Wilberforce – a model for today

William Wilberforce (1759 -1833)

By Peter Corney

This year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in British territories (1807), an achievement due largely to the tireless efforts of William Wilberforce. By any measure Wilberforce is an outstanding example of Christian leadership and a model of the way a Christian should be at mission in the world today. Indeed many of the issues he applied himself to like slavery and the exploitation of labor have re-appeared in new forms today and demand our attention again. It is estimated that there are some 27 million people in some form of slavery today – bonded and forced labor, children in third world sweat shops, human trafficking, woman and girls trapped in forced prostitution and children kidnapped or sold into domestic slavery, the list goes on.

Wilberforce’s motivation came from a deep Christian commitment. His Christian formation was profoundly influenced by the Rev Isaac Milner his tutor and life long mentor and John Newton the ex slave trader and author of “Amazing grace”, both Evangelical Anglican clergy. It was Newton that convinced him to pursue his vocation as a Christian in politics and not be ordained. He was elected to the British Parliament in 1780 at the age of 22 years!

Wilberforce became part of a group of Evangelical leaders known as “The Clapham group” after the suburb of London where they met. The Rev John Venn, a member of the group, was the Rector of Holy Trinity Clapham. This group, made up of influential lay people like Lord Teignmouth the Governor General of India, MPs, bankers, writers, government administrators, philanthropists and clergy, deeply influenced English society, politics and the development of Christian missions in the early 19th C. Wilberforce and his friends formed CMS and the BFBS and various missions in India. Today’s influential “Anti slavery International” began as a sister society to CMS at this time. Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce’s lifelong collaborator, was a key member of this group and the quiet driving force behind much of the abolitionist research and strategy.

While known today primarily for his leadership in the abolitionist movement he was also very influential in a wide variety of other social reforms: the reform of factories, child labor, prisons and the provision of primary education for children of the poor. It must be remembered that at this period there was no public education, no public health programs and no industrial relations laws protecting workers.

The English upper classes of the late 18th and early 19th C were not known for their piety and ridiculed the growing Evangelical and Methodist revival. Methodism had taken root mainly among the working poor which further alienated it from the moneyed and landed classes. Another of Wilberforce’s goals was to renew the faith of his peers and he set about this task with the same energy and wisdom that he brought to the abolitionist movement. He wrote a book, “A Practical View of True Faith…”, which was widely read and made a great impact on English family life. He encouraged the pattern of family prayers in which the whole household took part, this became a feature of many large households in the 19th C. These many interests were pursued at the same time as he continued to press the abolitionist cause both in and out of Parliament.

While there had been a constant thread of opposition to slavery among Christians in England – Richard Baxter the great Puritan preacher and later John Wesley had both condemned it as a great evil – nevertheless the Church and established society chose to ignore the issue. It was “over there” in the colonies and so “out of sight and out of mind.”

By 1807 at least three million slaves had been transported from Africa to the Americas by British ships. The method of transport was barbaric and inhuman. The slaves were crammed into tiny spaces unable to move, many died or went mad with claustrophobia in the confined space hardly able to breathe. The sick and dieing were simply thrown overboard. But this evil trade was a significant source of wealth in an increasingly prosperous England as the economic benefits of the Colonies and the plantations flowed back to the developing industrial revolution at home.

In 1787 the “Committee of Twelve” was formed to attack the problem in a coordinated way. It was made up of nine Quakers and three Evangelical Anglicans. This group recruited the young MP William Wilberforce as their parliamentary spokesman.

In 1789 Wilberforce moved his first motion for the abolition of the slave trade in the Parliament but it took 18years to get the Bill through The House of Commons! From 1807 British Naval ships enforced the ban on slave trading but it took another 26 years of campaigning to have the existing slaves released. In 1833 while Wilberforce lay dieing at his home he heard the news that the Bill had passed the third reading. One year after his death, at midnight on July 31st. 800,000 slaves were freed and the institution of slavery ceased to exist in the British territories. This was the result of the outstanding commitment of many Christians and the dedication of the whole life of one man.

On July 29th 1833 in an extraordinary expression of national gratitude Wilberforce was buried in West Minster Abbey by a grateful nation. At the state funeral the pall bearers were The Lord Chancellor, four Peers of the Realm, two Royal Dukes and The Speaker of the House. Almost every MP followed in the procession. This man had not just touched the conscience of the nation he had reshaped its spiritual core. What a magnificent model for Christian Mission!

The task was long and hard because the social and political context was not conducive, indeed often hostile to the cause. The social and political theory was Liaise Fair Capitalism and paternalistic philanthropy. Wealth was not redistributed by government to assist the poor that was the job of individuals. Constant wars with France (on and off from 1759 – 1815) and the American colonies were distracting and the French Revolution (1789) made the English ruling classes nervous about any social change.

The campaign methods used by the Abolitionists are instructive and a model for ‘faith based activism”. John Coffey in his Cambridge Paper (Vol.15/2 2006) describes how they mounted a media and petition blitz to coincide with Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bills.(10% of the English population signed the Petition!) They assembled damning evidence of the barbaric nature of the trade. They developed a logo of an African man in chains with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” The famous potter ,Wedgwood, even produced it as a pottery figure! They produced books and posters, they held rallies, they wrote to MP’s. They created a national organization and a huge grass roots movement. Coffey comments: “There were even boycotts on consumer goods, as up to 400.000 Britons stopped buying the rum and sugar that came from the slave plantations”. The Churches were mobilized and “hundred’s of Methodists… signed a petition against the slave trade in the Chapel at the Communion Table on the Lord’s Day.”

Wilberforce and the Abolitionist campaign has much to teach us about Christian Mission and “faith based activism” today. First, is the power of Christian conviction as a powerful motivating force. Second, is what a few really dedicated people can achieve. Third, the need for perseverance and long term commitment. Fourth, it shows us that change can be made even in a hostile social and political context. Fifth, it shows the power of mentors – the influence of The Rev Isaac Milner and John Newton on Wilberforce’s life. Sixth, it reminds us that our Christian calling extends to our everyday vocations.

The need to attack slavery and the exploitation of labor continues today. One way we can celebrate the anniversary of the 1807 victory is to become informed and involved today. Read David Batstone’s new book “Not for sale: the return of the global slave trade and how we can fight it” or contact “Anti Slavery International” (www.antislavery.org).