And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:39-40
William Wilberforce is known primarily for working to bring about an end to not only the slave trade in the British Empire, but slavery in general. In fact, a movie was recently done over his tireless effort to end slavery in the British Empire and her colonies. While the movie is excellent and if you get a chance, you should watch it, it still fails to capture both the opposition Wilberforce faced and why he chose to end slavery.
Wilberforce was born in 1759 in England and once he graduated school he decided to attend Cambridge. Upon graduating from Cambridge he ran for the British parliament as a Torie (Conservative Party) at the age of 21 and due to his quick wit and ability to woo crowds with his speech, he easily won.
Once Wilberforce entered London to take his seat in Parliament he quickly attempted to advance his life through both politics and social pleasures. It was customary for men in those days to gamble, and gamble Wilberforce did. The London Wilberforce moved to is one out of a Charles Dickens novel, where the rich lived a life of luxury while the poor were huddled into small and filthy homes, where children worked for little to nothing for 14-16 hours a day, where prisons were crammed with debtors and murderers. The seedier side of London, which did exist, was a few blocks from Wilberforce, but might as well have been another country in terms of how he lived.
It is during this time that the government – and society as a whole – abounded in corruption and this impacted the slave trade. The England’s high court, it had been ruled that slaves were simply goods, no different than cargo, so if slaves had to be thrown overboard in a storm in order to lighten the load then it was completely permissible and legal to do so. The Government wasn’t much better; the Parliament members were often bribed to vote a certain way. Anytime a group arose to challenge the slave trade, the companies that benefited from the trade would simply pay off the members of Parliament and the group would eventually dissipate while the slave trade remained.
The London that Wilberforce moved to when accepting his seat in Parliament was not a bastion for Christendom; instead, it was a city where passions ran wild. The rich did as they pleased, purchased what they wanted, and treated the poor as they desired. The poor worked long hours to scratch out a mere existence, one unfit for animals, much less humans. Christianity might have been the religion everyone grew up with, but it was hardly followed or recognized.
In 1784, Wilberforce’s life underwent quite a transformation. He elected to go on a tour of Continental Europe during a break in Parliament and asked his old schoolmaster Isaac Milner to come along. During this trip, Milner had Wilberforce read the Scriptures daily. Though Wilberforce had to take a break due to his need to return to Parliament, he continued his tour of Europe in 1785. After concluding the tour he was spiritually confused upon his return to London and that’s when he sought counsel from the famous John Newton (composer of Amazing Grace and a former slave boat captain turned abolitionist).After consulting with Newton, Wilberforce felt a spiritual change. The change was so great that he considered abandoning politics and becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. Newton instead instructed Wilberforce to stay in politics telling him that God could use him there. Such advice impacted Wilberforce greatly. As Chuck Colson writes in his introduction to Wilberforce’s book A Practical View of Christianity,
“Had God saved him only to rescue his own soul from hell? He could not accept that. If Christianity was true and meaningful, it must not only save but serve. It must bring God’s compassion to the oppressed as well as oppose the oppressors.”
Wilberforce realized that it wasn’t enough to be saved. It wasn’t enough to love Jesus. It wasn’t enough to go to church and help the church. True Christianity rested upon the belief that we are to be transformed into the image of Christ and in so doing we are to have compassion upon our fellow humans. Just as we are to love God with our entire being, by loving God we are forced to love our fellow humans. That morning, Wilberforce wrote in his journal,
“Almighty God has set before me two great objectives; the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”
Wilberforce no longer participated in the culture of corruption surrounding London. He no longer ignored the horrors of the slave trade for a bribe, nor did he ignore the plight of the poor in England and focus on his own riches. The year 1787 marked not only a seminal moment in Wilberforce’s life, but impacted the world as we know it.
At the end of 1787, Wilberforce did the unthinkable; he proposed a bill be passed that end the slave trade. Even while gravely ill – so sick the doctors pronounced that he would die – in 1788 he pressured his friend William Pitt (Prime Minister at the time) to introduce a bill calling for the abolition of the slave trade on his behalf. Sensing a change, Sir William Dolben introduced a bill that would regulate the number of slaves that could be transported on a ship. It is as this point that Wilberforce began to face opposition.
The West Indian companies knew that banishing the slave trade was a threat, so they did what they had done before; they bribed Parliament. Lord Pernhyn reminded Parliament that two thirds of the commerce of Great Britain relied upon the slave trade. When Wilberforce recovered from his sickness and proposed that good Christians should not support slavery and that slavery was immoral, he was met with opposition from the champions of secularism.
“Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon” was the argument of the Earl of Abingdon. “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life” quipped Lord Melborne. Thus, the opposition to the slave trade was based upon two beliefs:
1) Slavery aided in the economy and therefore if slavery was evil, it was a necessary evil
2) The opposition to slavery was based primarily on religious beliefs and therefore had no cause in public discourse.
The battle had begun and though Wilberforce was in the minority both in the government and the court of public opinion, he pressed onward, saying in 1791 in a speech before the House of Commons, “Never, never will we desist till we extinguish every trace of this bloody traffic.” Year after year Wilberforce faced opposition and defeat.
Realizing that many of his colleagues either truly supported the slave trade or were purchased by those who did, Wilberforce made an appeal to the people. He and other abolitionists distributed pamphlets, gave speeches, and did all that they could to sway the general public to the side of the abolitionist movement. While appealing to the public to change their minds, Wilberforce continued to pressure Parliament to enact laws banning slavery. From 1797-1806 Wilberforce proposed bills calling for either the abolition of slavery or an end to the slave trade. Each year Parliament wouldn’t even debate them. However, as public opinion began to sway, no amount of money could keep MP’s in office and in 1807 both the House of Lords and House of Commons passed a bill ending the slave trade (but not slavery).
As a result of the passage, Wilberforce was able to change both the public’s minds and the nation’s laws concerning other issues; child labor laws were passed, laws helping the poor were passed, reformation of the prisons, instituting education and health care for the poor, and all of these were met both with public laws and private philanthropy. London began to reform, not towards a Utopia, but towards a better state of existence than what it had. This reformation was both public in the laws and private in the giving and charities that were established.
Wilberforce began the battle against slavery in 1787 and had a major victory in 1807 – it took 20 years just to end the slave trade. Just before Wilberforce’s death in 1833 a bill was introduced to abolish slavery in the British Empire. It’s passage was assured and guaranteed, with both the public outcry against the evils of slavery reaching the ears of Parliament and with Parliament members gaining a conscience. In April of 1833, while in failing health, Wilberforce gave his last anti-slavery speech on the day the bill to abolish slavery was introduced. On July 26 he heard that a deal had been reached on the bill and that it would pass and that slavery would be abolished. On July 29 he died and one month later, the bill passed and slavery was abolished in England.
Wilberforce stands out as an exception figure in Christian history and world history. When he began he march against slavery in the 1780s you could count on one hand the number of abolitionists in the British Parliament. While many people recognized slavery as a moral evil, they chose not to do anything against it because of economic prosperity and because they didn’t believe religion should be involved in politics.
We look to our modern age and see how often Christians are ridiculed and mocked for getting involved in politics. Even supposed Christian politicians will say, “While I’m against this morally, I cannot forbid it by the law.” While this might ring true for some moral precepts, other politicians use it as a convenient excuse.
Is the London of the late 18th century and early 19th century so different from our 21st century Washington? Many votes in Congress are not based upon conscience, but upon lobbyist and campaign contributions. Currently, Sen. Charles Rangle is facing corruption charges and his defense is, “I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong and what I did is no different than what other politicians do.” Sadly, he’s partially speaking the truth! There is little to no doubt that Congress is corrupt and only the most partisan of voters would say that one party is more corrupt than the other. Both parties are extremely corrupt and vote based upon what benefits them and not what benefits the nation or, more importantly, what aligns with virtue (there are exceptions to this, but such moral and fiscal corruption is more a rule than an exception).
In the process, there is quite a bit of grandstanding on both sides of the isle. The Republicans champion the cause of the unborn, but abortion still exists. They pass laws, but they wouldn’t dare to attempt a Constitutional Amendment. Why? The reasons vary, but it boils down to the fact that the majority of Republicans lack the moral fortitude to do what is necessary to ensure the passage of such an Amendment (do not forget that they held the majority from 1996-2006). The Democrats are no better. They champion the cause of the poor, yet they continue to get richer while the poor continue to get poorer. They talk about increasing welfare, public health care, and other social causes, but find ways to skip out on taxes. Most of the Democratic congresspeople demand social justice, but put their own wealth under lock and key and will not relinquish it for anyone.
Both parties look at the immigration debate and ponder how they might benefit from it. Rather than looking at immigration as a two-fold problem – a compromise to national security, but also human beings seeking a better life – they look and see how they might win votes. Republicans think that if they take a hard-line approach they can win over their base and continue to get elected (and bring in a six-figured salary). Democrats think if they grant amnesty to illegal immigrants they can win them over in the elections (because apparently illegal immigrants only care about immigration and nothing else).
We need a William Wilberforce in today’s world more than ever. We need someone who will stand up for what is right regardless of the consequences. Even if it costs him an election, a representative should represent virtue. If his constituents do not like such a representation then they can vote him out. But I look at these issues and realize they are polarized. If a Republican says that we should offer healthcare for the poor (not universal healthcare, but selective healthcare for those who cannot afford insurance) then he is targeted on Glenn Beck the next day as a socialist. If a Democrat proposes ending abortions (with few exceptions) then Keith Olberman or the Huffington Post will put his head on a platter, labeling him the worst person in the world.
As Christians we are not called to a private faith, and Wilberforce recognized this. Nothing bothers me more when someone says, “I’m a Christian, but my faith is private.” Then you don’t have real faith. The two greatest commandments are to love your God with your entire being and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Love does not affirm, but seeks to change a person into a follower of God. While Christianity cannot and never should be legislated, certain morals should be legislated; both morals dealing with abortion and social issues.
But passing these laws is of little worth if society is not on board with the change. Until the public outcry against an action or for a reform is great, Congress will not budge and will only heed the calls of lobbyist. But when the public demands change, Congress must listen to the public over the lobbyist because the lobbyist only help with a campaign, but no amount of money will get you elected if people think you’re a moral monster.
Our nation stands on a moral precipice, teetering on the brink of falling headfirst into the immorality of antiquity where orgies, child sacrifice, and negligence of the poor were the order of the day. It is up to Christians to stand against the rising tide of evil within this world both in both the private and public spheres. For every action we take in Congress we should be willing to take action in private. If we are to stand against abortion and corruption then we must explain to the public why abortion and corrupt are bad. Even more, we should encourage the public to avoid corruption in their own lives.
It is not enough to love Jesus and go to church. Christianity will truly transform us. In this transformation our faith must be public, but not for our own glory. Wilberforce did not try to abolish slavery or reform society for his own benefit or so he would be famous. Just as we learned with Athanasius, Wilberforce’s actions were done out of a love for God. But Wilberforce went further and acted in his love for humans as well. He saw that humans were being oppressed by the slave trade. He saw the poor were being oppressed by the greed and apathy of the rich. He saw that the nation was being oppressed by un-virtuous and morally loose government officials. It was out of his love for humans that he put his reputation, his health, and his personal peace on the line and fought for these people.
As Christians we belong to no party, no movement, no association, and no nation. We change the nations we are in through the means at our disposal, whether those means be Conservative, Liberal, Democratic-Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, or whatever term is being used to describe a party. But most importantly is we change the nations by changing the people and this is especially true in a Democracy. The laws will only change and enjoy permanence if the society desires the laws to begin with and the society will only desire these laws if they see Christians teaching and living moral lives. If we do not follow our own teachings or if we fail to influence public opinion on a moral failing in society, then no amount of laws will truly change the nation.
The world is desperate for Christians who love God enough to believe the right thing and love humans enough to act on those beliefs.