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William Wilberforce: A Christian response to slavery

An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive

Suitable for Whole School (Pri)

Aims

To consider William Wilberforce's opposition to the slave trade and what we can do today to root out injustice.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader, two readers and six to eight children to act as described in the ‘Assembly’, plus some props of whips and ropes (optional).
  • You will also need an image of William Wilberforce and the means to display it during the assembly.
  • Read information about the Anti-Slavery Society (now Anti-Slavery International, at: www.antislavery.org) and articles in the online Encyclopaedia Britannica (www.britannica.com) as preparation for follow-up work.
  • Have available the song ‘Waters of Babylon (Rivers of Babylon)', originally a hit for Boney M, by Sweet Honey in the Rock, on their album Feel Something Drawing Me On (Flying Fish, 1988) or online, and the means to play it at the end of the assembly. Alternatively, various Gospel songs reflect on slavery, such as those sung by the Neville Brothers, such as 'Will the circle be unbroken' and 'A change is gonna come', on Yellow Moon (A&M,1989), or your school choir or an a capella singing group could perform the song.

Assembly

  1. Set up a situation in which two or three children are sitting peacefully on the floor. Suddenly another group erupts on to the scene, perhaps holding whips and ropes, and hustles the quiet children away after a short struggle.

    A third character comes on to the scene as they are being taken away. She or he watches them, pauses, screams once, then stands there horrified.

  2. Leader What has all this to do with us? What has it to do with England over 200 years ago?

    Pause.

    Slavery. People were taken forcibly from their homes and sold for a profit, perhaps thousands of miles away. Today it still happens in some places. Some 250 years ago it was commonplace in this country.

    At that time, rich people could 'buy' other people; they could make them into slaves.

    A ‘slave’ is someone who has no choice and no rights at all, someone who is owned by someone else. Imagine owning a real live person and being able to make that person do whatever you want! Then, if you were fed up with them, you could just sell them to someone else. 

    Some people liked having slaves and made a lot of money out of making slaves work for them.

  3. Some of the slaveowners even tried to use the Bible to support their argument that they should be allowed to do as they wished.

    Reader 1 'There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery', said the Reverend Alexander Campbell.

    Reader 2 'Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God', said Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.

    Leader They quoted Paul, who said in Ephesians 6.5 (NRSV), 'Slaves, obey your earthly masters  . . .'

  4. Leader There were others, however, who didn't agree. Among them was William Wilberforce. He was born in the Yorkshire city of Hull in 1759. He complained about slavery and his interpretation of the Bible was quite different from the others we’ve just heard. For example, he pointed out that Paul also said in Galatians 3.28 (NRSV):

    Reader 1 'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.'

  5. Leader He also pointed out that Jesus said in Luke 4.18 (NRSV):

    Reader 2 'The Spirit of the Lord  . . .  has sent me to proclaim release to the captives  . . .  to let the oppressed go free  . . .'

  6. Leader So Wilberforce, who was the sort of Christian to believe that people should go out and do things, worked with friends from various Christian groups and others who agreed with him. 

    In 1787, he formed the organization called the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, later called the Anti-Slavery Society. He campaigned for about half a century – that’s 50 years! – until he died, aged 74. 

    Of course, during that time, Wilberforce kept on getting into trouble, for there are always many people who want to keep things just as they are and they fought to keep slavery. 

    After 20 years, in 1807, the British government finally passed a law to stop British people buying and selling slaves. It was not until the month after William Wilberforce died, however, that slavery was finally abolished in every country controlled by Britain.

  7.  Leader Is this a story with a happy ending, then? Well, Wilberforce managed to get a lot of things changed, but there is still a need for an Anti-Slavery Society in other parts of the world. So, it's up to us to work, like William Wilberforce, for a world where it is no longer needed. 

Time for reflection

Let’s just have a time of quiet and think about those who are slaves or who work in conditions that resemble slavery. Think about how you would feel in those conditions.

You might want to make a promise to yourself about how you would react if you came across people who were being treated like slaves. Even if we do not encounter real slavery in our daily lives, perhaps we all mistreat other people sometimes and take advantage of them.

What can we – each one of us – do, even in small ways, to dream of a better world and make it happen? 

Follow-up activities

  1. 1. Explore some of the children’s responses to descriptions of slavery given by slaves themselves, such as:

    – Venture Smith's ‘Narrative of a slave’s capture (1798)’, at: www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bdorsey1/41docs/26-ven.html
    – the autobiography of Harriet A. Jacobs, ‘Incidents in the life of a slave girl’ (1861) at:
    xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/Jacobs/hj-site-index.htm

    Do these accounts make the children feel sad, annoyed, upset, worried? Do they want to look after people, help them to escape, say to them, 'Everything will be all right'? 

    For Key Stage 1, focus on the personal accounts and pictures. For Key Stage 2, you might try more written exercises, including attempts by the pupils to write diaries as if they were slaves. Older children could also role play some of the arguments over the abolition of the slave trade or some of the modern forms of slavery and exploitation. The article ‘Held captive’, by Reva Klein in the
    TES of 24 March 2000 (available online at: www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=332531) describes a project in which secondary school children did just such a role play.

  2. Most of the quotes in the assembly, and many more on similar themes, can be found at: www.religioustolerance.org/sla_bibl.htm  

  3. Starting with the children's own experiences, explore ways in which they react when bad things happen to them. In Key Stage 1, this may involve concentrating on personal and school issues; in Key Stage 2, children may have been affected in some way by them.

  4. Work on how children could react when bad things happen to other people (starting with people in the school). There are many accounts of modern problems available from the Anti-Slavery Society itself (now Anti-Slavery International, at: www.antislavery.org), which is, sadly, the longest-lasting campaigning group in the world. Again, moving from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2, the children could work on large-scale issues based on current news stories or historical events and situations.

  5. For further extension, discuss how Martin Luther King addressed oppression in the USA (see the assembly on Martin Luther King, ‘The Dream’). 

Song/music

Chosen song (see ‘Preparation and materials’)

Publication date: September 2014   (Vol.16 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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