HEROES 12: WILLIAM WILBERFORCE (24 AUGUST 1759-29 JULY 1833)
Melody Redman considers William Wilberforce.
Many of us will have seen Amazing Grace (2006), the critically-acclaimed movie which recounted Wilberforce's campaign to abolish slavery. (1) Wilberforce is now considered a hero, but to achieve his goal Wilberforce endured years of severe adversity, with no guarantee of success. Let us review Wilberforce's life and consider how it may teach us today.
Born in Hull in 1759, Wilberforce had some early Christian influences in his life. Despite this, he grew up to be uninvolved with the church and was under little pressure to work due to his family's wealth. (2) After developing a friendship with William Pitt the Younger (who later became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1783), Wilberforce also joined the political world when he was encouraged to stand as a Member of Parliament for Hull in 1780, at the age of 21. (3) Sometime during his political career, he cultivated an intellectual interest in Christianity. From this interest grew a sincere faith around the age of 26, despite a lack of support from Pitt and distressing questions around the effect his faith would have on his life. (4) It certainly did have a significant effect on his life! A diary entry from Wilberforce (aged 28) in 1787, states: 'God Almighty has placed before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals].' (5) Wilberforce clearly believed the calling for these two issues was from God. We also may feel stirred by God to deal with issues around us.
A couple of months after reflecting on this calling, Wilberforce informed the House of Commons that he would soon propose the slave trade's abolition. (6) In 1789, speaking to the House of Commons, he said: 'Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.' (7) In Proverbs 31:8-9, we can see the Christian principles which Wilberforce was supporting: 'Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.' This was the beginning of a long battle during which Wilberforce spoke up and defended slaves, whatever the consequences.
The slave trade was seen by many as crucial to the economy and the financial implications of losing it meant that abolition was not a popular cause; Wilberforce's life was threatened and friendships were lost. (8) Wilberforce wrote: 'The Word of God teaches us we can profess without offense those doctrines and precepts of Christianity concurrent with worldly principles... Yet at times, the Christian will find himself opposing and differing with those values in the world.' (9) Wilberforce fought against society's acceptance of slavery because God had placed it on his heart; this conflicted with the world around him and he was persecuted. Wilberforce endured a long and challenging battle. It was not until 18 years later, on 24 February 1807, that the majority in Parliament voted for the abolition of the slave trade. (10) His friend noted, '[Wilberforce] attributes it to the immediate interposition of Providence.' (11) Wilberforce recognised that God was involved. This wasn't the end of the matter; it was another 26 years until slavery itself was prohibited by law, three days before Wilberforce's death in 1833. (12) The abolition of slavery cost four decades of his life, with many serious difficulties along the way. Yet, Wilberforce persevered in his obedience to what God had placed on his heart.
Wilberforce married at the age of 37 and his wife had six children; (13) family life brought its own challenges and difficulties. Although he is best known for his battle against slavery, he also contributed to other causes around social justice and evangelism, including 'The Church Missionary Society, [and] the Society for the Manufacturing Poor'. (14) Besides this, he was also a generous man, giving away over a quarter of his income. (15)
In 1797, Wilberforce published A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity. This has since been edited and re-published. (16) A recent editor noted that it showed 'Wilberforce to be first a Christian and then a politician'. (17) It could be inferred that his faith was the driving force behind his ultimate success. Perhaps one of the most obvious declarations of his willingness to serve God despite all costs is written in his book:
'The real issue is still whether our representation of what Christianity requires is consistent with the Word of God, is it not? If it is, then surely it is a small matter to sacrifice a little worldly comfort and prosperity during the short span of our existence in this life in order to secure a crown of eternal glory and the enjoyment of those pleasures that are at God's right hand forevermore... our blessed Saviour warned us that it would often be required of us to make such a sacrifice. He exhorted us therefore to have a loose grip on all worldly possessions and enjoyments.' (18)
I cannot help but imagine that when faced with threats to his life, loss of friendships and the battle that lay before him, he took comfort in knowing that his sacrifice would be rewarded after this life. Matthew 25 includes a parable whereby God rewards those who responded to the needs of oppressed people. Verse 40 states: 'The king will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."'
Wilberforce acted to save those oppressed by slavery as an act of service to God, following his calling. He wrote, 'If indeed, real Christianity should come to prevail, the world would become a better place of general peace, prosperity and joy.' (19) This gives great insight into the driving force behind Wilberforce's political life, and the challenge remains today; as Christian medics who care for our colleagues and patients, do we really believe Christianity can be a positive influence on our world? Is this demonstrated through our actions and relationships? Wilberforce exhibited patience, commitment and dedication despite all costs but aware of his calling, purpose and eternal reward. It took him to the point of death to see the result. Are we focused enough to be the people God wants us to be, and to fulfil that which is asked of us?
We may not all be politicians like Wilberforce, but as medics we are well placed to protect some of the vulnerable of society. Whether a daily demonstration of integrity and compassion, or a calling to deal with a specific issue in society today, such as human trafficking, what is it that you or I can do?
- 24 August 1759 - Birth of William Wilberforce
- 1780 - William Wilberforce elected as MP for Hull
- 24 February 1807 - Parliament votes to abolish the slave trade
- 26 July 1833 - Parliament votes to abolish slavery
- 29 July 1833 - Death of William Wilberforce