Moving a dinner plan forward, changing your coffee order, swapping shirts just before you rush out the door – we change our minds all the time. But what drives us to change our lives? What drives us to return the engagement ring, buy the plane ticket, or swap careers?
Thomas Clarkson was a six-foot tall, red-headed Englishman, who risked life and sanity to ensure the freedom of African slaves in the 19th century. While William Wilberforce and his fellow MPs were the spearhead of the fight for abolition amongst the aristocracy, Clarkson spent years interviewing sailors, debating in pubs, and influencing public opinion. When the abolition bill was passed in 1807, the landscape of the 19th century was altered forever. This is largely because Thomas Clarkson was a man willing to change.
Although he published two volumes on the history of abolition, Clarkson wrote little about himself, and so we don’t know how he came to put his faith in Christ. What we do know is that after being raised in a Christian family, 1785 found him at Cambridge, working towards ordination in the Anglican Church. He was a dedicated and hardworking scholar, and having won the Latin essay competition in his undergraduate degree, was determined to win the second senior prize. No one had ever won both Latin prizes, and so Clarkson embarked on his venture with the knowledge that winning would set him on track for a brilliant academic career in the established church. Little did he know that the question that year would derail his plans entirely.
Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare? – Is it right to make slaves of others against their will? As Clarkson began feverishly collecting evidence in the two months prior to the competition, he soon became convinced that the only answer a believer could give was ‘no’. After winning the competition, Clarkson heard a still, small voice beneath the resounding congratulations. It asked him to act on this newfound knowledge; to live out his answer to this very important question.
If the slave trade really did tear apart thousands of families each year; if it really did rob individuals made in the image of God of their liberty; if children as young as 18 months really were whipped and chained in the holds of over-crowded ships, then someone had to do something – of this Clarkson was convinced. But did it have to be him? While completing his Masters degree, he spent long hours walking and wrestling with his conscience and his God. He published his essay and met several fervent abolitionists, but most of them were Quakers, minority voices, and already busy with other responsibilities.
By comparison, Clarkson was young, single and free. He was also ignorant of politics, lacked friends in high places, and wasn’t ready to give up his ambition or disappoint his family’s expectations of a stable, even illustrious church career. While this logic prevailed during daytime hours, at night Clarkson was confronted by visions of the slaves whose horrific stories he’d transcribed in prize-winning Latin. In the darkness he saw the darkness of sin, and wept.
Nevertheless, when Clarkson finally made the decision to cast off his dreams of success and honour, and dedicate his entire life, health and wealth to the abolition of slavery, the action was not the weak capitulation of a haunted man. Neither was it the decision of one hopeful of success. Clarkson was well aware that slavery was an economic and social monolith, and the livelihood of many rested upon its existence. No, Thomas Clarkson changed his mind for one very simple reason: He believed in God.
I yielded, not because I saw any reasonable prospect of success… but in obedience, I believe, to a higher Power… Him, I mean, who gave me a heart to feel – who gave me courage to begin – and perseverance to proceed.
People would soon compare his earnest denunciations of slavery to Paul preaching in Ephesus, but Clarkson’s strength lay in his dogged collection of evidence, witnesses, and petitions. His life before 1807 is a hair-raising collection of narrow escapes from furious slavery-supporters; last minute deliveries of witnesses to Parliament; long meetings and early morning conferences. He traveled the equivalent of the length and breadth of Australia on horseback and took multiple trips to France in attempts to influence European leaders. When it came to the problem of slavery, Clarkson had the entire world in his view. A passionate man, quickly moved by the sufferings of others, he was impatient with etiquette, incredibly persistent, and believed in doing a job well. Yet his desire for world-wide abolition was also the result of a reality we too carry in our hearts. He believed, like us, in a God of justice who loves people – regardless of skin colour, socio-economic status or geographical location.
In the service of this God, Clarkson was a man willing to change not just his career trajectory, but his very self. While many would happily describe him as a brave man, Clarkson never thought of himself as such. His history of the abolition is replete with descriptions of him shaking with fear, and he firmly ascribes any courage to God’s equipping. He writes of how he visited William Wilberforce in 1787 to ask the rising evangelical MP to represent abolition in Parliament, and left without broaching the topic, overwhelmed by the task. His second attempt was far more successful, and he went on to approach the Tsar of Russia; travel to France during the revolution; and speak to over 5 000 people at an international abolitionist convention.
Just as he was prepared to learn courage by stepping out in faith, Clarkson also chose to learn patience and tact, skills necessary for questioning nervous witnesses. Naturally blunt and straightforward, Clarkson lovingly learnt to take the kinder, more circuitous route when it came to collecting testimonies. He engaged in small talk and memorised 145 questions so he did not need to refer to any papers during conversation. Lastly, Clarkson learnt moderation and how to take care of himself and others after suffering from a nervous breakdown. For someone who has been physically invincible, it takes humility to ask for help from friends, but Clarkson was a man who trusted God enough to adjust his expectations.
It is easy to be rigid about plans and goals, about who we are or what we are capable of. Being open to changing your life requires terrifying vulnerability. In many ways the rise of individualism encourages us to cling to dreams or personality traits with almost religious devotion. Yet behind every great achievement in Christian history are men and women who have chosen to see the world through the eyes of God; to act on what they have seen; and most of all, to hold their futures and themselves lightly. Thomas Clarkson was one of them, and today we live in the legacy of his obedience.
– Emily Maurits is an Australian writer and blogger and author of a new biography of Thomas Clarkson for children, Thomas Clarkson: The Giant With One Idea