Christians do not often see their national governments bow to the demands of Christ, but they can point to a few significant Christian successes that changed the world for the better. One of the best known cases was the abolition of the slave trade brought about by William Wilberforce and his allies. But a Quaker-born Parliamentarian named John Bright also helped win important legislation for common people.
Allied with the radical statesman, Richard Cobden, he brought about repeal of the corn laws, which favored the rich at the expense of the poor. He also helped extend the right to vote to middle class artisans. He resisted all efforts to impose the Church of England on Irish Catholics. A speech of his prevented England from engaging in an ill-considered war with the United States over the Trent Affair, when, during the Civil War, the Union stopped a British ship and arrested two Confederate negotiators. (The United States later released the two at England's demand.) Bright's admiration for America led him to be called "The Honorable Member from the United States."
His speeches were steeped in the Bible and Milton, his two favorite books. His creed of action came "pure and direct from the New Testament" he said.
On this day, February 23, 1855, John Bright, made the speech of his life. Opposing the Crimean War, he said: "The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one, as when the first-born were slain of old, to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side-posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on; he takes his victims from the castle of the noble, the mansion of the wealthy, and the cottage of the poor and lowly."
Bright's speech was alluding to the Bible story found in Exodus, where God sent his angel to kill the firstborn children of Egypt, but spared any Israelite who painted his door posts with blood. Afterwards, Benjamin Disraeli told him, "I would give all that I ever had to have delivered that speech."
The speech did not prevent the war, however. As Bright had foreseen, the campaign wasted many lives. More were lost through incompetent preparations than on the battlefield. Shocked by the disaster, and frustrated at being unable to avert it, Bright experienced a nervous breakdown. He lost his seat in Parliament, too. The public was for the war. But he had made a strong case for non-intervention and was soon seated from another district.
- "Bright, John." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
- "Bright, John." Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1967.
- Copeland, Lewis. The World's Great Speeches. New York: Book League, 1942, pp. 182 [on Trent Affair].
- "John Bright." http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRbright.htm.
- Smith, George Barnett. The life and speeches of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1881. Source of the image.
- Wintle, Justin. "Bright, John." Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture, 1800 - 1914. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
Last updated May, 2007.