[by Earl Blacklock] The slave trade was a lucrative part of the British economy. British ships moved slaves from Africa to the West Indies to be bought and sold, then brought sugar and other goods produced with that labor back to Britain.
William Wilberforce was a young man, born to privilege, who was a close personal friend of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. In 1780, while still a 21 year old student at Cambridge, he was elected the Member of Parliament for Kingston upon Hull, sitting as an independent.
At 25, he was elected the Member of Parliament for Yorkshire. Shortly after, partly due to the influence of his aunt, he went through a conversion experience, becoming an ardent Christian. He fought for social reforms such as the improvement of British factory conditions, and against child labor and animal cruelty.
Wilberforce began meeting slavery abolitionists such as Rev. James Ramsay, Sir Charles Middleton, and Thomas Clarkson. Each had a part to play in his spiritual journey. Ramsay provided first hand information on how slaves were treated on the island that is now St. Kitts. Sir Charles wrote a letter to Wilberforce urging him to be an advocate of abolition in Parliament. And Thomas Clarkson met with Wilberforce with a copy of an essay he had written on abolishing slavery. In 1787, Wilberforce agreed to be their champion in Parliament, “provided that no person more proper could be found”.
Wilberforce next consulted with his old friend William Pitt the Younger, who encouraged him to introduce an abolition bill in Parliament. He did so, during each subsequent session of Parliament, only to be voted down repeatedly in the House of Commons and by the House of Lords. At times he came tantalizingly close, but his efforts bore no fruit for 20 years.
Finally, support in Parliament started to swing. In 1806, Wilberforce produced a 400 page “letter” which effectively laid out the case for abolishing the slave trade. Lord Grenville, the Prime Minister, introduced an abolition bill before the House of Lords, and it passed. Nevertheless, even with the 1807 passage of the Slave Trade Act, Wilberforce won only a partial victory – those who were already slaves were not freed.
Wilberforce turned his attention to fighting for emancipation for existing slaves. Finally, in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, and all British subjects were made free. Wilberforce died three days later, but he lived long enough to hear its passage through Parliament.
William Wilberforce brought the force of his and others’ Christian moral values against the evil of slavery, changing first Britain’s, and then the world’s response. The issue which,in the United States, was only resolved by a civil war, was settled in Britain by legislation pushed for by one Christian man.
How do people become men and women of courage who change the course of history? Paul had a simple explanation. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (II Corinthians 5:17).