Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | November 12, 2009

An Obstinate Hill

   We live in a day of unprecedented access to information. One of the downsides of being bombarded by so much information is that we can easily become desensitized to critical issues. It’s easy to see, hear, or read about horrible things happening in our world, cluck about them, and then move on. It’s easy to be stirred but not changed, enraged but not engaged. In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan each saw an unfortunate man who had been beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. However, only the Samaritan acted on what he saw. In her book entitled “Dangerous Surrender,” Kay Warren writes that “God is looking for some disturbed people … so disturbed that they will be compelled to do something about what they see” (p.21).

Thomas Clarkson   Thomas Clarkson was a disturbed man — a man so bothered and horrified by slavery that he felt compelled to do something about it. Born in England in 1760, Clarkson was a contemporary of William Wilberforce, the British politician who was a key leader in the movement to abolish the slave trade. While attending Cambridge University, Clarkson entered an essay competition. The question, to be answered in Latin by the contestants, was “Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare? — “Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?” Clarkson knew nothing about slavery but determined to research the subject thoroughly. He did so and wrote the prize-winning essay.

   After writing his essay, Clarkson traveled on horseback from Cambridge to London. Clarkson said that when he stopped to rest along the way, “A thought came into my mind that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” He later described this experience as “a direct revelation from God ordering me to devote my life to abolishing the trade.” Concerned about making others aware of the problem, Clarkson translated his essay into English. It immediately became an influential apologetic for the abolition of slavery.

Thomas Clarkson Ship Illustration   Clarkson worked tirelessly to collect information to support the abolition of the slave trade. He spent two years traveling around England to promote abolition and gather evidence of abuses of slaves. He interviewed 20,000 sailors and obtained equipment used on slave ships and effectively used these barbaric items as visual aids in his lectures around the country. He also published a diagram of a Liverpool slave ship that illustrated how slaves were tightly crammed into its fetid hold for transport across the Middle Passage. On one occasion Clarkson survived an assassination attempt by a gang of sailors, barely escaping with his life. Undeterred, Clarkson continued to gather evidence to build a case against the slave trade. He made his research available to William Wilberforce who used it in his efforts to persuade Parliament to abolish the slave trade.

   The work of Clarkson and Wilberforce and other abolitionists finally paid off with the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. This act abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. Slavery itself remained legal until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. William Wordsworth, the poet, was so impressed with Clarkson’s achievements that he wrote a sonnet to him after the passing of the Slave Trade Act. Wordsworth’s sonnet begins, “Clarkson! It was an obstinate Hill to climb…” And indeed it was. But, because Clarkson was a disturbed man who courageously acted to change what disturbed him — he dared to climb that obstinate hill. Thomas Clarkson died on September 26, 1846.

   What about you? Are you disturbed? Have you read or heard about something happening in our world that is so horrible and unjust that it makes you angry? Is there an issue of injustice or abuse that grips your heart and makes you feel uncomfortable? Is there an obstinate hill that you must climb? Then don’t just talk about it or look the other way or hope that someone else will act. Channel your indignation into responsible, intentional, and strategic action that will make a difference. Climb that obstinate hill and help make our world a better place.


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