Thomas Clarkson, Deacon, Social Reformer, 1846
(native of Wisbech)
Lesser Festival
26 September

[Thomas Clarkson portrait]

Thomas Clarkson was born on 28 March 1760 in Wisbech. He was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge, and whilst there he entered an essay competition entitled Is it lawful to enslave others against their will?. His research for this essay changed his life, and, having been ordained deacon, he never sought to be ordained a priest, but instead dedicated his life to the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself. Working with a small group of other abolitionists, mainly Quakers, he travelled all over the country, to all major seaports, especially Bristol and Liverpool, seeking first-hand evidence of the facts and horrors of the slave trade. It was Clarkson’s detailed evidence, presented to Parliament over several years by his fellow-abolitionist William Wilberforce, which eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and of slavery throughout the British dominions in 1833. Clarkson was the first president of the world’s first human rights organization, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, now called Anti-Slavery International. He died on this day in 1846, and was buried quietly as was his wish. On 26 September 1996, the 150th anniversary of his death, a monument was unveiled to him and seven other abolitionists in Westminster Abbey.




Old Testament Reading: Job 31.16–23

A reading from the book of Job.

Job said, ‘If I have withheld anything that the poor desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or have eaten my morsel alone, and the orphan has not eaten from it — for from my youth I reared the orphan like a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow — if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or a poor person without covering, whose loins have not blessed me, and who was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep; if I have raised my hand against the orphan, because I saw I had supporters at the gate; then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket. For I was in terror of calamity from God, and I could not have faced his majesty.’

This is the word of the Lord.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 22.23–26

R Stand in awe of the Lord, O offspring of Israel;
[all you of Jacob’s line, give glory].

For he does not despise nor abhor
the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them;
but when they cry to him he hears them. R

My praise is of him in the great assembly;
I will perform my vows
in the presence of those who worship him. R

The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the Lord shall praise him:
‘May your heart live for ever!’ R

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.
For kingship belongs to the Lord;
he rules over the nations. R

New Testament Reading: Galatians 3.26–29; 4.6–7

A reading from the Letter of Paul to the Galatians.

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

This is the word of the Lord.

Gospel Reading: Luke 4.16–21

Hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke.

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

This is the gospel of the Lord.

Post Communion

Faithful God,
who called your servant Thomas Clarkson to serve you
and gave him joy in walking the path of holiness:
by this eucharist,
   in which you renew within us the vision of your glory,
strengthen us all to follow the way of perfection
until we come to see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A Sermon preached by the Bishop of Ely,
the Rt Revd Stephen Sykes,
at the Unveiling and Dedication of a Memorial
to Thomas Clarkson at Westminster Abbey
on 26 September 1996

150 years ago, at 4 o’clock on the morning of 26 September, Thomas Clarkson, a man whom Coleridge had called ‘a benefactor of mankind’ (Wilson 1989, 118), died age 86. He had devoted virtually the whole of his adult life to the task of overthrowing first the trade in slaves, and then the institution of slavery itself. That is the man whose memory we honour today by the unveiling of a memorial stone next to the statue of his friend and collaborator, William Wilberforce. There are no scales on which we can weigh their respective and differing contributions. The dispute initiated by Wilberforce’s two sons, who entertained what they later admitted was ‘an ungrounded prejudice’ against Clarkson, is surely at an end. Long before that apology arrived Clarkson said publicly of Wilberforce: ‘There never was a man either dead or living to whom your cause was more indebted than to him’. Such magnanimity needs no gilding.

We, in the Diocese of Ely and County of Cambridgeshire, and especially in the noble town of Wisbech in the Isle of Ely, are enormously proud of this man, son of the Reverend John Clarkson, headmaster of the Wisbech Free Grammar School, and curate of All Saints’, Walsoken. No one who lives in those parts can fail to have seen the 70ft high monument to Clarkson designed by George Gilbert Scott and erected near the town bridge in 1881.

In the College of St John the Evangelist in the University of Cambridge, too, where I had the privilege of both studying and later teaching, we have remembered Clarkson’s (as indeed Wilberforce’s) achievements with pride. Master, I think you will agree that the Master and Fellows of St John’s did well in 1791 to fail to elect him to a fellowship in mathematics for which he had applied (Wilson 1989, 136). Catharine Buck of Bury St Edmunds, one of their future family homes, was a sparkling independent minded woman, part of a lively group of young people who addressed each other in those revolutionary years as ‘citoyenne’ and ‘citoyen’. Clarkson was later to speak warmly of the Quakers for their instance ‘upon that full practical treatment and estimation of women which ought to take place wherever Christianity is professed’ (Wilson 1989, 91).

The memorial stone says simply of Clarkson, A Friend to Slaves. The straight-forwardness of that designation pays a justly-merited tribute to the Society of Friends who already had a network of 150 correspondents throughout the country, and were active in promoting the abolition of the trade and gradual emancipation. When Clarkson began his work, he had behind him a committee of dedicated abolitionists composed of nine Quakers and four Anglicans. Clarkson was one of the Committee’s main writers of works and pamphlets; but what takes our breath away are the 35,000 miles he travelled over the seven years between 1787 and 1794, mostly on horseback, and the 20,000 names of sailors on slave ships which he compiled, and whom he tried to trace for living and irrefutable evidence of gross abuse and maltreatment of slaves to present to Parliament.

His method of work may be illustrated by his trip to Bristol in 1787. He first contacted the local Quakers with whose names he had been supplied. Henry Gaudy had, as a young man sailed on slaving voyages to Sierra Leone. He boarded two sloops in the Bristol quays to measure the space for the 100 slaves they would carry from Africa. (Two years later he was to publish the stunningly effective diagram of a slave ship, illustrating the space for 482 male and female slaves.) He listened to first hand accounts of beatings and torture administered to slaves and seamen. He hung about the unsalubrious parts of central Bristol to see for himself the conditions in which inebriated young men could be tempted to serve on the slavers. He tracked down a surgeon called Falconbridge willing to testify in London if need be. At the Merchants Hall he copied out the muster rolls, so that he could put them with those he had already collected in London and Liverpool. He began the task of assembling a support group to collect signatures to a petition for abolition, again a massively successful operation. He met the local newspaper editors, and persuaded them to carry articles against the trade.

This activity was repeated the length and breadth of the country against the background of every kind of difficulty, the predictable hostility of the traders and their associates, the fear and occasional pure self-interestedness of those whom he tried to encourage to testify, the sheer scale and complexity of the evidence he was trying to assemble.

What sustained him? Unquestionably a straight-forward moral passion which was revolted by brutality. The rhetoric of his published work is relatively undifferentiated, and that was a strength as well as a weakness. He plainly enjoyed a happy marriage and a reasonably sound constitution, though in 1793 he was exhausted physically, mentally and financially, and had to rest. But then there was his Christian faith, which was totally integrated with his passion. He argued that slavery was incompatible with Christianity, a proposition advanced by numerous others before him, among them Gregory of Nyssa, in the 4th century, Pope Leo x, in the sixteenth century and by the extraordinary Anglican Bishop Warburton in the eighteenth, but not necessarily proof against sophisticated and self-interested qualification. Clarkson excused earlier Christians from advocating the abolition of slavery on the grounds that it would have destroyed society, so all-pervasive it was. His main argument was based on the premise that there were no economic benefits to urge in its favour; and that nothing stood in the way of identifying it as contrary to the universal brotherhood of all mankind, and to the moral accountability of all to their creator. This is, he claims, ‘the most important doctrine’. If slaves are under the necessity of engaging in any activity, including crimes, ordered by their purchasers, then they cannot be held to be responsible for their actions and Christian eschatology is fundamentally undermined (The Prize Essay, 1785; rev. 1788, 162-3).

In 1806 Clarkson wrote a 3 volume portraiture of Quakerism, on the basis for his own acquaintance with the Society of Friends. And he was ready in conversation with Tsar Alexander I to say that though he was not a Quaker in name, he hoped he was in spirit, ‘nine parts out of ten of their way of thinking’ (Wilson 1989, 134, 145). And Clarkson knew the Quaker attitude to memorials: ‘If you wish to honour a good man... let all his good actions live in your memory; show, by your adoption of his amiable example, that you really respect his memory. This is also that tribute which, if he himself could be asked in the other world how he would have his memory respected in this, he would prefer to any description of his virtues, that might be given by the ablest writer, or handed down to posterity by the ablest monument of the sculptor’s art’ (cited Wilson 1989, 191).

How then can we not say that the real respect which is Thomas Clarkson’s due will emerge when we confront the analogous slaveries of our own day, the brutalities inflicted in the course of trade and commerce, including the swingeing terms upon which international debts are repaid?

At the massive international Anti-Slavery Convention held in the Freemason’s Hall on 12 June 1840, attended by 5000 participants, at which Clarkson was accorded a silent standing tribute, he said of himself with a typical plain modesty: I stand before you as a humble individual whose life has been intimately connected with this subject. I can say with truth that though my body is in fact going to decay, my heart beats as warmly in this sacred cause as it did at the age of 24 when I first took it up, and can say further with truth, that if I had another life given to me to live, I would devote it to the same object.

No-one who considers the recent history of Haiti or of Liberia can doubt for a moment that we are still deeply enmeshed in the tragic consequences of this vile traffic in human beings. Clarkson and his committee knew they were sooner or later bound to act on the international stage. From 1789 after a visit to Paris, there was a European dimension to the campaign. Out of that arose Clarkson’s involvement in Santo Domingo, or Haiti. He and his brother John took a hand in the development of Sierra Leone and Liberia. And at the end of his life he was drawn into the fiercely contested disputes of the anti-slavery movement in the United States.

As we read the story of Clarkson’s life, and what a powerful narrative it is, we would do well to notice the views of those who opposed him, the religious writers who cast doubt on the validity of his theological and moral arguments, the commercial interests which warned that if Britain took unilateral action its trading competitors would reap the advantages, the wise heads who counselled caution and delay, and whose political interference cost the lives of thousands, and the dispensers of social patronage who mistrusted the radical company Clarkson sometimes kept.

In the end, of course, Clarkson prevailed — or rather the cause prevailed — and it requires an effort of imagination to think ourselves back into a situation in which there was no inevitability. That lack of certainty, about the validity of arguments, about economic consequences, about prudent politics, exactly matches our own discussions about measures to undo the crippling burden of hunger, want, ignorance and insecurity borne so unequally by so many. There is, as we know, a plethora of radical solutions on offer, and it is psychologically impossible to be equally indignant about all the world’s evils. But we honour Clarkson’s memory best when we acknowledge how much our country owes to men and women of moral passion, when we ourselves engage in their vision, and commit ourselves unequivocally to discern and to do the good we have it in our power to accomplish.

E.L. Griggs, Thomas Clarkson, The Friend of Slaves (1936)
E.G. Wilson, Thomas Clarkson, A Biography (1989)

Sonnet, To Thomas Clarkson,
On the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March, 1807.

Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb:
How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee
Is known,—by none, perhaps, so feelingly;
But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,
Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,
Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,
Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,
First roused thee.—O true yoke-fellow of Time
With unabating effort, see, the palm
Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!
The bloody Writing is for ever torn,
And Thou henceforth wilt have a good Man’s calm,
A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find
Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!
William Wordsworth

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