It is 200 years since the British Parliament passed an Act in 1807 for the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire. A key force in the campaign to end slavery was a group of families known as the Clapham Sect, comprising influential evangelical members of the Church of England. Among this group were William Wilberforce and his brother-in-law, James Stephen, the legal mastermind of the first phase of the abolitionist campaign.
The battle for the ending of slavery continued for many years after 1807. A new generation of leaders were required to abolish slavery itself, and two were sons of James Stephen: James Jr. and George. A policy of gradual change had been pursued by the Anti-slavery society. However, in 1831 George Stephen and Joseph Sturge formed the Agency Committee to stir up a public campaign for the full abolition of slavery. They hired agitators to tour the country demanding nothing less than immediate and unconditional emancipation.
“The early 1830s was a time of liberal fervour arising out
of the campaign for parliamentary reform. Exploiting the mood of the moment, the Agency Society used every means at its disposal to drum up popular support, putting up posters, organizing public meetings, demanding pledges from parliamentary candidates, and circulating petitions. When the reformed Parliament met in January 1833 it was plain from the temper of the Commons that these efforts had succeeded and that the government would have to give way.” (Encarta Encyclopedia: Abolition Movement).
Thus it was that the work begun in 1807 was completed in 1833 when slavery itself was declared illegal. George Stephen, knighted for his contribution to this campaign, published a history of the movement in 1854,on the personal request of Harriett Beecher Stowe, to assist in the American campaign for abolition: Anti-Slavery Recollections: In a Series of Letters Addressed to Mrs. Beecher Stowe.
Sir George then emigrated to Australia, with his son James Wilberforce Stephen (commemorated in one of St Mary's stained glass windows). They settled right here Caulfield. Sir George built Helenslea, (now part of the Shelford site) and gave the first parcel of land to St Mary’s, paying for the first church to be built on it (where our hall now stands). An active barrister in the colony, he was a committed Sunday school teacher at St Mary’s for many years.
The evangelicalism of Sir George was marked by a personal experience of God, a conviction that the world needs to be evangelised, submission to the Bible as God’s Word, and a deep commitment to public action to transform society. What shoulders we stand upon!