William Wilberforce was a member of the British parliament at the turn of the nineteenth century. Though a man of small stature, he pulled off one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of the British empire: the abolition of slavery.
Defeating such an evil institution required a stamina and determination not inherent in most of us. Though early in his career he was driven by a sense of morality and compassion when he saw the mistreatment of fellow human beings, eventually he added faith in Christ to his reserve of steadfastness. Only a God who cared for all human beings equally could rally the likes of William Wilberforce into a battle akin to David confronting Goliath. Like David, Wilberforce relied on the living God, but unlike David, the battle didn’t end with a single stone.
Help from Above
In probably the last letter written by religious reformer John Wesley, we get the sense of proportion as to the monumental task ahead of Wilberforce.
“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 be for you, who can be against you?”1
John Wesley knew that England was gripped by monstrous forces of evil that would not relinquish the wealth brought by the slave trade. The ill treatment of humans did not concern them. In fact, the moral depravity that engulfed the English during this time ran from slavery to rampant alcoholism, child prostitution, child labor, public executions for petty crimes, and much more. As with Esther in the Old Testament, only someone put in place and given power by God could such an undertaking succeed.
The slave trade made a lot of men rich, often men of such dissipation and worldliness that, like hornets protecting a nest, they reacted with characteristic stinging vehemence at the thought of losing their livelihood and lifestyle. For example, Wilberforce was accused of beating his wife; he wasn’t even married at the time. One poem exemplified the viciousness of the attacks, “Go Wilberforce with narrow skull/Go home and preach away at Hull./No longer in the Senate cackle/In strains that suit the tabernacle.”2 The last line insinuates that religious ideas should not be found in politics, a sentiment found among the elite of today.
In one testimony in the House of Commons, Wilberforce accused a slave ship captain who had flogged a fifteen-year-old slave girl to death. The man then stalked Wilberforce’s house and threatened him repeatedly. Even the well-known hero, Lord Nelson, defended the slave owners “against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.”3 In one of his more exasperating confrontations, he was reminded by one nobleman that he should consider the end of such reformers who then pointed to a picture of the crucified Christ.
He Persisted and Prevailed
Yet Wilberforce persisted. Such determination and faith paid off. Several days before he died and after many decades of battle, Britain outlawed slavery. She was one of the first nations to do so. That the world is better for many people because of his efforts goes without saying. That much work for the good of humanity stills needs people like William Wilberforce also goes without saying. Let all of us consider that we might, like him and Esther (Esther 4:14), be made for such a time as this.
(Notes 1, 2, & 3 are from Amazing Grace, by Eric Metaxis, Harper Collins Epub edition, 2007, pp. 162, 172, & 173 respectively. For those wishing to know more details about Wilberforce and his noble fight, I highly recommend this book.)
© 2023 Robert T. Weber, The Lazarus Chronicles and Words Done Right LLC.