Barn dances, international evenings, meeting people from all round the world, walking through the woods gathering chestnuts, carpets of daffodils and bluebells, visiting my dad in his study with its Afghan rug on the floor… these are some of the strongest memories from my childhood at All Nations Christian College, a Bible college in the South East of England.
All Nations was – and is – primarily a missionary-training college. Over its fifty plus years of existence it has sent thousands of people out around the world. My parents were both lecturers there for thirty years and we lived half a mile from the bottom of the long drive, in the local village. It is fair to say that our whole life as a family revolved around All Nations and the people who came from all over the world to study there.
One of the most notable features of All Nations is its stunning old country house (Easneye Mansion), set in the midst of beautiful countryside. The house was built by and belonged to the Buxton family, themselves a godly family with mission in their blood. The main hall is beautiful, with a huge fireplace, a large sweeping staircase leading up to the main bedrooms, and some lovely stained glass windows.
In one of the stained glass windows, in pride of place on the Buxton coat of arms, between two stags, is something you might not expect to see quite so prominently celebrated by a Victorian Christian family: a barrel of beer! The Buxtons were a family who knew that Christianity was not a private religion but a vibrant faith that pushed a person out to get involved in bringing good to all sectors of society, both at home and abroad. Easneye was built by Thomas Fowell Buxton Jnr and his father (Thomas Fowell Buxton Snr) was a leading Abolitionist and member of the Clapham Sect. It was actually him, in the end, who got the Emancipation of Slaves Bill through Parliament in 1832 when William Wilberforce retired due to ill health. In fact, in the stone coat of arms that sits over the impressive fireplace, one of the stags has a medallion around its neck with a picture of a little African boy on it, representing the Buxton family’s work to bring freedom to those caught in the slave trade.
(It is also interesting to discover that the family was connected with the establishment of Barclay’s Bank – at that point an honest, Quaker bank with integrity…- and that Buxton Snr’s sister-in-law was the amazing penal reformer, Elizabeth Fry. Family get-togethers must have been quite something!)
But back to the barrel of beer. In those days, gin was what was mostly drunk by the working classes and it was causing massive health and social problems. It was also made with sugar from the slave-worked sugar plantations. Beer, on the other hand, was thought to be a healthier drink, being a much watered-down version of what we might drink today. It was also made with hops which therefore supported a local, British industry. The Buxtons were thus strong advocates of beer drinking and indeed ran a brewery business (and, it is only fair to note, made their fortune from it!). In doing so they played their part in the Abolitionist creation of one of the earliest examples of consumers using their purchasing power to push for ethical trade as thousands of people around the UK boycotted sugar that came from the slave plantations.
So next time you drink a bottle of beer, raise a toast to the transforming influence of the Christian faith, to consumer power, to fair trade, and to the amazing work of the Abolitionists, and ask yourself what you can do this year to follow in their footsteps.