Last weekend, my wife Rachel was going through some old boxes in her parents’ attic. That kind of thing is usually quite a chore. But not this time.
She’s got quite the pedigree from British Christian history, has Rachel. It includes a bunch of names like Elizabeth Fry, Thomas Barnardo, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, so for those interested in such things, it was not unlikely that treasure might be found.
Buxton was an MP who was asked in May 1821 to take on the mantle of the abolitionist (anti-slavery) cause in Parliament by William Wilberforce, since the latter had been quite ill. He took a few months to weigh it up, and then agreed. It was for this that he was given a baronetcy, and eventually a statue in Westminster Abbey.
But he was also Rachel’s Great Great Great Great Grandfather. His daughter Priscilla would go on to marry another MP, Andrew Johnston of St Andrews in Scotland (Rachel’s Great Great Great Grandparents).
And so it was quite the thrill to discover in the box this astonishing letter written by William Wilberforce to Priscilla in 1822, when he was 61 and she was only around 14.
I have photographed and transcribed it here. It brings tears to the eyes but consolation to the heart.
Grounds for many tears
But it’s perhaps helpful to give it some context, for which I’ve been digging around for over the weekend.
- Quite apart from his bad health, Wilberforce (who would retire from Parliament in 1825 and would live for another 11 years) is clearly suffering because of grief – note the black edged notepaper to denote mourning (top left), together with the black sealing wax. This is almost certainly because of the death from consumption of his eldest daughter Barbara on 30th Dec 1821 at only 22. So he is writing to Priscilla only 6 months later.
- The address is quite poignant too. Because of its expense and his health, by the end of 1821, Wilberforce had had to sell his house in Kensington Gore (where the Royal Albert Hall now sits). He was now renting a house near Croydon called Marden Park. As this letter shows, he is still feeling deeply weighed down.
- So 14 year-old Priscilla had sewn a purple silk-purse for Wilberforce, presumably to cheer him up a little – this letter is a thank you for that.
- But she is also sick herself and the whole Buxton family has been through agonies. Between March 28 and May 1st 1820, her 4 siblings died of measles, leaving what Buxton called ‘the fragments of our family’: 10 year old Thomas, Rachel aged 4, Louisa aged 3 and Hannah aged 2. (See the family gravestone, right). Having been the oldest of 7, she was now oldest of 3. This letter comes only two years later.
There was such affection though between the Wilberforces and Buxtons, as this letter demonstrates. But what pastoral care and love as well. Here is a snapshot of how a remarkable man who is battling his own pain and loss writes to the daughter of a close friend, with deep wisdom but also humble openness.
What a model of assured hope and persevering trust in God. No wonder Priscilla treasured this letter for the rest of her all too brief life (she died in 1852 aged only 44).
A letter of consoling and profound affection
5th July 1822
My dear young friend
Ever since I received the Testimony of friendly Remembrance with which you lately favour’d me, I have been intending to return you my thanks; and if my Acknowledgements are somewhat tardy, be assured that they are not on that account less sincere – It has been the Will of Providence my dear young friend to afflict you with a painfully wearisome Complaint, but I rejoice to hear that you are enabled to bear the trial with proper Resignation. This is a proof that the disorder itself is intended for your benefit & that you will one day have abundant reason to adopt the Language of an Ancient Sufferer, & say “It was good for me to be afflicted.” A Traveller on an open Common in such a Storm of Hail & Rain as we had this Morning would find his spirits cheered by seeing on the distant horizon, the Cloud clear’d away and the Sky looking sunny and cheerful. So you, I doubt not, can view the Sunshine gilding Your future prospect. And yours my dear Girl is a Sun which will never go down, but will get brighter & brighter with a Warmth & brilliance, of which now you can have no conception. I dare say you know & like Cowper. He, you know, speaks of “a Vault unsullied with a Cloud.” Now therefore accustom yourself to think “the Scene around me is gloomy and darksome, but a friendly and, that a divine, Hand of a kind and loving Saviour, is leading me on the Way He sees best for me, & in His own good time He will bring me into the Light.
As I know He is Truth itself, he cannot deceive me & He has promised to be a Shepherd full of kindness as well as Care to the Lambs of His flock. He would not let me suffer pain if He were not persuaded it would be for my benefit and I will therefore receive all and submit to it all He orders for me, as that which is sure to be more than made up to me. So that if more I have to bear now, the more I shall have to rejoice hereafter.
My dear little friend will receive all this from one who greatly esteems and loves her dear Papa & Mamma & who both for their sakes and for heaven’s wishes and prays that she may have the best of all blessings, that of being enabled to Call God her kind father of Jesus Christ her Good Shepherd her Protector & her friend.
I did not intend when I took up my pen to write you so long a letter & I hope it will not tire you to read it –
& I am always sincerely & aff’y yours
A few brief explanations:
- An ancient sufferer: this is from Psalm 119:71
- A vault unsullied with a cloud: this is from William Cowper’s celebrated poem The Task (from line 824, in Book 5). Cowper was a peripheral member of the Clapham sect through his great mentor and friend John Newton. He was the favourite poet of both Wilberforce and Buxton.
- the gloomy and darksome scene: took me a while to track this down, but it seems to be an allusion to the 3rd verse of Anna Steele’s hymn, “And can my heart so aspire so high“.