Adam Hochschild tells the story of the abolition of the slave trade in his seminal work Bury the Chains. His book begins with a group of 12 people, 9 Quakers and 3 Anglicans, gathering at a print shop at 2 George Yard, London, for the first meeting of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
“Nothing remains of the bookstore and printing shop that once stood here, or recalls the day more than two hundred years ago when a dozen people – a sombre looking crew, most of them not removing their high-crowned black hats – filed through its door and sat down for a meeting. Cities build monuments to kings, prime ministers, and generals, not to citizens with no official position who once gathered in a printing shop. Yet what these citizens began rippled across the world and we feel its aftereffects still. It is no wonder that they won the admiration of the first and greatest student of what we now call civil society. The result of the series of events that begun that afternoon in London, wrote Alexis do Tocqueville, was ‘absolutely without precedent… If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary.’
“… A long chain of events, large and small, led to that meeting. Perhaps the most crucial moment came when Thomas Clarkson, a twenty-five-year old Englishman on his way to London, paused, dismounted from his horse, and sat down at the roadside, lost in thought. Many months later, he would be the principal organiser of the gathering at George Yard. Red-haired, dressed in black, he was the youngest of those who entered the shop that day, perhaps ducking his head slightly as he came through the doorway, for he was a full six inches taller than the average Englishman of his time.
“… ‘Never doubt,’ said Margaret Mead, ‘that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ This book is about one such group. Their story is not a simple one, but a ragged and untidy epic that did not unfold in the orderly way they hoped for. It would sprawl across decades and continents, encompassing not just the long Atlantic traffic in slaves and the British slave colonies of the Caribbean, but also threads that stretched to unexpected places as far off as New York, Nova Scotia, and an improbable Utopian colony on the coast of Africa. It would be filled with dashed hopes and wrong turnings. It would become interwoven with great historical currents which, on that afternoon in the George Yard printing shop in 1787, no one foresaw…”
But that small group of people went on to inspire the British public and the British parliament to vote of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and then ultimately the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. And they also inspired, bribed and browbeat the other major world powers of the day to do the same.
What small group of praying activists do you belong to? What cause are you working on together? How are you seeking and praying to change the world, and make it more conform to God’s image?
You can order Hochschild’s Bury the Chains here.
Mark Williamson also blogs regularly at One Rock International, a training organisation resourcing missionary leaders across the globe. He’s passionate about good films, good food, getting into deep conversations, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna.