Josiah Wedgwood: The Potter and the Clay
Josiah Wedgwood was a potter by profession. His beautiful art has made him one of the most famous potters, and the name Wedgwood is still well-recognized in pottery today. The Slave Medallion, created by Wedgwood, was one of the most popular images in art during Wedgwood’s time. It made the public more aware of abolition and increased Josiah Wedgwood’s fame as a potter.
Yet the Bible calls him clay. Wedgwood formed pottery with the work of his hands. But it was the Lord who molded Wedgwood into the person he was. The Biblical symbolism is clear: “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8). What the Lord did to Wedgwood, was exactly what Wedgwood did to clay for a living. He molded Josiah Wedgwood, the clay, into a potter.
Born in England, in 1730, Josiah Wedgwood was the youngest of twelve children. This allowed Josiah to learn pottery from one of his older brothers, which he began doing at nine years old, after his father’s death. However, he soon was afflicted with a case of smallpox, which left his right knee unable to work the foot pedal of the potter’s wheel. Wedgwood responded to this hardship, by focusing on designing pottery, studying the craft and developing his creativity.
By the age of twenty, Wedgwood had already started his own business, and he soon invented a green glaze for pottery that is still used today. The ability and creativity of Wedgwood increased, and his sales spread. His pottery caught the eye of Queen Charlotte, which led to the naming of his cream-colored earthenware as Queen’s Ware. Wedgwood continually looked for ways to improve his pottery making, as he studied scientific advances, researched new methods, and created new marketing practices. His unique pottery grew in fame, and he built a new factory called Etruria, creating new types of pottery of many different colors and using different materials to do so. Etruria was the first pottery factory to use a steam-powered engine.
Amputation was eventually necessary for Wedgwood’s right leg, as it never recovered from the smallpox. He spent three of his later years in life creating a duplicate of the first century B.C. Portland Vase. The Lord called him from his earthly duties in 1795, after Wedgwood had passed his business on to his sons.
Josiah’s mother, Mary, was the daughter of a minister that dissented from the Church of England. Wedgwood’s moral convictions are most evident in his abolition efforts. His Slave Medallion, depicted a black person kneeling and pleading in chains. At his feet is a ribbon that reads: “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” As he became more involved in the abolition movement in his later years, Wedgwood clearly believed that God created all men equal and in His own image. Using his gifts as a potter, Wedgwood promoted justice in a way that only someone of his profession could.
The story is told of a rich man that came to tour Wedgwood’s factory. The man ridiculed the God of the Bible in front of Wedgwood’s apprentice throughout the entire tour. When the man finally selected a piece of pottery he wanted, Wedgwood dropped it to the floor, shattering it. The rich man became angry, but Wedgwood replied: “Sir, there are things more precious than any vase – things that can never be restored once they are ruined. I can make another vase, but you can never give back to my helper the pure heart you have defiled by your vile language and sacrilegious talk!”
Surely, Josiah Wedgwood used opportunities like this to impact apprentices, customers, and those that knew him. By using his God-given abilities to do what he was molded to do, Josiah Wedgwood became a God glorifying potter, even as he was the Lord’s clay.