- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
British Antislavery Crusader
On August 24, 1759, William Wilberforce was born into a wealthy English family, but he was so weak and puny that he later joked that in a less-civilized time he would not have survived. But survive he did to become a real fighter, not only for himself but for the end of the British slave trade and of slavery itself in the British colonies.
When William was nine, his father died. Because his mother couldn't care for him, he went to live with relatives, where he received a fine early education and regularly attended a church where John Newton was an occasional guest speaker. (Newton was the former slave-trading captain who repented, gave his life to Christ, and later wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace." See Hero Tales II.)
Later, William returned to live with his mother in the city of Kingston upon Hull, where he ignored most of his religious training and busied himself attending plays and parties. Even though he spent little time studying, he was very bright and at the age of fourteen wrote a newspaper article against slavery—possibly reflecting some of the ideas he had heard from John Newton.
However, instead of studying when he went off to Cambridge University, Wilberforce occupied himself playing cards and socializing. He was as good a speaker as he was a writer and soon got the idea that he ought to run for public office. When he turned twenty-one, he was elected to the House of Commons but only after spending nearly 9,000 pounds on the election. Even as a member of Parliament, though, he spent most of his time gambling and drinking and having parties.
Wilberforce climbedhigh in social circles, accompanying his friend William Pitt (who had just been named prime minister) on holiday to Paris, where they were invited into the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Later, the French people revolted against this king and queen, overthrowing and finally beheading them. But on this occasion Wilberforce had a high old time, partying day and night.
On his next two holidays Wilberforce returned to France, but with Isaac Milner, his former tutor, who was only eight years his senior.
On their second trip, Milner brought a devotional book by Philip Doddridge, an English clergyman, and soon Wilberforce and Milner were spending all their time discussing it. It was the tool God used to convict Wilberforce that he had been wasting his life in foolishness and sin.
On November 28, 1785, at age twenty-six, he repented and gave his life to Christ.
The Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain had been campaigning against the slave trade for many years and had already approached Wilberforce for help. Before his conversion he couldn't be bothered, but when he returned to England, Wilberforce consulted John Newton about his life's direction. Newton advised him to remain in Parliament and work for justice, especially for slaves. This became Wilberforce's lifelong assignment from God. Even though he gained the help of many other people, including his old friend and prime minister, William Pitt, it wasn't until 1807 that the British slave trade was abolished.
William Wilberforce died on July 29, 1833, four days after Parliament finally passed the Emancipation Bill, abolishing slavery in all the British colonies.
The Proud Man in the Dark Coat
One cold Sunday morning in December 1785, William Wilberforce put on his greatcoat and walked to the church on Lombard Street in London. He kept his collar turned high and his hat pulled low, not only against the sharp wind but also to prevent others from recognizing him.
After hearing a powerful sermon by John Newton in St. Mary's Church, William remained in his pew until nearly everyone had left. Then he approached the old preacher and withdrew an envelope from inside his coat.
"Sir, allow me to give you this. It is of great importance." Then he put on his hat and went back out into the freezing air.
The letter in the envelope, signed by William Wilberforce, asked Newton for a secret meeting to discuss important matters. Even without the coat, Newton wouldn't have recognized the visitor, for he hadn't seen William since he was a ten-year-old.
Of course he would meet with Wilberforce! But why such secrecy?
The following Wednesday William again walked to Lombard Street rather than take a carriage in which he might be recognized. But when he got to Newton's house, he walked on past and then around and around the square. Would Newton laugh at him? Finally he gathered his courage and went to the door.
Newton greeted him warmly. The two men talked about old times, about William's successful rise in Parliament, about Newton's preaching and songwriting. Finally Newton said, "What brings you here today, William?"
William shifted in his chair. "In spite of my success, I have not been at peace, not until recently when God's Word came alive to me. Now I have truly repented of my wild and useless life, but I don't know what to do."
"What do you mean?" replied the former sea captain.
"What shall I do with my life? I know that Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Should I do that? Should I leave politics and become a preacher like you or John Wesley? I have quit gambling and drinking, but should I abandon fashionable society? I do want God to forgive me. Maybe I should become a monk and live in a monastery—"
"Do not doubt that your sins have been forgiven, William. Whatever you do, it is not to earn forgiveness if you repented sincerely. As for Parliament—" Newton paused and stroked his smooth-shaven chin—"God could have some important work for you there." He squinted thoughtfully, as though looking into the sunny glare of the sea. "What are your views on slavery?"
"I'm quite against it," said William, recalling an essay he had written against slavery as a youth. "But I haven't thought much about it lately. Why?"
"Go think about it, and then let's talk some more ... maybe in a week or so?"
No longer concerned that someone might see him calling on the old preacher, William visited Newton often, seeking his wisdom until he gained a clear vision of God's plan for his life. He decided to join with the Quakers and others who opposed slavery and use his voice in Parliament to bring it to an end.
You have to be teachable before you can learn anything.
From God's Word:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7, niv).
Let's Talk About It:
1. Why do you think William Wilberforce needed John Newton's help?
2. Why do you think he at first wanted his meetings with Newton to be secret?
3. How can our pride affect whether we learn something?
John Wesley's Last Letter
Britain, the world's leader in all trade, had supplied over three million African slaves to the British colonies. Many people thought of slaves as no more than property. Once, for instance, when a ship ran into a bad storm while crossing the Atlantic, the captain threw 132 slaves overboard to lighten his load. When he finally got to England, he applied to his insurance company to pay for his "lost cargo"!
William Wilberforce worked closely with people like Thomas Clarkson to gather information about the cruelties of slavery to convince Parliament to end the evil trade. He even made a model of a slave ship to demonstrate how the slaves were transported—shelves only three or four feet high where men, women, and children were "stacked" and chained together two by two.
When John Newton came and testified to the Privy Council Committee on his experiences as a slave captain, he broke down and cried as he described the part he had played in that cruel trade.
It took three years, but finally Wilberforce was ready to present his antislavery bill to Parliament. But in March 1788 he became so ill his doctors feared he would die.
"Pitt," he said to his old friend the prime minister, "if I don't recover, will you introduce this bill against slavery for me?"
"Don't talk like that, dear fellow. You'll bounce back soon enough."
"But if I don't—?"
"Then I promise with all my heart. You can count on me," said Pitt.
From then on, Wilberforce began to recover, though it was months before he was back in London and ready to address Parliament. He made his first great speech on the subject on May 12, 1789. "God has commanded, 'You shall do no murder,' and yet our slave trade means the murder of thousands of Africans each year," he declared. He spoke for three and a half hours, but there were just too many politicians influenced by the rich slave traders, and the bill was defeated.
Wilberforce and his associates would have to try again.
But in July, angry mobs in France stormed the Bastille, and the possibility of a French revolution became the talk of London. England was already ruled by Parliament rather than the whim of a king or queen, so there was considerable sympathy in England for the cause of the French people. But who could know where a revolution might lead? It was not a good time to ask Parliament to consider the slave trade again.
Then one day Wilberforce received a letter from John Wesley, the great preacher and founder of the Methodist movement. (See Hero Tales I.) Written on February 24, 1791, it said, "Unless God has raised you up, humanly I don't see how you can go through with your glorious enterprise in opposing the villainous slave trade. You will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God is with you, who can be against you? Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall banish away before it."
It was the last letter Wesley would ever write. The old gentleman died one week later. But his encouragement gave Wilberforce the strength to endure.
The French Revolution erupted, and the revolutionaries, drunk on the blood of their monarchs and nobles, swore to destroy kings everywhere, even declaring war on England in February 1793. So Wilberforce had to wait and work another fourteen years before the British slave trade was finally outlawed in 1807.
Love never gives up.
From God's Word:
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9, niv).
Let's Talk About It
1. How do you think Wilberforce felt when he became sick just when he hoped to introduce the bill against the slave trade?
2. Both then and later, what encouraged him to endure?
3. Read Hebrews 12:1213. How is endurance in doing right like a long race?
Hero Tales, Volume IV: A Family Treasury of True Stories from the Lives of Christian Heroes by Dave & Neta Jackson
Copyright © 2001, Dave & Neta Jackson
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.