Several years ago, I wrote a piece for a Christian business journal about John Newton, the author of the most beloved hymn in the history of the Church : Amazing Grace. This month, a film will be released which tells the story of Amazing Grace, John Newton, and the man most responsible for the abolition of the slave trade in England--William Wilberforce. I would strongly encourage readers to visit the production's website. Spend some time there, watch all the trailers, view the resources, see who the film's partners and promoters are. Read about the ongoing struggle to eliminate slavery; something you hear very little about in America today. There is a wealth of information at this site and you could spend several hours exploring the links and fascinating story behind the hymn and the film. I can't wait to see the movie once it comes out on DVD.
The film tells the story of Wilberforce and how the influence of the gospel led him to introduce legislation in Parliament, year after year, to criminalize the slave trade. After many failed attempts, Wilbeforce finally succeeded when his bill passed on 23 February 1807, two hundred years ago this month. Our own Congress would follow suit in 1808. Slavery itself would not become outlawed in England until 1833. Much will be made of the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce's success, and rightfully so.
But England was not the first government in the modern world to criminalize the slave trade. That distinction belongs to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which outlawed the practice in 1778 – twenty-nine years before Wilberforce's bill became law.
Virginia also passed legislation four years later in 1782 which encouraged emancipation. That legislation went so far as to require slave owners to support their emancipated slaves who might not be able to sustain themselves in a gainful occupation. The slavery question continued to come up for debate and public discourse until Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, introduced legislation in the House of Delegates in 1832 that would have ended slavery in Virginia. He proposed an idea that had originated with his grandfather, a proposal that had been defeated by the General Assembly in 1779. Randolph suggested that every male slave born after July 4, 1840, be granted his freedom upon his twenty-first birthday. The legislation would grant the same freedom to female slaves upon their eighteenth birthday. Randolph’s bill was defeated by only a “small majority.”
In fact, the Reverend Randolph McKim (1842–1920), a Confederate chaplain and one-time rector of Christ Church in Alexandria, wrote in A Soldier’s Recollections that Randolph assured him in 1860 “that emancipation would certainly have been carried the ensuing year, but for the revulsion of feeling which followed the fanatical agitation of the subject by the Abolitionists of the period.” And although the bill was defeated, the Virginia legislature “passed a resolution postponing the consideration of the subject till public opinion had further developed.” An editorial in the March 6, 1832, Richmond Whig praised the legislature’s efforts and further noted: “The great mass of Virginia herself triumphs that the slavery question has been taken up by the legislature, that her legislators are grappling with the monster, and they contemplate the distant but ardently desired result [emancipation] as the supreme good which a benevolent Providence could vouchsafe.”
God works in amazing ways and in His own time.