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Many know of William Wilberforce’s crusade against slavery in the British Empire, but less well-known is his devotion to building his own Christian character.
Seldom in human history has one man’s conscience driven a social reform as significant and far-reaching as the abolition of the British slave trade. Though others played their vital parts, it is William Wilberforce—a member of the United Kingdom Parliament—whose bold and life-changing efforts as an opponent of slavery were central to reforms that would bring freedom to millions and forever change the world.
From the Slave Trade Act, which in 1807 brought an end to Britain’s slave trade, to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833—which ended slavery itself across the British Empire—Wilberforce’s nearly 50 years of effort caused him to be widely considered in parliament the leading light of the anti-slavery movement in Britain. But what inspired his choice of vocation and provided the driving force to accomplish his life’s mission, seemingly against all odds? There’s much we can learn from his personal motivation to change his own life and character, and his transformation into a major force for change on the world scene.
When Wilberforce was a teenager in the late 1700s, English traders were raiding the African coast around the Gulf of Guinea and annually transporting 35,000 to 50,000 captives across the Atlantic to the West Indies to be sold into slavery. Thousands died on the way due to the harsh conditions, while slave traders grew wealthy from the lucrative business.
Britain was not the only nation involved in the slave trade at the time. Indeed, African tribes supplying the slaves from conquered, exploited peoples were also involved. After personal research into the brutal nature of the trade, Wilberforce became convicted of the need to end slavery and determined to abolish it altogether. Perhaps where Britain led, other nations would follow.
Those who knew Wilberforce as a young man would have been surprised to find him with such conviction. He had grown up surrounded by wealth in Hull, Yorkshire, before going to St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he was not particularly studious, preferring instead to spend his time socialising. He had political ambitions and was elected to Parliament in 1780, later admitting that in his first years there he did “nothing to any purpose.”
It was customary during the long recesses for Members of Parliament to travel abroad. On a whim, Wilberforce asked an old acquaintance from grammar school, Isaac Milner, a professor at Cambridge and a deeply religious man, to accompany him to the south of France and Italy. Their discussions that summer about genuine individual faith led Wilberforce to return to London with a personal and professional crisis of conscience. He turned to Scripture and gave up things he felt God was not pleased with, including his excessive socialising. He began to question even his participation in the business of politics, often conducted in questionable social settings.
He turned to a friend for advice. John Newton was a former slave ship captain who had converted to Christianity, becoming the foremost evangelical Christian in London (he composed the words to the hymn “Amazing Grace”). Newton convinced Wilberforce to conduct his religious life in politics because God could use him “for the good of the nation.” Wilberforce, who now prayed and studied the Bible daily, became convicted to use his wealth, talents, and position for God’s purposes.
In 1787, he decided the two great objectives for his life should be the reformation of the slave trade and what he termed the “reformation of manners,” meaning the moral standards of society. Prominent abolitionists sought his support. He recognised the benefits of working with similar-minded friends, and together, they mounted an early sort of public relations campaign. Even the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood produced anti-slavery plates bearing the image of a kneeling, chained slave and the words, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” In May of 1787, many of these friends formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Wilberforce risked both his career and his reputation in challenging supporters of the slave trade. Despite that opposition, in his very first anti-slavery speech to Parliament on 12 May, 1789, he said that “so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did [slavery’s] wickedness appear that… I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.”
He also called for Parliament to consider their duty from an eternal standpoint: “There is a principle above everything that is political…. When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is here in this life which should make any man contradict the principles of his own conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion and of God?”
Wilberforce’s personal reflections on God’s word and his responsibilities in life produced not just an outward change in his conduct, but a profound change in his character and outlook. He strove to abide by what he understood the Eternal God of Creation stated was morally pure and to follow His commandments, which reflect His perfect character. God expects us to read the Bible and view it as His inspired word (2 Timothy 3:16–17)—not just as purely academic knowledge, but as something to complete us and our character, to equip us for the challenges of life. God makes it clear in James 1:22 that we should be “doers of the word and not hearers only.” Troubled by what he saw as a hypocritical and decadent English church, Wilberforce sought to obey God by establishing more than 60 philanthropic organisations to help the lives of the poor, support education and prison reform, and end child labour.
In 1807, after 20 years of persistent work and repeated failed votes, Parliament passed the Abolition Act outlawing the British Atlantic slave trade. It was another 26 years—just days before Wilberforce’s death in 1833—before the House of Commons passed the Slavery Abolition Act outlawing slavery itself in the British Empire.
Wilberforce endured in the face of overwhelming political opposition and trusted God for strength through his lifelong bouts of poor health. He challenged the status quo—first in his own life, and then in society—for almost 50 years, becoming a formidable force for change. However, despite all of his noble and valiant efforts, slavery remains today in various forms around the world. Not until Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God on this earth will human beings everywhere be truly free. Christians who involve themselves in politics may experience short-term victories, but Satan’s world always prevails eventually. This is one reason why we are reminded that today’s Christians are “ambassadors” of God’s Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20) and should not involve themselves in political disputes.
Yet we can respect William Wilberforce for the strength of character that spurred him to act on the knowledge he had. How many of us have such conviction? Have we proved to ourselves what the Bible truly says? Despite the inevitable opposition we will face in this present evil world, have we committed to becoming examples of personal change by following the God of the Bible and His way of life?
That is what we at Tomorrow’s World strive to support you in doing, through this magazine, our literature, and the ministry of the Living Church of God. The starting point, however—recognising the need for personal change based upon God’s word—is very much up to you.