Home History Articles William Wilberforce and the Campaign to End Slavery
William Wilberforce and the Campaign to End Slavery PDF Print E-mail

William Wilberforce remains an inspiring example to all of us of courage, integrity and perseverance against all odds. 2007 marked the 200 th Anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by the British parliament. To mark this monumental turning point in world history, a major film on William Wilberforce, and his campaign to abolish slavery, was produced: AMAZING GRACE .

There was nothing in Wilberforces early parliamentary career that indicated what a dramatic impact he would have on world history. Raised in privilege amongst the social elite, educated at Cambridge, William was described as a late night, party loving, upper class unbeliever when he was first elected to parliament at age 21. Through reading the book The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul he came to a dramatic conversion to Christ. He was appalled by his shapeless idleness and tormented over the most valuable years of life wasted and opportunities lost, which can never be recovered. He resigned from five clubs in one day, he stopped going to questionable shows in theaters, and he gave up gambling. With a new intellectual rigour he set himself to redeem his idle years devoting an average of nine hours a day to study.

He approached John Newton, the former slave ship captain, who had been converted (and later wrote Amazing Grace) for counsel. Should he leave politics and enter the ministry? John Newton admonished him that to leave his post in parliament would be desertion from the duty to which God had called him: It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His Church and for the good of the nation.

At the time of his conversion there were only two other Evangelical members of parliament. However, by the time of his death there were over 100 Evangelical members in the House of Commons and the House of Lords!

William wrote a powerful book: Practical Christianity which was an instant best seller. It went through five editions in the first six months, and was a best seller in both England and America, also being translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and German. David Livingstone testified that Practical Christianity was one of the most important and influential books he ever read.

On Sunday 28 October 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 society.

Realizing that he was going to war against an extremely profitable business, with deeply entrenched financial interests and political support, William prepared his campaign carefully. He gathered around himself a group of researchers and assistants dedicated to eradicating slavery. On 12 May 1789 he introduced a bill for the abolition of the slave trade with a stirring three-and-a-half hour speech moving twelve resolutions against the trade. Reports describe it as the most gripping and moving speech ever delivered in parliament. Wilberforces friend, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, declared that Wilberforce had the greatest natural eloquence of all the men I ever knew.

Most of the members of parliament were convinced of the righteousness of Wilberforces arguments, but they were fearful that abolition would result in an economic disaster. Time was granted to the traders and plantation owners to produce evidence in response. Tragically, before the next session when this was to be voted on, the French Revolution erupted! The tide of public opinion hardened against abolition in reaction to the anarchy and mass murder across the channel. The deteriorating situation in France, a bloody revolt by slaves in San Dominique and later massacres by slaves in Haiti lead to further public reticence and panic, which swayed the debate against abolition. Wilberforces bill was defeated.

The fact that Britain had just lost their American colonies, that King George III was going insane, and that war with France was looming did not help matters at all. Wilberforce became one of the most hated men in England as he persisted in raising the case against slavery. Wilberforce became the target of scurrilous smear campaigns in the media. He was physically assaulted and even the target of attempted murder. Yet, he persevered, and after a lifetime crusade his steadfastness was rewarded with the liberation of all slaves in the British Empire.

The extraordinary tenacity which William displayed throughout forty-six years of legislative warfare is an epic of parliamentary perseverance. Abolishing the slave trade became for William the grand object of my parliamentary existence to be the instrument of stopping such a course of wickedness and cruelty asdisgraced a Christian country.

For the first twenty years of this campaign he was rejected by most of his friends, vilified by his enemies, and forsaken even by most churchmen. Every year he would reintroduce bills against slavery and each year faced defeat. His marathon resilience was all the more remarkable when one understands that William was short, frail, frequently sick and afflicted with poor eyesight. He suffered from lung problems and developed a curvature of the spine which forced him, for the last eighteen years of his life, to wear a steal and leather girdle as a brace beneath his clothes. Yet, he more than made up for his weak body with his vigorous mind and boundless energy. He was not only an eloquent speaker, but a generous friend and compassionate to strangers.

His adversaries complained that Wilberforce jumped up whenever they knocked him down. He was a man who simply would not give up. Neither physical handicaps, public opinion, character assassination campaigns, political pressure, nor physical threats could deter of deflect him from persevering on his mission to set the captives free.

The example of Christ inspired him: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners. Isaiah 61:1

His friend, the Prime Minister, Pitt, warned Wilberforce that his Evangelical enthusiasm and unpopular campaign for the abolition of slavery, endangered his political career. Wilberforces position as Member of Parliament for Yorkshire, the largest county in England at that time, and won by a landslide, had earned him an unassailable position in politics and society, and he could be en route to being the next Prime Minister of England. Now, his obstinance and enthusiasm jeopardised his political future.

However, Wilberforce was no political pragmatist. He was a radically God centered Christian whose primary concern was not to pass laws that would bring benefits to society, but to pass laws to eradicate those activities of society that were offensive to God. William declared that the supremacy of Gods glory in all things was the grand governing maxim for all of life. To dishonor God would defeat the good of society. For the good of society, the good of society must not be the primary good. Gods Word, Gods Law, Gods honour must be our first concern.

William declared that the central Christian doctrines of the depravity of man, eternal judgment, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit and the practical necessity of a fruitful life of service for Christ break the power of pride and greed and fear and lead to transformed morals.

No man has a right to be idle wrote Wilberforce. He challenged his contemporaries to use their health, leisure and affluence to find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate. Wilberforce passionately believed that we are saved to serve.

Simplicity and generosity marked his life. He resolved to give at least one quarter of his income to the poor (above and beyond his tithes to church and other missionary concerns). In 1803 Wilberforce helped form the British and Foreign Bible Society. He supported Hannah Mores pioneering of Sunday schools for the underprivileged, he helped launch the Church Missionary Society, The Society for the Better Observance of Sunday, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). William was a great animal lover and the story is told of when Wilberforce witnessed a carthorse being cruelly whipped as it struggled to pull a load of stone up a hill. Wilberforce intervened and so berated the driver, who had initially sworn at him, that at the end the driver solemnly declared: Mr. WilberforceI will never beat my horse again!

William sponsored missions to Tahiti and regularly supported William Careys Baptist mission in India.

Wilberforce enthralled the House with reports from William Careys (illegal) mission to India and the terrible poverty, degradation, disdain for relieving human suffering and human rights abuses of suttee (widow burning) and the horrendous cast system in India. The remedy, sir, is ChristianityChristianity assumes her true characterwhen she takes under her protection those degraded beings on whom philosophy looks down with disdain or perhaps with contenpteious condescensionChristianity delights to instruct the ignorant, to succour the needy, to comfort the sorrowful, to visit the forsaken.

When challenged, that he was forcing his views on the Indians, he responded Compulsion and Christianity! Why the very terms are at variance the ideas are incompatibleChristianity is the law of liberty! He was not asking parliament to organise evangelism, but merely to permit it. Since the East India Company had been granted a monopoly by parliament, it was up to parliament to ensure that they practice religious freedom in India.

Next to the slave trade, I have long thought our making no effort to introduce the blessings of religion and moral improvement among our subjects in the East, the greatest of our national crimeswe have too manywho seem to think our dominions safer under Brahma and Vishnu, than under that of the Almighty. Wilberforce successfully fought for a new charter that would permit the activities of all missionaries. This campaign was supported by petitions with over half-a-million signatures!

William Wilberforce pioneered new ways of arousing public opinion to outflank the entrenched and corrupt interests of slavers and plantation owners in parliament. Wilberforce developed the pamphlet wars, petitions, graphic prints, local societies and voters guides.

While fighting against slavery abroad, Wilberforce was also intensely involved in reform at home, he opposed flogging in the army, sought to improve prison conditions, improved working conditions in the coal mines, and was the first to campaign against the abuse of child labour in the cotton mills. He also pioneered popular education and campaigned against the game laws.

In 1807, twenty years after he first began his crusade, and in the middle of Britains war with France, Wilberforce, and his faithful teams labours were rewarded with victory. The moral vision and political momentum for abolition had become irreversible. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, 23 February 1807, the Abolition Bill passed the second reading in the House of Commons. A new generation of statesmen, inspired by Wilberforces tenacious example, rose up to speak in favour of the bill. The motion to abolish the slave trade was carried by an overwhelming 283 votes to 16 against! The House rose, almost to a man, with great cheers and gave Wilberforce the greatest ovation ever seen in British history. William bent forward in his seat, his head in his hands, tears of gratitude streaming down his face. His long crusade of twenty years have been crowned with success by Almighty God.

This was only the first victory in the ongoing campaign to set the captives free. In 1809 British ships were authorised to search suspected slave ships, even foreign vessels, on the high seas. In 1810 parliament made slave trading a felony punishable by fourteen years hard labour. In 1815 the British government insisted on the abolition of the slave trade being included in the international treaty the Congress of Vienna which ended the Napoleonic Wars. In 1824 Britain passed a bill equating slave trading with piracy and making it punishable by death. Finally, in 1833, while Wilberforce lay dying, a runner was sent to his house to inform him that his lifetime campaign of 45 years was now fully successful. By an act of parliament, all 700,000 slaves in British overseas territories were set free.

Thank God that Ive lived to witness the day in which England is willing to give twenty million pounds sterling for the abolition of slavery! He rejoiced.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 2 Corinthians 3:17

William was a most cheerful Christian. He enjoyed singing hymns, both in family prayers and when alone. He would often say: A Christian should have joyit is his duty to abound in praise. He taught that if a man can rob you of your joy, he can rob you of your usefulness. Joy was both a means of survival and perseverance for Wilberforce, and an act of submission, obedience and worship on the other. A coldunfeeling heart ishighly criminal To Wilberforce, joy was not an option. It was a clear command of Almighty God. Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is Gods will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Wilberforce is proof that a man may change his times, though he cannot do it alone. Wilberforce became the national conscience. He pioneered a new political integrity in an age of corruption and transformed the House of Commons from a self-serving club to an assembly concerned for the common good of people worldwide. He ensured that British foreign policy would have its roots in the Biblical principle of love for ones neighbour. He transformed his fellow countrymens attitudes towards Africa and India. He planted in the public conscience, not merely a sensitivity against injustice, but a positive sense of obligation towards all people. He inspired the ideal of trusteeship that was to influence British conduct overseas for at least another century.

The abolition of slavery was one of the great turning points of history. Wilberforces joyful and dynamic practical Christianity had persevered against all opposition and was most graciously used by Almighty God to bring freedom and life to millions.

May God raise up a new generation of reformers and statesmen who, in the tradition of William Wilberforce, will maintain personal integrity while combining evangelistic zeal with concern for social justice.

Proclaim liberty throughout the land Leviticus 25:10

May each of us know, as William Wilberforce did, the joy of the Lord as our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

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