“In the same way, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead”
The movie Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament from 1780 to 1824, during the height of the slave trade. Sailing the Triangular Route, British merchant ships delivered goods to Africa in exchange for slaves whom they then sold to the French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and British plantations in the West Indies. On the return trip they brought sugar, tobacco and cotton produced by the slaves to Britain. This trade generated fully eighty percent of Great Britain’s foreign income at that time. An estimated eleven million slaves were transported this way. Due to the filthy, cramped conditions on board the ships; about 1.4 million slaves succumbed to disease and death.
Moved By Conscience
William Wilberforce was a young man of just twenty-one and still a student when he was first elected to parliament. He was able to finance his own campaign through a large inheritance left by his uncle and grandfather, allowing him to remain independent.
Wilberforce’s social consciousness was first aroused when he became an evangelical Christian in 1785. Because of the hostility towards people of conservative Christian beliefs, he had seriously considered giving up his post and going into full time Christian work. His good friend and future Prime Minister, William Pitt, and John Newton, former slave ship captain and author of the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, convinced him that he could do more good by remaining in politics.
On March 13, 1787, Thomas Clarkson, a member of the Quaker abolitionist movement, persuaded Wilberforce to hold a dinner for a group of anti-slave sympathizers. At this dinner, he was persuaded to take up the cause of the abolitionists. Still somewhat tentative, he approached his good friend, William Pitt, the new Prime Minister, for counsel. Pitt said he should either introduce a bill or stand aside and he would do so himself.
Clarkson’s group formed The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade on May 22, 1787. Its charter stopped at abolishing the slave trade, not slavery itself. That would come later once the prodigious task of stopping the slave trade was accomplished. This organization launched the first widespread human rights campaign, collecting hundreds of thousands of petitions against the slave trade.
In 1789 Wilberforce announced plans to submit a bill abolishing the slave trade in the House of Commons or “Lower House” (equivalent to our House of Representatives), but he was taken ill with a bout of colitis, an ailment that plagued him until his death, and had to withdraw. His friend, William Pitt, sponsored the bill on his behalf. Wilberforce presented a great volume of evidence that had been gathered by Thomas Clarkson during a year of extensive research.
Abolishing the Slave Trade
Overwhelmed by the volume of damning evidence, the opponents of abolition moved for an independent review at the end of the session in an attempt to stall passage. In a moment of weakness, Wilberforce agreed. The vote was postponed until the next session. The measure was ultimately defeated by a vote of 163 – 88. So began a lengthy campaign to end the slave trade. Additional measures were submitted in February of 1793 and June of 1804 (a bill even William Pitt, Wilberforce’s longtime friend, voted against).
Finally, in 1807 a maritime lawyer named James Stephen came up with a novel ploy to move an anti-slave trade bill through both houses of Parliament under the guise of removing the protection of the Royal Navy from those slave traders flying the American flag of convenience. It was called the “Foreign Slave Trade Bill” and was designed, ostensibly, to punish traders who were supplying Britain’s enemies with slave labor. But because most British commercial ships were also flying the American flag, it effectively cut the legs out from under the British slave trade as well. It passed both houses of Parliament with little opposition to the great consternation of its enemies.
Wilberforce was not an idealist. He was a pragmatist who worked within the system to bring about achievable objectives. That is why he did not try to abolish slavery. Given the magnitude of the task of abolishing just the slave trade, any attempt to abolish slavery itself would have been doomed to failure. However, in later years, he did take up the cause of abolition. In 1833, he gave his last anti-slavery speech. On July 29, 1833 after receiving word of the imminent passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, he passed away. He was buried on August 3, 1833 at Westminster Abbey near his old friend William Pitt.
A Reform-Minded Christian
Wilberforce’s social reforms reached beyond slavery to prison reform, restrictions on capital punishment, parliamentary reform, and a variety of charities. He even founded the world’s first society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. His house was a veritable menagerie of wildlife.
Challenging the status quo on slavery threatened the very economic welfare of Wilberforce’s own country. All the major government interests and their corporate constituents were arrayed against him. He was accused of sympathizing with the American rebels. In the face of such overwhelming opposition, he chose to be obedient to his calling. In 1789, he set forth the mission statement for his life in his journal: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” The book of James says, “In the same way, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jas. 2:17). When faced with a great evil, Wilberforce chose to act on behalf of the oppressed.1 He had compassion on “the least of these” (Mt 25:40) and despite years of toil and frustration, God ultimately rewarded him by emancipating slaves throughout the British Empire just days before he passed away.
Some 1.4 million slaves died in passage to the new world. By contrast, over 40 million unborn children have been dismembered or burned to death with saline solution since the passage of Roe vs. Wade. Where is the sense of outrage against this monstrous crime against humanity? Where are the Christian leaders who are willing to lead the abolition movement of this era? Pastors can no longer use the excuse that their churches would lose their tax exempt status if they were to address this issue. Our current president has reversed the Johnson Amendment that took away the free speech rights of pastors and other religious leaders when expressed inside the church. The only excuse that remains is fear of alienating part of the congregation that supports politicians who endorse this heinous practice. Christian leaders should rather fear God who lovingly created the millions of babies who have been ripped from their mother’s wombs, torn apart limb by limb before they could ever see the light of day.
1. “William Wilberforce,” Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wilberforce