The science of what makes people care

by Ann Christiano & Annie Neimand, Stanford Social Innovation Review

On March 10, 1748, John Newton, a 22-year-old English seaman who had worked in the slave trade, was traveling home on a merchant ship after a series of misadventures, including being captured and enslaved in Sierra Leone. On that day, a violent storm struck just off the coast of Donegal, Ireland. Rocks ripped a hole in the side of the ship, and it seemed unlikely that the vessel would make it safely to shore. Newton prayed and committed to devote his life to Christianity if the ship was spared. At that moment—the story goes—the ship’s cargo shifted, covering the hole and allowing the ship to limp to port.

Newton kept his promise, eventually becoming an Anglican priest. Most famous perhaps for composing the hymn “Amazing Grace,” the former slave trader dedicated himself to ending the slave trade. In 1787, he joined efforts with others to found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Their members included Olaudah Equiano, a former slave whose storytelling abilities and autobiography made the horrors of slavery real. Josiah Wedgwood, an industrialist, created a logo for the campaign that inspired empathy and connected with the horrifying inhumanity of slavery. The emblem pictured an enslaved man on his knees, in chains, encircled by the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” It appeared on snuffboxes, cufflinks, and jewelry throughout Europe. Newton himself wrote a pamphlet titled Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, which detailed conditions on slave ships, and which he sent to every member of parliament.

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