William Wilberforce (1759-1833), man of faith, abolitionist

The rock-like faith of Peter is at the heart of William Wilberforce’s crusade against the slave trade. England was exporting 50,000 Africans to America a year in his life time. Wilberforce’s life is the subject of the movie “Amazing Grace” (2006).  You can see the trailer here. There is also a short 3 minute introduction to Wilberforce here.

Wilberforce was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade.  He was a political activist and a man of strong faith.

By the late 1700s, the economics of slavery were so entrenched that only a handful of people thought anything could be done about it.

Physically he wasn’t imposing – he was less than 5 1/2 feet tall and was sickly for most of his life.  He enjoyed the plush lifestyle of his early life. However, after leaving religion he came back to Christianity through the evangelical faith of John Newton, who penned the hymn “Amazing Grace”. He urged him to use his parliamentary position to advance his causes. He attracted a number of friends, including future prime minister William Pitt. Helping him were his oratorical skills though he wasn’t the best strategist.

He won seat in Parliament in 1780. Under the influence of Thomas Clarkson, he became absorbed with the issue of slavery. Later he wrote, “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.” Although opposed to slavery itself, the abolitionists wisely thought that it would be easier to abolish the trade before tackling slavery itself.

Wilberforce was initially optimistic, even naively so. He expressed “no doubt” about his chances of quick success. However, bills introduced were defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.

When it became clear that Wilberforce was not going to let the issue die, pro-slavery forces targeted him.  He was vilified; opponents spoke of “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.” The opposition became so fierce, one friend feared that one day he would read about Wilberforce’s being “carbonated [broiled] by Indian planters, barbecued by African merchants, and eaten by Guinea captains.”

It would take twenty years of pleading, educating, demonstrating, and maneuvering before William Wilberforce would emerge victorious—in 1807. Helping him was the news of a slave uprising in Haiti. A year after Wilberforce’s death (in 1833) all the slaves of the Empire were declared to be free, almost 30 years before they would be set free in the United States, and over fifty years in Brazil.

At one point in the early 1790s Wilberforce actually had enough votes to pass his bill of abolition, but on the night of the vote (Parliament’s business sessions often did not begin until early evening) many of his supporters were attending a comedy at the theater, and thereby the bill failed for lack of votes.

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