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The Bicentennial of Wilberforce and the Abolition of Slavery

Feb 23, 2007

March 25, 2007 marks a very important anniversary. Two hundred years ago the British Parliament voted to abolish slavery, and on that date the Abolition of Slavery Act became law. While many might be vaguely aware of such an outcome, even fewer would be aware of the tremendous role the Christian religion played in this achievement.

Given all the foolish talk today about how religion must be kept out of the political process, it is worth looking afresh at the life of one of the key players in this victory, British parliamentarian William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and his Christian convictions. Today millions of blacks are thankful that the secularist nonsense about keeping faith separate from politics was not listened to.

Wilberforce, a British aristocrat, entered Parliament in 1780. Shortly after his conversion to evangelical Christianity in mid 1780s he began his battle for the black man’s freedom. This was no small task. Slavery had been practiced by Britain since 1562. It was a vital component of Britain’s commerce and wealth. As much as two thirds of the British economy depended on slavery. Those involved in the slave trade often paid handsome amounts to bribe politicians.

Moreover, the cruelty which the slaves experienced was considered inconsequential since the slave was deemed to be merely the property of his owner. That was the excuse used, for example, when 132 sickly slaves were thrown overboard from a slave ship so that the owner might profit by the insurance. Thus over two centuries of ingrained practice and vested interests had to be challenged and overcome.

In 1787 Wilberforce wrote in his diary, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” In 1788 he introduced his first bill to abolish slavery. It received a cool hearing.

Undeterred, Wilberforce reintroduced to Parliament his motion to abolish slavery. He was continually rebuffed and derided. Year after year he faced apathy, scorn and ridicule. In fact, at one point he was known as the “most hated man in England”. At first Wilberforce stood almost alone. A few associates encouraged him along the way, including John Wesley and John Newton, former slave ship owner and author of the enduring hymn, Amazing Grace. While Newton counselled Wilberforce on spiritual matters, he encouraged him not to abandon public office: “The Lord has raised you up to the good of His church and for the good of the nation.”

The opposition he faced was harsh and continuous. It was only his Christian faith that sustained him during these difficult times. Early on in his struggles, John Wesley  wisely wrote him these encouraging words: “Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. 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 is with you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” (Letter from John Wesley to William Wilberforce, 24 February, 1791)

And he did indeed persevere. Wilberforce stated that “we are all guilty” for tolerating the evil of slavery and said, “Never, never will we desist till we . . . extinguish every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country.”

Because his colleagues in Parliament would refuse to listen to his words, Wilberforce would sometimes pull heavy chains from under his chair and drape them over himself to dramatise the inhumanity of slavery. Nonetheless Christians and non-Christians ignored him and ridiculed him for years. Sniffed one slave owner, “Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon.” Another, Lord Melbourne, angrily agreed: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.”

In addition to seeking changes in Parliament, Wilberforce and his colleagues also tried various other methods, such as holding public meetings, composing poems and songs, distributing pamphlets and circulating petitions. Organising boycotts of slave-grown sugar was another tactic – anything to create publicity for the cause. He also was not averse to working with non-Christians to further his cause. He even associated with Free Thinkers who made no secret of their hostility to religion.

Another key component of his strategy was to really do his homework. He thoroughly researched the issue, such as the actual conditions of slaves, and armed with a wealth of information and facts, he was able to cogently and forcefully argue his case in Parliament.

Finally on March 25, 1807, after incredible odds, Wilberforce saw the slave trade outlawed. On that date the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act became law.  In February there was a majority of 41 votes to 20 in the House of Lords and a majority of 114 to 15 in the House of Commons.

But Wilberforce still had to fight another 26 years before existing slaves were finally emancipated in British territories. The same zeal and diligence characterised this phase of the work as the first 20 years. For example, in thirty-four days, beginning June 27, 1814, there were sent to the House of Commons nearly 800 petitions bearing nearly one million signatures, a number equal to almost one tenth of the country’s entire population. Wilberforce even sold family heirlooms to help finance the campaign for the emancipation of slaves.

His efforts were not in vain. On July 25, 1833, the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery passed its second reading in the House of Commons, bringing slavery to its final end. Three days later, Wilberforce died. Nearly a half century of hard work, prayer, and perseverance paid off. After his death he became known as “the conscience of a nation”.

The Social Dynamics of Faith

Wilberforce and his colleagues were profoundly moved by their evangelical Christian beliefs. They in fact were known as the “saints”. They had a clear sense of the public component of their Christian faith. After his conversion Wilberforce stated his conviction as to where his religion must lead him: “My walk, I am sensible, is a public one; my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men, or quit the part which Providence seems to have assigned me.” Wilberforce and the Evangelicals of his day did not divorce their faith from society, but actively sought to live out their faith in the social arena.

The work of Wilberforce and the Evangelicals has left its mark. As one colleague said in tribute to Wilberforce in 1807, “Who knows whether the greater part of the benefit that he has conferred on the world . . . may not be the encouraging example that the exertions of virtue may be crowned by such splendid success? . . . hundreds and thousands will be animated by Mr. Wilberforce’s example . . . to attack all forms of corruption and cruelty that scourge mankind.”

Interestingly, the Church of England was often resistant to the efforts of Wilberforce and the reformers. Many Christians of the day felt that slavery was alright, and even some missionary societies had slave holdings in the West Indies. Thus Wilberforce had to battle not only the slave trade industry and its supporters, but even the established church itself on occasion.

Message for Today

Most people today look back several centuries ago with shock and disbelief that “civilised” societies could not only tolerate but condone slavery. Perhaps with a lot of hard work and perseverance today, future generations will be able to look back at our age and say with equal horror: “how barbaric that those ‘civilised’ societies tolerated and condoned the killing of unborn babies, the elderly, and others not deemed to be fully human.” The battle against such evils as abortion and pornography may not seem winnable at the moment, but looked at through the lens of history – and with the help of God’s grace – they become just another challenge of faith.

Indeed, it is easy to conclude that Australian society is in rapid state of disintegration and decline, judging by the daily headlines. Given the tidal waves of social and moral problems we face, it is easy to believe we are about to descend into a new dark age. And it is also, as a result, very easy to get depressed and discouraged. Of course, some Christians, believing that the end times and a glorious home-coming are just around the corner, take great cheer from every new bit of bad news. But many other Christians, witnessing the seeming triumph of evil all around, easily lose heart. In dark times like these, to be a real believer certainly requires strong faith.

Regardless of one’s eschatology, however, there is no reason to give up in the face of evil. A good way to shake the end time blues is to take a refresher course in church history. This can result in some pretty encouraging news – good news which can help put the bad news into perspective. There are a number of episodes recorded in church history where the forces of good in the world have triumphed over long-standing forms of social evil. Institutional atrocities of the past that have appeared to be set in stone have eventually crumbled before the prayers and hard work of concerned Christians. The story of Wilberforce is just one of those.

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For further reading:

Belmonte, Kevin, William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity. Zondervan, 2007.
Hill, Clifford, The Wilberforce Connection. Monarch, 2004.
Howse, Ernest Marshall, Saints in Politics: The ‘Clapham Sect’ and the Growth of Freedom. George Allen & Unwin, 1952.
Metaxas, Eric, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
Piper, John, Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce. Crossway Books, 2007.
Pollock, John. Wilberforce. Lion, 1977.
Vaughan, David, Statesman and Saint: The Principled Politics of William Wilberforce. Highland Books, 2001.

8 Responses to The Bicentennial of Wilberforce and the Abolition of Slavery

  • Bill,
    Thanks you for your research on Wilberforce. The slave owners comment, “Humanity is a private feeling not a public principal to act upon” is very much alive, eg., abortion, euthanaia, homosexuality.
    Again so is Lord Melbourne’s comment: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.”
    I am very much indebted to these men for their exposure of the viciousness of this heresy.
    Stan Fishley

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  • You got the Lord Melbourne quote wrong. Melbourne was a great advocate of religion as a tool for promoting national identity and constructing social unity within the nation. He thought it was good public practice. His quote was actually (and you can look this up anywhere): “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the PRIVATE life” (emphasis added).

    Needless to say, Melbourne was not a “true believer.” He was offended by the notion that anyone should take the teachings of a faith system PERSONALLY.

    Rick James

  • Thanks Rick

    While the truth is undoubtedly out there somewhere, both versions seem to be equally found on the web: public, and private. Another one reads, “daily life”. But whatever the exact quote, the point remains largely the same. He had evidently just heard a rousing evangelical sermon, and as you say, he did not like the idea of religion being so personal and touching on every day affairs.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill, I noticed you have placed the recommended books in alphabetical order – but is there one that stands out in your opinion, or a newer publication that outshines them all?

    Annette Nestor

  • Thanks Annette

    They are all good. Perhaps the Metaxas volume could be highlighted. But in fact the most comprehensive and detailed account of his life I did not include here:

    Hague, William, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slavery Campaigner. HarperPress, 2007.

    The 600-pager may be the most thorough and well-researched.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, thanks to your tip on the Booko service I found a hardcover used one by Hague William for under $14 including free shipping. http://booko.com.au/

    The book company I purchased it from did ask me for a 5c Carbon tax payment – but as that was WAY overpriced, I simply unchecked the box.

    Annette Nestor

  • Good move Annette.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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