William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce was so much more than one of the leaders of the Emancipation of the Slaves movement in the 19th century. The campaign which he led in Parliament against the British slave trade lasted 20 years before its triumph in 1807. The abolition of slavery itself took another 27 years. Here was a man driven by the conviction that God had called him for this work as a result of his faith in Jesus Christ. Today, such assurance is often ridiculed: It was also in his time. He lost devoted friends during the parliamentary campaign, which took his lifetime. Many called him a hypocrite for his stand, but not only did he discover that God was calling him to help the enslaved Africans within what was then the British Empire; he also undertook to reform the morals and behaviour of the British public. It was indeed a huge undertaking and one which came upon him gradually as a result of discovering the New Testament during a tour of Europe.
© Anti-Slavery International

As a young man with sufficient money, he admits that he idled his way through Cambridge and entered Parliament, as did many of his contemporaries. When he became convinced of the truth of Christianity he determined to show his gratitude by devoting himself to a worthy cause. Although suspicious of sudden conversion he believed that once convinced of the truth of Christianity there was a moral responsibility to respond in faith and good works. Now he is chiefly remembered as one of the parliamentarians who eventually after a huge struggle with landed interests and the planters abroad, particularly in Jamaica, secured the freedom of enslaved Africans.

Wilberforce was part of the Clapham Sect, a group of like minded ‘serious’ Christians, possibly influenced by Calvinism who included Henry Thornton of Battersea Rise in Clapham. He married late in life; to Barbara Spooner from an Evangelical family and they started a family. He moved to Kensington Gore – now the site of the Royal Albert Hall and that allowed him to attend the House when Parliament was sitting and also be with his young family. They prayed together as a family and no doubt the children would have imbibed the strong faith of their father and his Clapham friends. His children never knew him during his time of conversion and by the time they were growing up he was already a national figure.

His children did find the prayers amusing and there is an extract from a diary which describes the old William Wilberforce “making dreadful faces”, and their mother “singing so dreadfully out of tune”. Later the children became well known in their own right. They moved from the strong Protestantism of their father more towards orthodoxy: Samuel became a bishop and the others, except the eldest, clergymen. All the boys except Samuel became Roman Catholics. Judging from their mother’s early letters they were strongly exhorted against the temptations that may have enticed them as young people. One wonders if this rather put them off their father’s strong evangelical faith. But William was concerned that they should not associate religious observance with austerity and gloom, which characterised many other households of the period. But their household was essentially kind and cheerful with many people coming and going. Daily prayers were a feature before meals. This practice, which grew among many Victorian households, began with the Wilberforce family. We are told that material things did not matter and although all sorts of people would arrive for meals what and when food actually arrived on the table was not a matter of huge importance. What was important was the sense of joy, which resulted from ‘the great change’ which came from a true faith. In a speech to the House of Commons he said, “If to be feeling alive to all sufferings of my fellow creatures and to be warmed with the desire of relieving their distress, is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”

Today William Wilberforce is regarded as something of a ‘saint’. He is remembered on July 29th within the Church of England. There are other people who also have followed their conscience as a result of a strong and lively faith. Some like Oscar Romero have even died for their belief in justice. However, to look up to someone else might deny the reality of one’s own calling in life. Many in the later generations of the Wilberforce family have also been strong Christians and there have been clergymen both within the Established Church of England and in the Catholic priesthood or religious life. Others have found their vocation within public service or in the Law.

William remained within the evangelical tradition and never altered his religious views over the years. He was concerned as we might be by the advance of materialism and desired the pursuit of holiness resulting in good works.

We are told that there are currently now more ‘slaves’ than there were when transatlantic slavery was abolished in the 19th century. It is true that these modern-day slaves may not come from Africa or parts of what was then the British Empire, but the system which keeps them in bondage as sex slaves and forced labourers can be just as odious and cruel. Wherever we find anyone who is downtrodden for whatever reason and is used by another, their freedom is injured.

Perhaps it is as William recognised 200 years ago that the fight has to be within the law and in particular within the Houses of Parliament, but now through the internet and the media we are more aware of injustice throughout the world. George Thomas, a former Speaker of the Commons, spoke of the huge debt Parliament has to recognise in the manner which debates are conducted today. There are times when members are forced to resign because their private lives conflict with their public life. This is because of the moral leadership of Wilberforce, which continues today. One may hope that this might become more apparent within the fledgling democracies of our own world.

While honouring this great man for what he stood for and achieved, 2007 marks the abolition of the Slave trade. It took another 27 years to abolish slavery itself in the British colonies. There is still much to do in our own world to continue to fight against forms of injustice and bring freedom to others.

By Gerard Wilberforce

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