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The world is in a mess, and Christians know it. Too many of them believe that they have not been called to change the world. What if other Christians had taken a similar position? What would the world be like? John Newton (1725–1807) was an infamous slave trader. The church knows him best as the author of such well-know hymns as “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” Even while Newton was a Christian, he was also a captain of a slave ship. “Newton penned the beloved hymn ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear’ during the leisure time afforded by a voyage from Africa to the West Indies.”
In time, however, Newton confessed “shame” for “the misery and mischief to which [he had], formerly, been accessory.” He eventually denounced his former occupation with the publication of Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade (1788), “a stinging attack upon slavery that makes scenes from Alex Haley’s Roots seem mild by comparison.” Newton believed, prior to his denunciation of the slave trade, that he could be a good Christian and do nothing to fix social evils. “By 1788 Newton considered it ‘criminal’ to remain silent and not inveigh with evangelical fervor against the entire slave system. This conviction did not arise automatically upon his conversion, but from ethical deliberations that [William] Wilberforce set in motion.”
England’s abolition movement was almost entirely led by the evangelical wing of the church. At the pleading of Lady Middleton and Bishop Porteus, James Ramsay wrote a long Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784). Ramsay was “convinced that men will not respond to lessons of eternal redemption from those who enslave them on earth, or about heaven when kept in hell. . . . He proposed steps to total Emancipation, and suggested that free labour would yield more profit to plantation owners.”
William Wilberforce, upon being struck with the oppression inherent in the slave trade, wrote in his diary, “Almighty God has set before me two great objectives: The abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” Wilberforce began his mission in 1787. His efforts were ridiculed and lampooned in popular cartoons. “The attitude in the House of Lords was summed up by the member who declared flatly, ‘All abolitionists are Jacobins.’” These words are similar to the charges made by a number of modern-day evangelical leaders. Had the British government “not been in the hands of Christians there seems little reason to have expected it to mount its massive, expensive, and voluntary campaign against slavery.”
In addition to the work done by these nearly forgotten Christians who worked tirelessly to abolish the slave trade, there is a long tradition of the establishment of schools and hospitals around the globe. Medical and educational missionary work has its origins in the evangelical struggle for reform. Great efforts of social reform followed the preaching of the gospel. “Historians have attributed to [John] Wesley’s influence rather than to any other the fact that Britain was spared the horrors of a bloody revolution like France’s.” His philosophy of social reform was derived from the Bible.