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). Continue reading