (ibid., 1950), and J. [C.] Pollock, Amazing Grace (ibid., 1981). D. E. Demaray, The Innovation of John Newton (1725–1807): Synergism of Word and Music in Eighteenth Century Evangelism (Texts and Studies in Religion, 36; Lewiston, NY, etc. ), D. B. Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Oxford, 1996). M. L. Loane, Oxford and the Evangelical Succession (1950), pp. 81–132.
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1150–1151.
Bond, Douglas. The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts. Crawfordsville, IN: Reformation Trust, 2013.
Cook, Faith. Our Hymn Writers and Their Hymns. Faverdale North, UK: Evangelical Press, 2005.
Houghton, Elsie. Classic Christian Hymn Writers. Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publishing, 1982.
Ryden, Ernest Edwin. The Story of Our Hymns. Rock Island, IL: Augustana Book Concern, 1930.
Smith, Jane Stuart, and Betty Carlson. Great Christian Hymn Writers. Wheaton: Crossway, 1997.
Turner, Steve. Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Watts, Isaac. A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody, 1707.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.