I was reading Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas when I learned that the journals, letters and other important papers from the pen of William Wilberforce could be found today in the rare books and manuscripts section of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Seeking every potential connection with Wilberforce, I began exploring the possibility of viewing these original documents and perhaps even holding them in my hands. Jean Waldrop, director of the Harding University Brackett Library, assisted me stateside, and I corresponded about this matter with Colin Harris at the Bodleian Library via email. They both helped me to get a good idea of what sorts of materials were in the Wilberforce collection.
Our very busy first day in England was spent seeing four different Wilberforce sites. Then, on the morning of our second day, we rented a car and drove to Oxford. Arriving in the early afternoon, we quickly moved into our hotel in town and then headed to the Bodleian Library. When we arrived at the library, which is actually a collection of libraries, I was directed across the street to a building where I could apply for a reader’s card. I walked up to the desk, mentioned that I had been in correspondence with Mr. Harris, and asked if I could speak with him. The receptionist called his office and then reported back to me that Mr. Harris had taken a tea break. They then led me to the office where I was taken through the process of obtaining a reader’s card. After that, I put my bag in a locker, went through security again, and was directed upstairs to find Mr. Harris. (I ought to take the opportunity at this point to acknowledge that everyone in this entire process could not have been more kind and helpful.)
By the time I arrived in the rare books reading room, Mr. Harris had returned from tea. He was exactly as I had pictured him through his emails, a man perfectly made to work in a reference room. Mr. Harris spends his days helping students locate the materials they are searching for while he calmly maintains the decorum and care of the manuscripts such a place requires. In short, he was tremendously helpful to me and very patient with my lack of knowledge concerning the everyday processes of his reading room.
Mr. Harris helped me locate the index of the Wilberforce collection and then showed me how to fill out a rare book request form. It was about 3:45 p.m. when he told me that if I would submit my requests by 4 p.m., then the materials would be delivered to me at 5 that same afternoon. I quickly followed his instructions and submitted the forms. Then, at 5 p.m., I walked to the desk and was handed four packets of William Wilberforce materials. The moment was surreal. I could not believe what I was holding in my hands!
For the next hour, I was lost in a world of Wilberforce. I was holding his journals, reading his handwriting, feeling the texture of the sheets of paper on which he wrote, and sitting enveloped in the musty smell of old documents — perhaps even the smell of his writing desk. Some of the items I read were as mundane as a shopping list while others were as sublime as this reformer’s spiritual journals. Metaxas writes about how severely critical Wilberforce was with himself, and I noted that on several of the entries I read in the spiritual journals, Wilberforce began with the words “Alas! Alas!”
I only read the Wilberforce papers for about an hour because I knew that I couldn’t begin to do justice to their study in the short time I had that day. And I knew that the Brackett Library has obtained digital and microfilm copies of this same material for the students and faculty of Harding University to use this year as part of Harding Read 2016. This was simply a visit to see the originals with my own eyes and to hold them in my own hands. On my journey looking for Wilberforce, this was a most incredible day!
Next stop: Olney
August 6, 2016