Rarely has one man stood up against so many opponents—or against so great an evil—for so long and with so little encouragement, before finally meeting with such a complete triumph, as William Wilberforce in his long battle against the institution of slavery.
This week marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire—a landmark event that is commemorated with the release of a major motion picture. The film is called Amazing Grace, which is a tribute to John Newton, the famous slave trader and hymn writer. But the real hero is the man Newton encouraged in his indefatigable fight for freedom.
William Wilberforce launched his campaign for the abolition of slavery in 1787. The bills he presented to Parliament were voted down no less than eleven times. The international pressure for him to abandon his campaign was intense, for Wilberforce was challenging the economic interests of an entire empire. He faced hatred, humiliation, public slander, personal rejection, threats against his life, and the opposition of hundreds of politicians who were financially controlled by slaveholding interests.
He did not see his cause finally succeed until twenty years later, when the Bill for Abolition carried in the House of Commons by the unexpected majority of almost 300 votes. As one of his colleagues praised him for saving the lives of “so many of his fellow creatures,” loud shouts of acclamation descended on Wilberforce from every corner of the gallery. The great man sat with his head bowed, and tears streaming down his face.
What was the secret to Wilberforce’s success? It was God’s saving and persevering grace. As a young man, Wilberforce led a self-centered and luxurious life. But then “the great change” took place, as he called it: his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. And one of the first differences this made was to completely transform his attitude towards his vast wealth. Suddenly he saw its spiritual danger, which he sought to avoid by giving at least one-quarter of his inherited wealth to the poor.
For a time Wilberforce considered dropping out of political life to become a minister of the gospel. Secretly he went to confer with John Newton, at a time when conversing with such a well-known evangelical was likely to damage a politician’s public reputation. Newton rightly saw that politics was Wilberforce’s true calling as a Christian—the place where he was called to serve Jesus Christ. As Newton later wrote to his friend, “the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation.”
From that point on, Wilberforce committed himself to serving God by serving his country. In particular, he prayed that God would give him the grace to be “the instrument of stopping such a course of wickedness and cruelty as never before disgraced a Christian country.” That is to say, he vowed that he would use all his strength to oppose the slave trade, which he now considered an ungodly and dehumanizing cruelty. This was the man’s great ambition, and it became the great work of his life.
Even his opponents praised Wilberforce for his God-given ability to persevere. Far from being discouraged by each defeat, he returned to his work with renewed vigor. This was not only true in his work for the abolition of slavery, but also for other causes. Somehow he found the time to be active in the leadership of the British Foreign Bible Society, the Church Missionary Society, the Society for the Manufacturing Poor, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Wilberforce was in this work for the long haul, running his race with daily endurance. He was convinced that lasting moral changes in society would only come through personal faith in Christ and a deeper grasp of what he called “the great doctrines of the gospel.” It was his firm belief that when “the peculiar doctrines of the Christian faith went more and more out of sight… the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.” But if only the life and affections of the Holy Spirit would begin to “gain ground,” he said, “there is no estimating the effect on public morals, and the consequent influence on our political welfare.”
In saying this, Wilberforce was preaching to himself first of all, for he was deeply committed to his own growth in personal godliness. This is one of the main themes of his little book A Practical View of Christianity. “Oh Lord,” he prayed, “purify my soul from all its stains. Warm my heart with the love of thee, animate my sluggish nature and fix my inconstancy, and volatility, that I may not be weary in well doing.”
There will never be another Wilberforce. However, we could certainly use one. Despite its official abolition in most of the so-called civilized world, the United Nations estimates that there are some 12 million slaves in the world today, especially in the sex trade. Human trafficking is ranked as the world’s second largest criminal activity—second only to drug smuggling. Even in the United States, the annual number of victims runs into the tens of thousands. Then there are all of the other injustices in the world, not least the horrors of unjust war and murderous abortion. Who will confront these evils and persevere for righteousness until death or victory?
The Wilberforce we need today will be a man—or a woman—of strong faith in Jesus Christ, a deep commitment to the great doctrines of the gospel, and an enduring dependence on the persevering grace of God.
[Information for this Window on the World comes from John Piper, Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), and from www.amazingchange.com, a website dedicated to the ongoing abolition of slavery].
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