Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What She Couldn't Have Known: A Forgotten Lady And Her Love For The Captive

When God wanted to illustrate the relationship between believers, He used the example of the body. 
Courtesy of Faithwalk Photography

Often we use this metaphor as a guide for daily fellowship with our Christian brothers and sisters and rightly so. But there is another dimension I'm just beginning to discover. As I learn more about Christians in ages past, I'm learning the Body of Christ encompasses both the cloud of witnesses already gone on before and those of us who are yet on earth. As a young woman, I'm especially thrilled when I learn of the faithfulness of godly women who fulfilled the role God gave them. Why? Because their obedience, no matter how small, is still felt by you and me today. Century after century, generation after generation, life after life, the kingdom of God goes forward in the hearts of those who obediently follow the great Director's script.

It was such a woman who bridged the chasm between an enslaved people and liberty. Though nearly forgotten, how God used this lady to bring an enslaved people and their human liberator together is a very relevant story for women dwelling in the 21st century.

The Lady Who Joined The Slave To A Liberator

In 1815 there was a squall of excitement in England. The British Slave Trade had been abolished eight years prior, a monumental event not lost on those who witnessed it. Like most battles for liberty, few brave enough to take the bullets could be not found until after victory was won. Now each was greedy for their claim – real or imagined – among honorable mention in this historical moment.

Since the unprecedented labor of the English statesman William Wilberforce was too great not to be acknowledged by all, men started vying for the silver medal: who had been the human joint linking the young Wilberforce to his divinely appointed call as Liberator of Africa? Eventually truth would prove it belonged to one who never voiced her right to glory. One Mr. Latrobe, a minister, wrote a letter to his daughter detailing his knowledge of the woman who encouraged William Wilberforce in his work - an account that would be verified by Wilberforce's own family. Supporting his argument with great detail, Mr. Latrobe leaves us a beautiful record of our lady's character and how she came to this special moment in history. Who is this person, you ask? Lady Middleton of Kent. Here is her story.

A Lady of Hospitality

In an era before hotels, it was common practice for families to house guests for week or months on end. One such visitor to the Middleton family was Dr. Ramsey. Dr. Ramsey had actually served Sir Charles Middleton while the latter commanded a war ship in the West Indies. As the army surgeon, Dr. Ramsey had the opportunity to investigate the condition of the African slaves who worked the enormous plantations. What he saw horrified him. In time Dr. Ramsey wrote about his experience, exposing the cruelty he witnessed in the West Indies – an act that would make him an unpopular man and cause him much suffering.

After his service in the West Indies, Dr. Ramsey returned to England. It was during during his extended stay with his former commander that he shared with the Middletons his experience among the slaves. The account astonished Lady Middleton, lighting a fire in the tender woman's soul that would not be quenched.

A Lady of Active Compassion

While Mr. Latrobe describes Lady Middleton's strong reaction to the misery of the slaves, her compassion also motivated her to action. In the steps of Christ who was moved for a shepherdless people, Lady Middleton spoke on behalf of a voiceless people she'd never seen. Mr. Latrobe describes the following to his daughter:

“Yet all this [referring to Dr. Ramsey's book and others like it] which was said and written on the subject might have passed away and produced as little effect as the declamations and writings of many good men in England and America...but that God put it in the heart of Lady Middleton to venture one step further, and urge the necessity of bringing the proposed Abolition of the Slave Trade before parliament, as a measure in which the whole nation was concerned.”*

Lady Middleton did not point her finger at a few landowners across the sea and cry, “Shame on you.” Though the crime was as far from her as the sound of the slave whips across the great Atlantic, she rightly understood slavery as a national sin with national consequences. The concept of worshiping the will of the individual to define good and evil for him or herself was totally foreign to this woman. Human beings were suffering, dying and it was being condoned with the silent consent of the British people.

Yet Lady Middleton did not race to fill a seat in parliament to bring justice to the slaves. Instead she employed a more powerful weapon – one sadly neglected by many of us ladies today.

A Lady of Womanly Intersession

Which of us have not fallen into the trap of thinking we could change the world if we only had more power? If only we were president, in Congress, the pastor, the teacher, the head of that family or that one. Since the Garden of Eden, it has been the constant temptation of the women to envy the position of her male counterpart. So covetous are we of this role we often forget the power feminine influence and intersession can have for godliness.

At breakfast in the autumn of 1786 with Dr. Ramsey and her husband present, Lady Middleton earnestly pressed the necessity of parliament taking action on the Slave Trade. We again turn to Mr. Latrobe for details.

“Lady Middleton, addressing her husband, who was a member [of parliament] for Rochester, said, 'Indeed Sir Charles I think you ought to bring the subject before the House, and demand parliamentary inquiry into the nature of a traffic so disgraceful to the British character.' Sir Charles granted the propriety of such an inquiry; but observed that the cause would be in bad hands if it was committed to him, who had never yet made one speech in the House; but he added, that he should strenuously support any able member who would undertake it...when some one mentioned Mr. Wilberforce, who had lately come out, and not only displayed very superior talents and great eloquence, but was a decided and powerful advocate of the cause of truth and virtue, and a friend of the [prime] minister. He was then as at Hull and Lady Middleton prevailed on Sir Charles immediately to write to him, and propose the subject. He did so, and communicated the letter he had written to the family, as well as Mr. Wilberforce's answer which he received a few days later....”**

The all important conversation at breakfast that morning, was initiated by a submissive, yet passionate wife. When her husband pointed out the fault in her original request, they reasoned together until the man God had already appointed was mentioned. It was then Lady Middleton's fervent intersession that gave speed to her husband writing this same man, creating a divine appointment that would bridge William Wilberforce to the slaves.

Shortly afterwards, William Wilberforce himself came for a stay at the Middleton home. At her own hearth, Lady Middleton would have the pleasure of seeing the first series of events which would confirm to the praying Wilberforce God was indeed calling him to be a voice for the oppressed. Forty seven years later, both the slavery and its gruesome trade was abolished in the British Empire. An entire people group was liberated because one woman listened, had a tender heart, acted with compassion and understood her role as a godly wife and woman.

Ladies, we have our work cut out for us, don't we? Are we willing to be secondary characters in God's story if that is His best for us? Will we fashion our hearts in hospitality, tenderness and Christlike obedience? Whether future generations ever know our name – whether we live to see the fruit – may we be found faithful members in the Body of Christ.

*Wilberforce, Robert Isaac and Samuel. The Life of William Wilberforce 1st. ed. London: John Murray, 1838, pg. 144
**Wilberforce, Robert Isaac and Samuel. The Life of William Wilberforce 1st. ed. London: John Murray, 1838, pg. 144-145

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