Complex problems at any moment in history can only be solved by a group of people motivated to learn, engage, influence and sacrifice for the cause in all four domains of passionate engagement: service, justice, discovery, and advocacy.
The service domain focuses on meeting a need. The justice domain focuses on righting a wrong. The advocacy domain focuses on promoting a cause. The discovery domain focuses on solving a problem.
Passion and Innovation in the Abolition Movement
As a child, James Stephen's father had gone bankrupt, ending up in a debtor's prison. As strange as it seems today, incarcerated debtors were allowed to take their family with them. James Stephen spent some of his formative years in prison with his father.
As a young man exploring the nightlife in London, he found himself in a scandalous situation, engaged to two women at the same time, with one of them pregnant. He took the easy way out and fled the country, headed for the West Indies, where he would make a fortune. Upon arriving in Barbados in 1783, Stephen attended the trial of several African slaves who were widely believed to have been falsely accused. They were not only convicted but burned alive at the stake. The horrific sight formed a heartlink between James Stephen and the abolitionist cause.
Arriving in London Stephen joined the network of abolitionists known as the Clapham group. His study of merchant law had led him to a discovery that would play a significant role in solving the problem Wilberforce had faced in fashioning legislation that would impact the slave trade and still be passed in Parliament.
The French were at war with England and most slave ships conveniently sailed under the neutral American flag so as not to be liable to seizure by privately owned vessels commissioned by either the French or English government, to harass their enemy's sailing vessels. James Stephen proposed they introduce a bill that removed the protection of neutrality and authorized privateers to seize the cargo of French ships sailing under the American flag.
The movie Amazing Grace depicts Clarkson and Wilberforce interrupting Prime Minister William Pitt's game of golf to present this strategy. For the life of him, Pitt could not see why this bill was important enough to warrant a special visit and interrupt his golf or what it had to do with the slave trade. The stealth nature of the bill was its brilliance. Wilberforce explained: "Eighty percent of all slave ships are flying the neutral American flag to prevent them from being boarded by privateers. If we pass a law removing their protection no ship owner will dare allow his vessel to make the journey."
The bill would apply equally to both French and English ships since they both employed the same neutral flag strategy. Wilberforce explained to Pitt that while the bill wouldn't put an end to the slave trade it would cut their profits so deeply as many as half of the traders would be bankrupt in two years. James Stephen had discovered a plan that was openly anti-French and secretly anti-slave. All that was needed was a boring MP with a reputation for patriotism to put the bill forward so as to protect the real motives behind it. The bill passed and turned the momentum back in Wilberforce's favor.
Passionate Engagement Over Time
This epic struggle against the evil of the slave trade did not end in Wilberforce's day. The great strides made by the network of co-collaborators operating in each of the four domains of passionate engagement helped change the mindset that had made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive unchallenged for millennia. But the evils of bonded labor, human trafficking, the oppression of Dalits and other forms of slavery still exist today.
Efforts to chip away at their foundations will require a multifaceted approach that includes service, justice, discovery, and advocacy. It will require a diversity of people and gifting who are unified by a commitment to learn more about, engage in and influence others toward noble issue-based causes even when sacrifice is required. And it will call forth point leaders like Wilberforce who allow the raw fuel of passion to become a life of purpose.
If you found this helpful and would like to learn more about the four domains of passionate engagement, check out our latest episode of Learning @ the Speed of Life.