William Wilberforce and the Slave Trade

The bull’s-eye of William Wilberforce’s life work was the horror and atrocity of slavery. It is nearly impossible for us to understand the magnitude of what he was considering. The African Slave Trade was a key part of the whole British economy with huge influence and a lobby in Parliament. Further, it was a trade Britain’s enemies would be all too happy to take over and prosper from. It was nearly unthinkable that it would ever be eliminated.

But Wilberforce was not looking at this as a Brit, or a politician. He was doing what real Christians do—he was looking at his world like a Christian.

Trading slaves wasn’t like trading wheat—every one of those slaves was a person, a human being made in the image of God. Their capture, kidnapping, and slave ship transports to a life of servitude was as anti-Christian love as anything Wilberforce could think of. It was certainly the antithesis of loving your neighbor as yourself. In this way, it’s not that different from how we look at a baby in her mother’s womb. An image-bearer of God. The Christian worldview loves God’s image everywhere, no matter the skin color, age, disability, or whether it’s in the womb or not.

Further, the conditions on the slave ships were so ghastly as to beyond fathoming. Only a small percentage of Africans put in the ships survived the experience alive. Add to that the beatings, rapes, and further deplorable treatment; slavery was a moral cancer on the whole country of England and Wilberforce would spent the rest of his life fighting it.

For 20 years he stirred the conscience of the nation introducing bill after bill to abolish the slave trade. Year after year he suffered defeat. Yet he continued to try and prick the conscience of the social elite. He was a solo voice. Slowly things began to change. This was no doubt part of Wilberforce’s influence beyond legislation. His own life modeled this. He married at 37 and went on to have six children. He was a doting father and even this was an example to the upper class who largely ignored their children.

It was slowly becoming fashionable for the upper society to see themselves as having a responsibility to others; to use their wealth and influence to alleviate the suffering of others. That wasn’t at all part of society before Wilberforce. The whole philanthropic world of today—the hospitals, orphanages, and compassion ministries funded by people with money—owes their source to Wilberforce.

Finally, in 1807, when he was 48 years old and after 18 years of struggle, a vote was made by both houses of Parliament, abolishing the slave trade in all British colonies. This was the major breakthrough William and so many other Christians had labored for.

The struggle for abolition would go on. While the trading of slaves was abolished, slavery was not. Wilberforce continued the struggle. At last, in 1833, 26 years later, three days before Wilberforce died, and the day before he lost consciousness, Parliament voted and abolished not just the trade of slaves, but all slavery in all British colonies. Thirty years later the United States would have a bloody war over the same issue and Abraham Lincoln would draw inspiration from a little five-foot tall man who had taken on the British Empire for love of God and man, and had won.

It’s safe to say, if there was no Wilberforce, there would never have been a Lincoln, and if there was no Lincoln, what kind of world would we live in today?

The Necessary Motive: Love for God Overflowing with Love for Man

Why would a rich white aristocrat politician in England care about an African teenager on a slave ship? Their worlds could not be more different. Most politicians did not care. But the great change that came into Wilberforce’s life, this love for God through Jesus, produced the greatest social reformer in the history of the world. How?

Wilberforce had experienced God’s love for him. That love in him produced an enduring compassion for humanity. Children. Blacks. Whites. He was instrumental in opening India to the gospel, personally doing the legislation that allowed William Carey to take the gospel there. All people. All backgrounds. All races. When God’s love to us through Jesus is treasured in us, it produces great love for others through us.

“Taken all together, it’s difficult to escape the verdict that William Wilberforce was simply the greatest social reformer in the history of the world. The world that he was born into in 1759 and the world he departed in 1833 were as different as lead and gold. Wilberforce presided over a social earthquake that rearranged the continents and whose magnitude we are only now beginning to fully appreciate.” (Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace, p. xvii)

What are we to do? Consider the outcome of Wilberforce’s life and imitate his faith. May we all reflect Wilberforce-type love of others because we have experienced the amazing grace of God to us.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2013 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

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