This month – August 24th to be exact – marked the 255th birthday of William Wilberforce, one of my most favorite historical figures. Wilberforce (born 1759 and died on July 29, 1833) was an English politician who was instrumental in bringing about the end of slave trade and, eventually, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire (decades before Abraham Lincoln and other American abolitionists succeeded in doing the same in the States). His life story, particularly his grueling battle for the abolition of slavery, is one inspiring example of someone boldly and firmly pursuing what is right despite of overwhelming opposition. I have termed such admirable attribute as “moral badassery” and William Wilberforce is one of history’s greatest moral badass.
I first learned of Wilberforce in my readings on John Newton – the minister who wrote the powerful, classic hymn, “Amazing Grace” – for Newton was an early influence with Wilberforce’s journey towards Christianity, which is why the latter held the former’s counsels in high regard (moreover, being a former slave trader, Newton was knowledgeable of the evils of the practice so he was a valuable consultant when Wilberforce was fighting for its abolishment). John Newton was a great man and has an interesting biography, but I discovered that William Wilberforce’s life was a little bit more fascinating.
Young, hedonistic William Wilberforce decided to venture into politics due to the encouragement of his best friend, William Pitt the Younger (who would become the youngest prime minister in British history), and when he was merely 21 years old, he was elected into the parliament. Wilberforce has always been witty, sharp, and an eloquent speaker, so he was able to hold his own in parliamentary debate. However, he was more interested in enjoying a lifestyle of worldly pleasures than in actually making a difference. This was Wilberforce’s early life as a politician.
Then his whole life dramatically changed during his travels abroad in 1785. It was during this time that he met Christ. He started reading the Bible and having devotions regularly. He got rid of his vices, and lamented the years that he had wasted in living a hedonistic, shallow life. He considered leaving politics to become a minister. He sought the counsel of John Newton regarding the matter, but Newton advised him that he can still serve God by being a politician – that there was a purpose why God’s will allowed him to be in the parliament. William Pitt also urged him to remain in politics. So with two of his most trusted friends asking him to remain in politics, Wilberforce decided to do so. Wilberforce found God’s calling for himself: to promote Christianity and moral and social reform in the British Empire through his position in the parliament.
Which led him to advocate for the abolishment of the slave trade. Wilberforce, after learning and completely comprehending the inhumane horrors of slave trade, proceeded to passionately fight this evil. He was convinced that it was through fighting slavery that he can put his Christian faith into practice in public life. With other abolitionists, he worked to raise awareness and interest in Britain about the realities of the slave trade and fiercely debated in the parliament for its complete abolishment.
Unfortunately, despite of Wilberforce’s efforts, abolishment of the slave trade was an unpopular view. The British Empire’s economy heavily relied on slave labor in the colonies. Wilberforce’s opponents argued that abolishment would be economic and political suicide for the British Empire, since if Britain abolishes slavery, other European nations’ economies and power would increase exponentially since they would be still free to sustain their economies with slave labor. Even those that agree with Wilberforce of the fact of slavery’s immorality had to side against him for they think that abolishment was impractical and bad for the Empire.
His opponents slandered Wilberforce of being a spy or a traitor. They accused him of working for Britain’s enemies, that his purpose of calling for abolishment of the slave trade was for inciting a feeling of rebellion among the people and for the destruction of the economy. Wilberforce had to endure all of these hurtful words. In fact, Wilberforce really loved his country. That’s why he wants to end slavery since he can’t bear his country conducting such heinous thing.
Year-in and year-out, Wilberforce continued to fight – and lose – in the parliament for the abolishment of slavery. Of course there were definitely times when Wilberforce was discouraged and was exhausted. Who wouldn’t be? But he didn’t surrender. He didn’t quit. For him, giving up was not really an option. He knew what the right thing to do was. And if doing it is the right thing to do, then there’s actually no choice at all but to do it. Even if it’s difficult and draining. Wilberforce understood all of that.
At last, after years of fighting and employing shrewd politics, Wilberforce and co. enjoyed their first victory with the passing of the Foreign Slave Trade Bill in 1806. Then in 1807, the Slave Trade Act – which completely banned the slave trade in the British Empire – was finally passed. After 20 years of fighting – experiencing many crushing defeats all the way – Wilberforce was finally victorious. Understandably, tears flowed freely on Wilberforce’s face during the parliament passing of the bill.
But Wilberforce’s battle wasn’t over yet. As a Christian and a conservative, Wilberforce political views and objectives were grounded in his faith and love for God. Aside from fighting slavery, he was also involved in pushing for moral revival and social reforms. Moreover, though the slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery itself was still practiced. For many more years, Wilberforce worked with abolitionists to completely eradicate the practicing of slavery in the British Empire, and in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. Three days after knowing the passage of the Act through the parliament was guaranteed, William Wilberforce died.
To fight for the right thing despite of how hard the consequences to oneself are and how gloomily insurmountable the challenges are – such awe-inspiring display is constantly demonstrated by superheroes like Captain America and Spider-Man. Much more awesome with William Wilberforce since he’s a real-life person.
It’s really difficult to do the right thing and completely invest one’s life for its cause. More so if it’s unrewarding and the results are constant defeats. As if fighting for it isn’t worth it. But through the life of William Wilberforce (as well as through the lives of other great Christian figures of history), we learn that whatever we are called to do, no matter how tough it can get for us, we can trust God that he’ll see us through until we accomplish it. We will never burn out as long as what we do is for God’s glory. No matter how impossible it might seem at the present, God assures us that our faithfulness will always result to victory in the end. As what Romans 8:31b famously says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
What I have written about William Wilberforce is nothing but a small piece of his rich life. It would be better if you proceed to personally be acquainted with his life story yourself. My suggested readings are “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery” by Eric Metaxas and “Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce” by John Piper. There’s also this great William Wilberforce biopic titled “Amazing Grace.” It’s a wonderful film; it has great acting and beautiful production value. It stars Ioan Gruffudd – who played Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four movies – as William Wilberforce and the charismatic Benedict Cumberbatch – Sherlock Holmes himself! – as William Pitt. Most importantly, the movie’s essentially faithful to Wilberforce’s actual biography. It’s a real must-watch.
So read the books or watch the movie, or, better, do both. I recommend that you thoroughly learn more about this great man and hopefully be encouraged by his life and faith. A man like William Wilberforce is worth celebrating and emulating.