27 Sep William Wilberforce
ABOLITION OF SLAVERY: A DREAM COMES TRUE AND HISTORY IS CHANGED
Fifty years of struggle for an ideal. A vision passionately pursued. An entire people group given the right to live as free men. Law re-written on the principle of justice and human equality. Forever opening the doors to a future of promise to all men. A man who was acclaimed by Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln as their example and inspiration.
This is the William Wilberforce story.
MARCH 25th, 1807 – THE ABOLITION OF THE SLAVE TRADE
Two hundred four years ago, the Imperial Parliament passed the ‘Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ after it was approved by the House of Lords and finally, the House of Commons with 283-yes and 16-no votes. The slave trade was declared illegal throughout all the British colonies.
The champion of this epoch, equal to none in man’s history, was William Wilberforce. Sir Wilberforce was a man who, against the common sense of his contemporaries, and opposing the majority’s will, decided to fight for the cause he believed in. He decided to fight for his principles, enduring and overcoming in his life, year after year, defeat after defeat, for the values of freedom and equality he believed in. In his family life, as well as in his profession, he was consistent.
He was an independent member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and the commitment of his life was to establish and defend the rights of those who had no voice; of those, who were not even considered as human beings, thus treated as animals, bought and sold. Their life was valued only by their ability to do hard work in the plantations, or to serve the masters in the houses of the white aristocrats. Litigating for an ideal of equality for slaves was considered a mockery to the English way of life, at a time when the slave trade was considered perfectly right and essential to the Kingdom’s economy.
It was on a winter’s day in 1787, that Wilberforce gave a general announcement at the House of Commons that he intended to present a motion for the abolition of the “course of wickedness and cruelty”. To that cause he dedicated his entire life, his talents, his resources. His whole being was concentrated on that mission. After twenty years of laborious efforts and eleven rejections, on March 25th, 1807 the first fervently awaited gleam of hope materialized. His motion on the abolition of the slave trade was finally approved. But that was just the first step.
JULY 26th, 1833 – THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY
It took an additional twenty-six years of motions, evidence building, debate, defeats, insults, threats, disappointments and petitions to see slavery finally abolished all over the British Colonies. Definitively. William Wilberforce had won.
He died only three days after hearing the news, that the passage of the Bill through the British Parliament was given royal assent, making it official law. Even to the end, the debilitating disease he had battled simultaneously during all those years would not rob him of seeing his dream come true. “In the world into which Wilberforce was born… slavery was accepted as birth and marriage and death… The idea to ending slavery was so completely out of the question at that time that Wilberforce and the abolitionists couldn’t even mention publicly. They focused on the lesser idea of abolishing the slave trade – on the buying and selling of human beings- but never dared speak of emancipation, of ending slavery itself. Their secret and cherished hope was that once the slave trade had been abolished, it would become possible to begin to move toward emancipation.” 1. And so did it happen, that after 46 patient and arduous years, his dream became true.
THE REFORM OF MORAL CUSTOMS
Wilberforce was a man of faith, not like the man that one meets in church on Sundays, attending rather for habit than by a clear choice. His faith was real, practical and consistent with his daily life. The historians of that time record that his home was always full of people, a continuous ebb and flow of visitors. But, whomever his guests might have been that day, he never joined the group unless he had fulfilled his daily prayer and meditation time.
He was a man who loved to be in the company of friends, and he enjoyed having fun with everybody. He was a wonderful orator. He loved observing nature and singing. He was given to continual learning; he was very curious. He worked for hours and hours on end without interruption; he spent every moment with his family that he could, and he played with his children so willingly, that his wife imagined perhaps he enjoyed the playing even more than the children. His home was an enduring welcome center for friends and colleagues who shared his struggles.
He had a clear vision. A pure motivation. A deeply rooted determination.
In 1787, close to the announcement to the House of his unexpected motion, he noted in his personal diary:
“God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.”
John Pollock wrote about him: “No doubt, Wilberforce has changed the moral outlook of Great Britain…The reform of the moral customs grew up in the Victorian virtues, and Wilberforce amazed the world when he ‘made goodness fashionable’. Quite apart from its faults, the British public life in the mid nineteenth century became famous for its emphasis on character, morality and justice, and the British business world for its integrity”2.
His aim was to cultivate goodness. His strategy was to make it fashionable.
He made that an issue of social habit. He did not confine his struggle within the walls of the House of Commons. He went out in the streets and he involved the people. He generated such a successful public petition that he shook the establishment to its foundations. He promoted the ideals of justice and equality through a budding movement that gained momentum inside the people’s consciences. He created such a profound awareness of his ideas and principles, that they were adopted and shared by everybody. So much so, that a formal acknowledgment was unavoidable. The Parliament recognized it, and consequently approved the Act.
“Wilberforce did never present his activity as a religious mission. His was an effort to improve the social conditions, full stop. Among other things, he committed to the reduction of crimes and improved the general living conditions of the poors.”3.
AN OBSTACLE COURSE
Eric Metaxas, referring to the entries noted by Wilberforce in his private diary, wrote: “Wilberforce, writing these words at age twenty-eight, was either insane, idiotic, or inspired by the very Subjects of his two-object sentence.”4. Actually his interests in the ‘objects’ were more than inspired; he was resolute and far-reaching in his focus.
“The Parliament deemed it absolutely unthinkable that Great Britain could flourish without the products supplied from the plantations of the Western Indies. Additionally, the international political issue was there, along with the one of Great Britain versus France, Portugal, Brazil and the new nation, the United States of America.
If a single nation, Great Britain, should have abolished slavery unilaterally, and the other nations not, the only possible result should have been – according to the opposition – that power and wealth should have migrated to the other nations, in a way that the country should have become weaker at the international level ”5.
THE “GREAT CHANGE”
Wilberforce was born in Hull, England, on 24 August 1759. In 1780 he was already a young man of great oratory talent. He loved parties and late-night sessions. It was almost for amusement that he decided to run for candidacy with the House of Commons in his constituency. But, he was actually elected, which started a career that thrived nearly fifty years. He was only twenty-one.
One day he left on a trip, and the “Great Change”, as he loved to call it, happened. It was 4 years after the election, and he decided to go on vacation to the French Riviera with a friend of his, Isaac Milner. Along the way, the conversation deepened. Milner began to speak about Jesus. Milner was a respectable man, but far from the stereotyped extremist Christian common in England at that time. What he shared amazed Wilberforce so much, that William chose to deepen the matter further, on his own. He started an inner search for truth. He collected evidence. Little time passed before he had the encounter that changed his life, forever inspiring him to overcome every struggle he would have; he encountered God.
Because of that spiritual journey, he became purposed and determined to be a new person. An upright one. He questioned his political career. That environment was extremely corrupt. He was in doubt, and he wondered whether it could be possible to keep his seat in the Parliament and serve at the same time the cause which had changed his heart, and, as a consequence, his core motivations.
Taking up courage, he decided to find an old friend for a private meeting, captain John Newton. Newton had been a slave dealer in the past, a navy captain who had profusely repented his atrocious past…. Newton had changed his life as well, and for that reason, Wilberforce was sure that they could understand each other. At least he hoped that. The encounter with Newton was crucial. It strengthened the intimate belief that not long before began growing inside his heart.
His mission as a believer had to be at the service of his country. Even in the sector of politics, God would avail by his service, if he wanted that. That’s what Newton said to him. And Mr. Pitt, a dear friend of his who would become the future Prime Minister, sent him a letter, which also bolstered his determination: “Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple and lead not to meditation only, but to action.” John Newton, who later became famous for authoring the song dedicated to Wilberforce, “Amazing Grace”, wrote in a letter, “I judge he is now decidedly on the right track… I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide!! But they are not incompatible.”6
Wilberforce took up the challenge; he paid the cost. He changed history.
THE SECRETS TO HIS SUCCESS
In 1790 John Wesley, by that time was eighty-seven years old and on his deathbed, wrote to him what was probably his last letter. It went like this, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be with you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on…”
In short, here are the key secrets to his success:
- A clear vision. Accurately noted on his personal diary since 1787.
- A pure motivation.
- A sure step.
- The encouraging words and support of leaders like John Newton, Mr. Pitt and John Wesley.
- The dear friends from Clapham Common. They were a haven of comfort and immense daily help. They were so knit together; it astonished all those who had the privilege to know them. They were so powerfully linked in community (a band of brothers) that the external pressures and the countless troubles of forty six years of tedious parliamentary debate, could not surmount their accord of fellowship.
- The awareness of the difficulties of his vision. He knew that it would not be an easy path.
He wrote: “ Day by day, I am more and more aware that my work must be marked by constant and regular efforts, rather than sudden and violent.” He was conscious that in his purpose, the steady mentality of a marathon runner was more advisable than the force of a sprinter’s.[7. John Piper, Amazing Grace, La Stupenda Grazia Nella Vita di William Wilberforce, 2007 Italian Edition, Alpha & Omega, pag. 44]
Wilberforce, in one of his writings, gave to his readers the advice: “Lift off on the wings of contemplation, as long as the people’s praises and the censures fade to the ears, and the feeble, quiet voice of the conscience is no more impeded by the uproar”.7
Moral Wings takes up his advice, and shares it with tender gratitude.
Thank you, William