This week we are mainly focusing on a man who ended the British practice of trading slaves kidnapped from Africa to the American Colonies or, less frequently, to Britain itself. A lot of you probably know that William Wilberforce was a Christian man in Parliament who fought bravely, ferociously and with great endurance to end the legal slave trade. But hopefully we'll also look a little bit at what that really meant, and what it really didn't mean.
The movement to abolish the slave trade actually began and built a bit of steam a few decades before. The Prime Minister at the time had proposed a Bill which would severely reduce the amount of slaves that could be packed onto a ship legally. William Pitt (a close friend of Wilberforce and later Prime Minister) wanted to go much further and called to abolish the slave trade all together which he thought an embarrassment to civilization. But can anyone guess what may have gone on in the world a few decades before the abolition of the slave trade in England that may have distracted and derailed that movement? Something that would be of much more interest to the British government? Something involving a massive loss of land and taxes overseas with a revolutionary war?
This actually put a strain on the friendship between Pitt and Wilberforce as Pitt, the Prime Minister, showed that he was willing to postpone talks of abolition in favor of paying more attention to broader plans for the British Empire. This would be a continuing frustration for Wilberforce in dealings with Pitt.
Interestingly, John Wesley was an early supporter of the cause, although never saw it through to its end due to his death in 1791. There was a loud argument from supporters of slavery over the ideal working conditions for slaves in the climate of the American South, even suggesting that slaves may have small farmlands of their own and live in better conditions than some in England. In fact, it was said in the cold, damp comfort of England that only Black men could work in the hot American south, that they were built for work in that sort of climate. Wesley, a prominent and well respected figure, loudly testified "You know what? I've been to Georgia and that's a lie! Conditions are terrible for the slaves."
Wesley wrote to William Wilberforce when Wesley was 87 years old to cast his vote of support for what Wilberforce was doing ""Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of man and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you. . . ."
Wilberforce was the head of a group of Evangelicals in London called The Clapham Community. It was a sort of a district, an group assembled in an area largely populated by wealthier and prominent Christians in London. They would meet for Bible studies and prayer. They would also have Councils where they would discuss what they felt were, in light of scripture, the wrongs and injustices perpetuated by their country. Far from "gripe sessions", bear in mind these were some of the wealthier and more powerful Christians in London in that day. They would discuss social problems and then they would then discuss who present would be best equipped to fight these injustices. Included in the group was a newspaper editor, several members of Parliament, and Lord Teignmouth who was the Governor of India at the time. Many social works groups of England, much like the ones we saw last week in America, came from the Clapham Community including The British and Foreign Bible Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, and The Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline.
James Stephen wrote of Wilberforce, "Factories did not spring up more rapidly in Leeds and Manchester than schemes of benevolence beneath his roof."
"No man," Wilberforce wrote, "has a right to be idle." "Where is it," he asked, "that in such a world as this, [that] health, and leisure, and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate?"
Wilberforce's life was marked by the distinctives of the Reformed faith. Total human depravity, divine judgment, Christ's atonement for our sin on the cross, justification by faith alone in Christ alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds. He would contend that most of British Christians were nominal and had fallen back on a sort of Age of Reason ethics. "The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment."
It was through the Clapham group that Wilberforce came into contact with Thomas Clarkson who was a leader in the abolitionist movement. Clarkson and friends, including the former slave Olaudah Equiano whose biography on the slave trade was a key element to turn the public opinion on the slave trade, convinced Wilberforce to take up the cause of abolition. On October 28, 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his diary, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [which is to say "morals" in modern terms]."
The slave trade started in England in 1562. Sir John Hawkins took a boat filled with slaves from Sierra Leone and sold them to slave traders in St. Domingo. In 1660, when Charles II was returned to the throne (people from the Puritan class will remember that whole mess) Charles chartered a company to take 3,000 slaves per year to trade to the West Indies, which, for those of you rusty on your geography, are the islands in the Caribbean. Don't worry, I had to look it up too.
The trade grew by leaps and bounds due to the high profitability and by 1770, British slave ships transported over 50,000 slaves a year. Which was around half of the slaves being imported. To give you an idea of what that means, that's 100,000 slaves a year from Africa where the total population of the continent was only around 100 million at the time. By the end of the 18th century, over 11 million slaves had been transported to America and the West Indies.
When Wilberforce was 25, he was traveling on vacation from Parliament and became converted after reading Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge which was laying around the house where he was staying.
That summer Wilberforce traveled again with Isaac Milner, the friend at whose house he stumbled upon the Doddridge book, and discussed the Gospel at length. His "intellectual assent became profound conviction." The first outward manifestations of what he called "the great change" - which is to say, his conversion - was disgust he felt over the wealth and the luxury in which he lived, especially on these vacations between Parliamentary sessions which he happened to be on at the time. His passion to help the poor ignited as did his lifelong passion to transform his political position of clout and all of his inheritance into a way to bless the impoverished and the oppressed. He wrote "By careful management, I should be able to give at least one-quarter of my income to the poor."
Which is misleading according to one of his sons who later remarked that Wilberforce gave away far more than a fourth of his income and one year in particular gave away 3,000 pounds more than he had earned in that year.
Wilberforce agonized over the life he was leading versus the convictions of his faith at the beginning of his converted life. In fact, William Pitt encouraged him to give up Evangelical Christianity to better serve the government. There were tremendous pressures in Parliament to turn his back on his new found Christianity.
In seeking to resolve these issues he felt over what to do with his life as a Christian, he decided to risk seeking an audience with John Newton (who, you will remember, was both the author of the hymn Amazing Grace as well as a sincerely repentant former slave ship captain. Now he was a minister and a fervent abolitionist who was mortified over his past actions. I would add as a parenthetical that there is a fantastic film dramatizing the life of Wilberforce called Amazing Grace which I would highly recommend to everyone. The scenes with John Newton alone make it well worth it.) This was a risk because Newton was an Evangelical and not admired or esteemed by his colleagues in Parliament. Wilberforce said that he walked around the block twice before he worked up the courage to knock on Newton's door. To his joyful surprise, the sixty year old Newton implored Wilberforce not to cut himself off from public life and office, but to use it to God's glory. Newton later wrote him: "It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation."
Wilberforce then threw himself into study of scripture and theology, studying up to 9 or 10 hours a day in hopes of making up for the wasted and lost time of laziness he'd had in college. I know that feeling well. He would eat meals alone with a book, usually the Bible.
He was a born leader. Some called Wilberforce "The Nightingale of the House of Commons." He was well respected, well education, an excellent public speaker, writer and communicator, a fine example of using the gift of education for God's kingdom.
He said of his life in politics "My walk is a public one: my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the part which Providence seems to have assigned me."
Wilberforce fought for 30 years for the abolition of the slave trade, often seemingly making very little headway, but persevering all the same. He appealed to the conscience of England. Slavery, he told the House of Commons in 1789, "battens upon vices. When the surgeons tell you the slaves are stowed so close that there is not room to tread among them and the stench in intolerable. Death, at least, is a sure ground of proof. Upon the whole there is a mortality rate of about 50 percent. Many persons argue that if we relinquish the slave trade France will take it up. We cannot wish greater mischief to France. For the sake of France, however, and for the sake of humanity, I trust, nay, I am sure she will not."
The French Revolution had instilled England at that time with a sort of revulsion to any social innovations. As well as a revulsion for the French. Also, there was a revulsion at the idea of losing international clout, profits and trade to other nations who might take up the slack if Britain outlawed something that the US or France had not outlawed.
"I confess to you, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for Abolition. . . . Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.
"I mean not to accuse anyone but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty - we ought to all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others."
Of course, needless to say Wilberforce knew that great public speaking alone was not going to sway the argument, especially as a lot of people were making a lot of money off of the abominable practice. He needed grass roots, public opinion to sway the tide which, fortunately, is something the church was very good at at the time. He also needed information to use to sway said tide, so he asked his Clapham community to help him prepare for his next presentation to Parliament.
Two years later, after two years of preparation, Wilberforce delivered another speech to the House of Commons to introduce a bill to end the importation of slaves into the West Indies. He said, "Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic."
He appealed to the British people saying "It is on the feeling of the nation we must rely, so let the flame be fanned."
He and his Clapham community were masterful at creating a public opinion and use that to pressure the opinion of the government. The Evangelical community in Britain flooded Parliament with petitions signed by unimaginable numbers of individuals to the point where the opposition insisted on examining the petitions. The petitions turned out to be entirely valid. They published abolitionist literature. They lectured from the pulpit and in town squares. They took sympathetic MPs (or those who were possibly swayed) on tours of slave ships so that they could smell the stench of blood, feces, and death and see and touch the chains for themselves. They even, in sort of a groundbreaking move, erected billboards for the abolitionist cause around England. Wilberforce himself was a very well known and widely read author. His book A Practical View of Christianity is considered a classic of the faith to this day.
Wilberforce suffered many threats to his life from several slave ship captains. Wilberforce lost many friends in his long battle including, to a large extent, his friendship with William Pitt. Also there were political ramifications. The West Indian colonial assemblies claimed that if Britain ever really outlawed the slave trade they too would declare independence and join with the United States. Also the slave trade pumped huge amounts of money into the British economy which Wilberforce was calling to end on the ground of human decency?!!? Such a thing would be unheard of today. Unthinkable that a nation would give up a profitable industry on the grounds of morality and accountability to God?!!?
Probably the harshest and deepest cutting criticism was from a slavery-defender named William Cobett, who turned Wilberforce's commitment to abolition into a liability in his cutting criticism. Cobett stated that Wilberforce pretended to care about slaves from Africa, but cared nothing about the "wage slaves" - which is to say the poor of England.
"You seem to have a great affection for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing Negroes. . . . [But] Never have you done one single act in favor of the laborers of this country [a statement Cobett knew to be false]. . . . You make your appeal in Picadilly, London, amongst those who are wallowing in luxuries, proceeding from the labor of the people. You should have gone to the gravel-pits, and made your appeal to the wretched creatures with bits of sacks around their shoulders, and with hay-bands round their legs; you should have gone to the roadside, and made your appeal to the emaciated, half-dead things who are there cracking stones to make the roads as level as a die for the tax eaters to ride on. What an insult it is, and what an unfeeling, what a cold-blooded hypocrite must he be that can send it forth; what an insult to call upon people under the name of free British laborers; to appeal to them in behalf of Black slaves, when these free British laborers; these poor, mocked, degraded wretches, would be happy to lick the dishes and bowls, out of which the Black slaves have breakfasted, dined, or supped."
On top of this, Wilberforce's daughter Barbara died of tuberculosis in 1821 right after Christmas.
Wilberforce wrote, "It is in such seasons as these that the value of the promises of the Word of God are ascertained both by the dying and the attendant relatives. . . . The assured persuasion of Barbara's happiness has taken away the sting of death." Soon after, Wilberforce wrote to his son that he had developed a "new malady - The Gout."
The word "new" highlights that Wilberforce suffered, labored and toiled with some severe physical ailments. He wrote in 1788 that his eyesight had declined so much that "[I can scarcely] see how to direct my pen." For the first few hours of the day he could not see well enough to read. "This was a symptom of a slow buildup of morphine poisoning."
You see, in 1788, doctors had prescribed daily opium pills and laudanum to Wilberforce to control his ulcerative colitis. It's a sign of the different times in that it never would have occurred to any of his enemies to impugn his character on the basis of his opium use. "Yet effects there must have been," Pollock observes. "Wilberforce certainly grew more untidy, indolent (as he often bemoaned) and absent-minded as his years went on though not yet in old age; it is proof of the strength of his will that he achieved so much under a burden which neither he nor his doctors understood."
Along with his colitis, his breathing problems, his degenerating sight, he developed a curvature of the spine. "One shoulder began to slope; and his head fell forward, a little more each year until it rested on his chest unless lifted by conscious movement: he could have looked grotesque were it not for the charm of his face and the smile which hovered about his mouth." Most people didn't know he wore a brace under his clothes for the rest of his life.
But one of Wilberforce's chief rivals in Parliament wrote of him "It is necessary to watch him as he is blessed with a very sufficient quantity of that Enthusiastic spirit, which so far from yielding that it grows more vigorous from blows."
The poet Robert Southey wrote, "I never saw any other man who seemed to enjoy such a perpetual serenity and sunshine of spirit. In conversing with him, you feel assured that there is no guile in him; that if ever there was a good man and happy man on earth, he was one."
Joseph John Gurney, a Quaker, visited for a week with Wilberforce and wrote, "As he walked about the house he was generally humming the tune of a hymn or Psalm as if he could not contain his pleasurable feelings of thankfulness and devotion."
Wilberforce himself wrote:
"My grand objection to the religious system still held by many who declare themselves orthodox Churchmen. . . is, that it tends to render Christianity so much a system of prohibitions rather than of privilege and hopes, and thus the injunction to rejoice, so strongly enforced in the New Testament, is practically neglected, and Religion is made to wear a forbidding and gloomy air and not one of peace and hope and joy.
"Joy . . . is enjoined on us as our bounden duty and commended to us as our acceptable worship. . . . A cold . . . unfeeling heart is represented as highly criminal."
The slave trade was not outlawed until 1807. The supporters of the slave trade finally had to relent to the wave of public opinion. When Charles Fox was speaking, he spoke of the contrast between warlike Napoleon who, upon his victory, would have parades and cheers while the great, good, peaceful, compassionate man Wilberforce would quietly go home to bed, and the entire House burst into spontaneous applause and cheers. Wilberforce was overcome with emotion and sat with his head in his hands, with tears streaming down his face. After the long assembly had ended, in the early morning hours Wilberforce turned to his friend and colleague, Henry Thornton, and said, "Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?"
Next was to abolish slavery its self, but emancipation laws were not passed until 1833. Age and illness had since forced Wilberforce to retire, but he sort of appointed his successor in ideology in the evangelical Thomas Fowell Buxton. The act was passed four days before Wilberforce died. Wilberforce learned of this on his death bed and said, "Thank God" as one of his last words on this earth. He was buried in Westminster Abbey next to William Pitt.
Piper finishes, "What made Wilberforce tick was a profound Biblical allegiance to what he called the "peculiar doctrines" of Christianity. These, he said, give rise, in turn, to true affections - what we might call "passion" or "emotions" - for spiritual things, which, in turn, break the power of pride and greed and fear, and then lead to transformed morals which, in turn, lead to the political welfare of the nation. He said, "If . . . a principle of true Religion [i.e., true Christianity] should . . . gain ground, there is no estimating the effects on public morals, and the consequent influence on our political welfare."