William Wilberforce

Ken Curtis, PhD

William Wilberforce

2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in England, an achievement in no small part due to the tireless efforts of legislator and fervent Christian believer William Wilberforce. Look for the release of a feature film, Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce, from Walden Media, starring Albert Finney and produced by Ken Wales, to commemorate the anniversary.

The scene was extraordinary in the British House of Commons! The date was February 23, 1807. Supporters of the slave trade had their say, but now others were clamoring for the opportunity to speak for the motion for abolition. Finally, an eloquent speech was given in tribute to William Wilberforce himself, which brought the house to its feet. After years of discouragement, in which pleas for abolition were scorned or ignored, the motion passed by an overwhelming vote of 283 to 16. William Wilberforce's battle had spanned 20 years.

As a new convert to Christianity in 1784, William Wilberforce, a member of the House of Commons since 1780 at the age of 21, seriously considered getting out of politics to better pursue spiritual growth. But ex-slave trader John Newton, then a pastor, convinced him that his most important spiritual duty was to stay where he was in the rough and tumble of the political world and there live out his witness for Christ. On October 28, 1787, after a conversation with Newton, Wilberforce made a memorable entry in his diary: "God Almighty has placed before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners (morals)."

Wilberforce's methods of pursuing these life goals offer a valuable model for Christians in any era who seek to address the burning issues and evils of their day (see pages 2-3).

The Wilberforce Model for Effecting Change in a Society

Wilberforce and his colleagues, particularly those known as the "Clapham group," set out to abolish slavery, a task that had to seem impossible at the time, since slavery played such a vital role in the functioning of the English economy. But they succeeded. Their principles, approach and strategy are very informative and provide valuable guidelines for Christians and the Church in any era that seeks to make a major difference in the world. Here is a brief overview of how they went about their herculean task.

Set clear goals.
Specific goals were set. No ambiguity here. Wilberforce's life goal was succinctly stated in an entry in his diary dated Sunday, October 28, 1787: "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners." (By manners Wilberforce was referring to the moral climate of his day).

Know the Biblical and theological basis that motivates your cause.
It is so important to get beyond personality issues, political party, and prejudicial preferences. If there is a Biblical teaching at stake, make sure the work has been done to ensure that your interpretation of the Bible is solid and the application is legitimate.

Have confidence in the cause and the truth.
Can a small minority make a big difference? The Wilberforce group thought they could, even though the task seemed overwhelming at first. With the slave trade so essential to the economy then, who would have given them any chance of succeeding? But they were convinced of the rightness and righteousness of their cause and confident they could in time prevail. A study of movements in history reveals that a small minority can provide the "tipping point." It is estimated that Christians represented less than 10 percent of the Roman Empire in 313 when the Edict of Toleration reversed government policy and gave the church legal standing in the empire.

Get the evidence.
More than rhetoric is absolutely essential. It is not enough to ignite emotional support. Meticulous research was carried out to get the best data and irrefutable, substantiated facts to support their case. (See excerpt from a Wilberforce speech on page 4.)

Join with others of like mind.
Wilberforce knew he could not sustain the battle alone, so he linked up with a support community to pray, work, and struggle together. The Clapham group is an incredible case study of the power of co-operative efforts among those committed to a cause.

Maintain the foundation of prayer.
Wilberforce knew repeated times of defeat and discouragement. He sought refuge in God and was unapologetic in his acknowledgment of how he depended on the prayers of others. In his letter to John Newton (yes, the "Amazing Grace" John Newton) of September 6, 1788, he poured out his heart: " . . . and in truth tis often matter of solid comfort to me, and of gratitude to the bountiful Giver of mercies, to reflect that the prayers of many of the well beloved of the Lord are offered up for me: O my dear Sir, let not your hands cease to be lifted up, lest Amalek prevail - entreat for me that I may be enabled by divine grace to resist and subdue all the numerous enemies of my salvation. My path is particularly steep and difficult and dangerous."

Don't give up when setbacks are encountered.
When it seemed that they were decisively defeated, this group would not accept such reversals as final. They regrouped and came back to advance their cause again and again, no matter how many times they were defeated.

Rise above personal attacks.
They did not let vicious attacks on their character and motives distract them but kept their efforts focused on the main issue. How easy it is to get into a mudslinging contest and name-calling. Inflammatory epithets may push hot buttons for fundraising and agitating followers but are not a good long-term strategy. They found the key was to keep attention focused on the issue and the facts and not be concerned to denigrate the persons who opposed them.

Understand the opponent's viewpoint.
They were fully aware of (we might even say "sympathetic to") the concerns motivating their opponents and tried to deal with these in such a way that progress could be made. It is important to be able to state the rationale for the position for the opposition in such a way that the opponent would acknowledge that you have represented them accurately.

Accept incremental victories.
When they couldn't get all that they wanted, they nevertheless pushed as far as they could, realizing that gradual change and progress was preferable to none. There were times when compromise was better than stalemate or defeat.

Cultivate a broad base of support.
When they could not get the needed support of political leaders (who were afraid of the pressures from those whose economic interests were threatened), they took their case to the people and developed grassroots support.

Address the larger picture.
While they dealt with a dominant issue, they were not isolated into a single-issue mentality but saw the main issue as part of the overall moral climate that also needed to be addressed. Realize how many of the burning issues of our day are rooted in wider and far- reaching issues of world view and ideology.

Maintain integrity.
They worked through legitimate, established means to pursue their goals, not resorting to violence or dirty tactics, convinced that truth and right were on their side.

Commit the venture, progress, and results to the Lord.
They were sustained by a conviction that they were simply obeying a mandate of the Gospel. They therefore committed their energies and passions to God, who would providentially guide the historical situation and bring about change when and how he saw fit.

The Horrors of the British Slave Trade
Below are excerpts from a speech made by William Wilberforce to the British House of Commons in 1789, 18 years before victory was achieved. He set out the case for the abolition of slavery and described the brutal and inhumane conditions of the trade itself. NOTE: You can find the entire text of the speech at our website at www.chinstitute.org.

Having now disposed of the first part of this subject, I must speak of the transit of the slaves in the West Indies. This, I confess, in my opinion, is the most wretched part of the whole subject, So much misery condensed in so little room is more then the human imagination had ever before conceived...Let anyone imagine to himself six or seven hundred of these wretches chained two and two, surrounded with every object that is nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling under every kind of wretchedness! How can we bear to think of such a scene as this? One would think it had been determined to heap on them all the varieties of bodily pain, for the purpose of blunting the feelings of mind…when the surgeons tell you the slaves are stowed so close that there is not room to tread among them, and when you have it in evidence from Sir George Younge, that even in a ship which wanted two hundred of her complement the stench was intolerable... What shall we say when we are told that their songs are songs of lamentation upon their departure, which, while they sing, are always in tears, insomuch that one captain (more humane, as I should conceive him, therefore, then the rest) threatened one of the women with a flogging, because the mournfulness of her song was too painful for his feelings? In order, however, not to trust too much to any sort of description, I will call the attention of the House to one species of evidence, which is absolutely infallible. Death, at least, is a sure ground of evidence, and the proportion of deaths will not only confirm, but, if possible, will even aggravate our suspicion of their misery in the transit. It will be found upon an average...not less then twelve and one half per cent perish in the passage. Besides these, the Jamaica report tells you that not less then four and one half per cent die on shore before the day of sale, which is only a week or two from the time of landing. One third more die in the seasoning, and...upon the whole, however, here is a mortality of about fifty per cent, and this among Negroes who are not bought unless quite healthy at first, and unless (as the phrase is with cattle) they are sound in the wind and limb. How, then, can the House refuse its belief to the multiplied testimonies, before the privy council, of the savage treatment of the Negroes in the middle passage? Nay, indeed, what need is there of any evidence? The number of deaths speaks for itself, and makes all such inquiry superfluous. As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave-trade, I confess to you, sir, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear, that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might. Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.

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