A DIFFERENT BEAT
Volume 19 Number 5
Wilberforce's Great Change
01 October 2006
The year 2007 will be the 200th anniversary of William Wilberforce leading the battle to end the transatlantic slave trade.
I WAS ONCE asked to give the opening prayer for the Oregon senate. The senators duly bowed their heads. As I spoke astonished heads were slowly raised. It was the English accent that did it, plus an invocation unlike others they were used to. I simply told the story of a politician who I thought was a good example for politicians anywhere, anytime.
I am speaking of William Wilberforce who led the British parliamentary battle to end the transatlantic slave trade. The year 2007 will be the 200th anniversary of that great achievement and will be marked by events in Britain and around the world.
Wilberforce was well off, had great charm, was a gifted speaker, a fine singer and three years after he entered Parliament his best friend, William Pitt, became Prime Minister. He had the world at his feet.
Then a remarkable experience transformed Wilberforce's life. He faced the fact that he had really achieved nothing worthwhile in his first years in Parliament, for, as he said, 'My own distinction was my darling object.' He accepted a larger commission. 'God Almighty has laid before me two great objects,' he wrote in his diary, 'the suppression of the slave trade and the
reformation of manners,' which we might call the whole moral climate of the country. This was at a time when Britain was the leading slave-trading nation in Europe and slavery supported one of her most profitable industries.
Wilberforce decided, as I told the senators, to put these new objects before claims of political party, before possibility of office, before popularity. He began a lifelong habit of rising early to spend time in meditation. He enlisted around him a team of people in public life that was said to be more talented than the cabinet. Indeed, they called their meetings 'cabinet councils' and devised an imaginative strategy to advance their twin aims privately and publicly. They were nicknamed 'the saints'.
Wilberforce became one of the best-loved men in England but also one of the most hated. His life was threatened by slave-ship captains, he was opposed by the Establishment, cold-shouldered by royalty, and endured all sorts of attempts at character assassination. Even the great Lord Nelson could refer to his 'damnable doctrine'. He was never a well man. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, in the very last letter he ever wrote, cautioned him, 'Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils, but if God is with you who can be against you?'
Wilberforce kept at it—for 46 years. After 20 years of unrelenting battle the House of Commons passed the bill abolishing the slave trade by 283 votes to 16. 'Well, Henry,' Wilberforce said to his colleague Thornton that evening, 'what shall we abolish next?' Twenty-six years later, on his deathbed, Wilberforce was told that within a year all 800,000 slaves in British territories were to be set free.
Meanwhile such a shift in the moral climate had occurred that it was reckoned that there were scarcely a hundred upper-class families where at least one member had not undergone what was called the 'great change'. The groundwork was laid for major social reforms and democratic developments in the years ahead.
Many other names are associated with that classic struggle, men and women like Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, Granville Sharp and Zachary and Selina Macaulay. They give substance to the words of John Pollock who writes, 'Wilberforce proved that one man can change his times, but he cannot do it alone.' Pollock's classic work Wilberforce is being reissued for the anniversary, as is Garth Lean's aptly named God's Politician.
William Hague, another MP from Yorkshire, is also writing a biography to mark this bicentenary. He says, 'Wilberforce, more than any other man in his generation, exemplified in his life how to translate a religious calling into political action.'
Michael Henderson is the author of 'Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate', Grosvenor Books, 2002, ISBN 1-85239-031-X