Advocacy as a Gateway for Passionate Engagement

William Wilberforce is widely credited with leading the campaign to abolish slavery in England. But even a casual review of history confirms it would not have been successful without a team of partners operating in all four domains of passionate engagement: justice, advocacy, discovery and service. In my last blog, I highlighted the contribution of Granville Sharp, in the justice domain. This week, I’ll explore the important contributions made in the advocacy domain.


Promoting a Cause: Who Else Can We Get To Help? 

Thomas Clarkson entered the abolitionist movement through an unlikely set of circumstances. As a twenty-five-year-old divinity student at St. John's College, the same school Wilberforce had attended a few years earlier, he entered an annual Latin essay contest sponsored by Cambridge University. The vice chancellor, an Anglican minister named Peter Peckard, had a growing distaste for the slave trade and chose to focus the annual essay on the question: Is it lawful to enslave others against their will? This contest was especially prestigious, padding the award winner's resume for life. 

Clarkson was a devout Christ-follower but had not given much thought at all to the slave trade. He was a motivated student who set his sights on winning the highly coveted essay contest with little thought about ending the slave trade. But as he threw himself into hours of rigorous study the information Clarkson gleaned birthed a well spring of compassion. The pressure of that wellspring of knowledge gathered steam like a geyser ready to burst forth from the soil of Clarkson's heart.

 Thomas Clarkson's essay won the prize, but he was no longer satisfied with padding his resume. He was feeling compelled toward action. After completing his studies, he left Cambridge for London on horseback. The information he had gathered for his essay haunted him to the point he dismounted his horse near Herefordshire. "It was a moment he would remember for the rest of his long life. For it was there and then, on the side of the road, that it first occurred to Thomas Clarkson that if the things he had uncovered and written about in his prize-winning essay were a reality…it was time someone put an end to them."[1] 

His first step was to translate his Latin essay into English and distribute it. He had become an unlikely advocate in the abolitionist cause. After publicly declaring his decision to a fulltime commitment to the cause of ending slavery, "he would from that point forward be unflagging in his efforts to stir up public zeal by distributing copies of his essay."[2]Effective advocacy requires solid information. Clarkson had done significant research for his essay but the self-directed motivation to keep learning more about the horrors of slavery overtook Clarkson like a raging storm. It is said before he was through Clarkson had interviewed as many as twenty thousand sailors.


Mobilizing Artists

 Others would be invited to contribute their talents to the cause. John Newton was asked to persuade his friend William Cowper to write a poem. He submitted "The Negro's Complaint," which helped widen the circle of information. An artist named Josiah Wedgwood created an image of a kneeling slave, shackled both in hand and foot, looking upward to ask, "Am I not a man and a brother?" This may have been the first logo ever created for a human rights campaign. It was printed on everything from snuff boxes to jewelry pinned by ladies to their dresses and in their hair. It was even made into a letter sealing fob to imprint the wax used to seal letters.

 Thomas Clarkson came into possession of a slave ship schematic that showed in great detail how to position slaves to maximize their numbers as human cargo. To slave traders it was a stale expression of business process optimization with a free market focus on the bottom line. To the growing number of people taking a fresh look at the slave trade, due in part to Clarkson and his network of advocates, it was a "nightmare of understatement."[3]Clarkson meticulously reworked the diagram using the measurements of a specific slave ship owned by one of the wealthiest families in Liverpool. At first glance the images could be anything from meaningless marks to ant-like creatures. But upon closer examination the detailed drawing showed people; the smaller ones must be children. It was distributed everywhere, becoming as horrifying as it was ubiquitous.

 The advocacy expression of passionate engagement had cobbled together an unlikely group of artists and poets whose diverse gifting helped build the groundswell of support that paved the way for Wilberforce. At 5:00pm on May 12, 1789, Wilberforce would make the speech of his life, speaking extemporaneously before Parliament for three and a half hours. But in spite of his meticulous, logical and powerful argument, the effort to pass anti-slave trade legislation fell short. Another approach would be needed, one driven by the curious desire to solve a problem, another domain of passionate engagement, and the focus of my next blog.

 If you found this helpful and want to learn more about The 4 Domains of Passionate Engagement, check out the latest episode of Learning @ the Speed of Life here.


[1] Metaxas, Eric, Amazing Grace (New York, NY, Harper Collins Publisher, 2007) pg 107

[2] Ibid,pg 110

[3] Ibid,pg 132

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