John Newton, author of the profound Christian hymn Amazing Grace was indeed a “wretch” in need of saving in the year 1748, but it was physical liberation not spiritual he desired. Not yet 24 years of age, he had already experienced impressment in the navy, flogging and forced servitude after being shanghaied in Africa. Ironically, after his physical liberation from slavery he turned back to the industry that had once shackled him and wallowed in the abhorrent slave trade eventually captaining several slave ship. After years of participating in this inhumane business, searing pain and remorse opened John’s calloused heart. He experienced healing through a miraculous conversion to Christianity and entered the ministry where he would have a profound influence on a young man named William Wilberforce.
Wilberforce experienced a dramatically different upbringing, enjoying the advantage of wealth, education and a charismatic, friendly personality. In great contrast to Newton’s enslaved state in his mid-twenties, at the same age Wilberforce was enjoying the exhilaration of political success after winning his first term in British Parliament. Wilberforce was the life of the party in social settings and was inclined towards pleasure seeking. However, while traveling through Europe with his former schoolmaster, Isaac Milner, a shift from his hedonistic tendencies occurred. He and Milner light heartedly discussed any topic, but when it came to religion Milner would grow serious and reverent. William chided his friend for his sobriety, but even his whit and charm could not move him to levity on the subject. Milner acknowledged that he could not match his gift for debate and persuasion, but told William that when he wanted to engage in a serious discussion about the subject he would be ready. These serious discussions came and Wilberforce quickly found himself at a spiritual crossroad.
Upon returning to London, he was perplexed by his emotions. With out his friend Milner, who had returned to Cambridge, he was left to face them alone. Understanding he needed a spiritual mentor his mind turned to John Newton, a clergyman he knew as a boy but hadn’t seen in some 15 years. Newton, who had experienced radical personal change in his conversion to Christianity, stood ready to advise William not just on spiritual matters, but on the direction of his career. He counseled him to stay in politics rather than turning to ministry so he could use his gifts, position and connections to change the world for good. William left this meeting in peace knowing that he must discover God’s purpose for him. As part of this process he consulted his good friend William Pitt who would soon become Prime Minister of England. Pitt assured him either decision would not change their friendship, but he did urge him to stick with politics. Wilberforce ultimately concluded, “My walk is a public one…my business is in the world… I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which providence has assigned me.”
And what was the post which providence had assigned? In his own words he wrote, “God almighty has placed before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners (or the moral conduct of society).” This concise and clear mission statement would drive him through the most daunting opposition for the rest of his life. To better appreciate the magnitude of this mission, one must realize that he was taking on a centuries old lucrative British industry. Not only did many powerful people stand to lose greatly, but numerous jobs throughout the British Empire would be lost. Powerful lobbies therefore stood in his way questioning why Britain should just hand the slave trade over to foreign countries that would perpetuate it anyway.
A man on a mission however does not count the odds, he proceeds with faith, but even Wilberforce with his phenomenal gift for debate and his skill at coalition building could not move this established industry and year after year his bill was rejected. Finally, in 1796 his jubilance at having the votes to end the trade was crushed in the very hour of the vote when he discovered that the critical moderate swing voters he needed had been lured away from the floor by the lobbies with nothing more than free opera tickets. It failed by just 4 votes. Simple enticements for entertainment had kept the slave trade in operation.
In spite of these set backs and other challenges ranging from severe health problems, bouts with depression and physical exhaustion, Wilberforce pressed on. He also endured vicious personal attacks which branded him as un-patriotic during the War with Napoleon. For decades he withstood all this and steadily moved towards his goal with character, tenacity and the support of friends like Pitt, Milner, Newton, his wife and the dedicated members of the Clapham Circle.
Finally, after persevering for 20 years, the momentous day arrived when parliament was poised to pass the bill. The atmosphere was charged with electricity as Wilberforce stood to deliver a moving speech. As his final words went silent, thunderous applause erupted throughout the hall. Sensing it was at last finished he dropped in his seat and wept openly. As the tears flowed freely the applause grew louder and gave way to an unprecedented three cheers for Wilberforce. The final vote was 283-16, a decisive victory and an overwhelming show of support. Wilberforce who had been vilified, ridiculed and slandered became a national hero because of his unshakable courage, perseverance and character which in the end elevated him above it all!
Today it is nearly impossible for us to perceive the deplorable conditions that accompanied the trafficking of 11 million plus slaves out of Africa or comprehend the conditions that caused millions to perish in the process. Thankfully we don’t deal with this moral dilemma in the same way today among the governments of the world because inspired men like Wilberforce who surrounded himself with worthy friends chose to fight injustice in his day rather then deferring it to another generation.
Bishop Desmond Tutu said of William Wilberforce, “[He] shows us that one person can make a difference. Few of us will be in Parliament as Wilberforce was, but all of us are part of community. Each of us can find ways to serve each other…” Today, the political landscape appears daunting and people clamor for change but doubt that leadership exists to bring it about. Whatever concerns the reader may feel about our current condition, remember that legislative bodies have always been slow to act and have been overly preoccupied with intrigue, favor and special interest. But, before this thought overwhelms you, think of Wilberforce and remember that it only takes one to create positive change in the world. Are you one who will?