I am currently preparing to teach ‘Christianity in History from 1550’, one of the core church history units here at the RTC. Preparing for a new semester can sometimes be quite hectic but can also be a very enjoyable experience as you reconnect with ‘old friends’ from history. One such person, who inspired me anew, was William Wilberforce. Around 2007, Wilberforce enjoyed a brief surge in name recognition, as the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade was commemorated, but awareness of him and his pivotal role in helping to end ‘this damnable trade’ seems to be fading. This is obviously something that I will seek to rectify in the upcoming unit and what follows is a sneak preview of how I will introduce Wilberforce and his legacy.
William Wilberforce was born into a wealthy and influential Yorkshire family in 1759. While still a teenager Wilberforce inherited much of his family’s wealth and seemed set for a life of luxury with very few responsibilities. His time at the University of Cambridge (from 1776) seemed to confirm the fear of some in his family that he will waste his considerable talents, as he spent many days and nights gambling and drinking. He did, however, make a very influential friend in the person of William Pitt (1759–1806) who would go on to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Pitt encouraged the young Wilberforce to enter politics. So it was that he was elected to be the member of parliament for Kingston upon Hull in September 1780. Becoming an MP did not significantly change Wilberforce’s lifestyle. The French socialite Madame de Stael called him ‘the wildest man in Britain’. He assessed his own contribution during these years as follows: “The (first) years in parliament I did nothing–nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object”.
In 1785 Wilberforce’s life changed dramatically when he underwent a profound Christian conversion after reading ‘The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul’ by Philip Doddridge. Almost immediately he began looking for ways in which he could apply his newfound Christian faith to his work as a member of parliament. It did not take him long to focus his attention on the cause for which he became famous: The decades-long effort to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade. He became utterly convinced that the biblical message of freedom and justice also applies in the ‘here and now’ and that Christians should do everything in their power to combat the trade in fellow human beings. Almost from the beginning, two things stood out for Wilberforce, that he was taking on a gigantic task and that he was in it for the long haul: “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable, did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time resolved that I would never rest until I have achieved its abolition.”
Wilberforce’s initial efforts to end the slave trade focussed on attempting to persuade people of the immorality of slavery. He was convinced that this kind of appeal was bound to be heeded in a supposedly Christian nation. He made this theme explicit in the way he ended his speech when he first submitted a motion on the topic of slavery to the British parliament: “…when we think of eternity and the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that shall make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principle of justice and the law of God?” Unfortunately, in the eyes of many members of parliament, this argument did not weigh heavier than the lure of money and the protection of entrenched interests. Wilberforce’s first bill was overwhelmingly defeated.
Wilberforce’s parliamentary defeat on 12 May 1789 would be the first of many. He would bring bills before the house on an almost annual basis, only to see them shot down in flames again and again. However, Wilberforce battled on despite ill health and many setbacks. In addition to his parliamentary work, he addressed thousands of public meetings and kept up a ceaseless stream of correspondence. He was also instrumental in helping to build an anti-slavery coalition across many sectors of society. All these efforts eventually paid off when the British Parliament declared the slave trade illegal (with a 218–16 vote) on the 23rd of February 1807.
The abolition of the slave trade was undoubtedly an emotional moment for Wilberforce and in some ways the culmination of his life’s work. This did not mean that he was now content to rest on his laurels. In cooperation with a group of other evangelicals (known as the ‘Clapham Sect’) he worked tirelessly on a wide variety of causes, including the founding of the ‘Church Missionary Society’ and the changing of the charter of the British East India Company to prevent it from hindering missionary outreach in India. In terms of his anti-slavery efforts, the work was also far from done and he kept up the campaign to the very end. The 1807 act outlawed the trade in slaves, not the abolition of the institution of slavery itself. Wilberforce kept campaigning towards this latter goal and lived to hear the news that the bill that would outlaw slavery across the British Empire was guaranteed to pass. He died three days later, on 23 July 1833. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, along with many of the great figures of his age.
Looking back at the contribution that Wilberforce made to the church and society of his day, there are a few lessons we should heed for our own age:
- Although he viewed slavery as morally repugnant, Wilberforce saw his work primarily in spiritual terms. As he famously put it: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners (Morals).” I believe that he set an example in terms of how we talk about Christian efforts to serve our societies. Serving our fellow human being is great in and of itself but for believers, there is always an added dimension, namely that God is glorified when we serve others in His Name.
- The fact that Wilberforce so often spoke and wrote about His ultimate motivation means that his work, and those of many others who laboured alongside him, can serve as a standing argument against the ‘religion poisons everything’ trope. We should not be shy to point out how often profound changes for the better were driven by people’s deep commitment to Christ and the teachings of Scripture. As Wilberforce wrote: “What a difference it would be if our system of morality were based on the Bible instead of the standards devised by cultural Christians.” We can state with the utmost confidence that our world would have been a much darker and sadder place without Christians seeking to live out the values of the Kingdom. Pointing this out can be a valuable launching pad for conversations about the nature and truth of the gospel.
- Wilberforce’s unceasing efforts can, furthermore, teach us much about perseverance. We can so easily get on ‘hobby horses’ or devote our attention to what happens to be the issues of the day. Wilberforce realised that the task to which he was called would require his unceasing attention for decades. It also meant setting aside other ambitions (many believe Wilberforce could have been Prime Minister if he ‘put in the time’ to pursue the top job). It must have been so discouraging to submit the same bill to parliament, year after year, knowing that it will be rejected. Yet, he kept at it! We need to remember that the things God calls us to can sometimes take years to achieve. May we stand ready to render Him this service!
- Wilberforce was, finally, someone who understood that in God’s work it is rarely about the ‘lone hero’. In both his anti-slavery work and in pursuing broader evangelical causes, he surrounded himself with people who were pulling in the same direction. It was consistently the case that their combined efforts dwarfed what any individual could pull off. The ‘Clapham Sect’ stands out in this regard. The number of causes they were involved in boggles the mind and this was due in no small part to the support and encouragement they gave each other.
Our world is very different from the age in which Wilberforce laboured, but in every age, believers are called to love and serve God, seeking his glory wherever he placed us. Wilberforce was convinced that taking this call seriously is one of the keys to a life of substance. Let’s then hear and heed his call to us across the centuries: “If there is no passionate love for Christ at the centre of everything, we will only jingle and jangle our way across the world, merely making a noise as we go.”