Wilberforce’s legacy is in danger of being swamped as Christians grow complacent about the state of the world and the condition of the human heart.
‘One voice changed the lives of millions’ according to the tagline of the Hollywood film about the slave trade: ‘Amazing Grace’. They are speaking of William Wilberforce, of course, but those of you who have researched this issue or have watched any of the myriad TV documentaries around the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 2007 will know this is a classic example of Hollywood hyperbole. There were many people involved in the enduring campaign to abolish the slave trade - black and white, male and female - which is not surprising given its scale.
It is estimated that between 9 and 15 million Africans were captured and enslaved on the continent, although one author puts it as high as 24 million. It’s hard to tell because by definition Africans didn’t count. Conditions on the Atlantic crossings were so horrific that it is believed at least one in every five Africans died on the seas. Many more did not survive the brutal treatment they received in the Americas. The slave trade inflicted incalculable damage on the African continent, robbing it of its most able-bodied people.
At the same time it helped to lay the foundations for the wealth and industrialisation of the western world. Beyond the economic legacy, countless untold social and psychological impacts were made. And the ideologies which supported the slave trade remain with us in mutated forms today in the racism and discrimination that pervade many societies, and also in the casual abuse and rapacious ownership of human beings across the world.
Many people brought their unique skills, commitments and experiences to bear on the abolition of the slave trade. Thomas Clarkson was unnervingly driven; Olaudah Equiano and John Newton had first-hand experiences as slave and slave trader respectively; James Stephen was gripped by a profound rage which possessed him to say: ‘I would rather be on friendly terms with a man who had strangled my infant son than support an admission guilty of slackness in suppressing the slave trade’. Each made powerful contributions to the cause, but it was Wilberforce’s sheer bloody-minded persistence which prevails in the public imagination. He first introduced a motion to outlaw the trade in the House of Commons in 1789. It was defeated. He then raised the issue in Parliament for eighteen successive years until the law was passed two hundred years ago.
Many Christians up until then had taken slavery to be tacitly endorsed by scripture because the early Church did not try to get it abolished. However, the Apostle Paul included slaves in the instructions he gave to the churches, indicating that he saw them to be a part of the new community God was creating, famously saying that in Christ there is ‘neither slave nor free’. The letter of Philemon concerned a runaway slave called Onesimus who became a Christian under Paul and whom Paul believed he had the authority to set free, even though he preferred his owner Philemon to reach that decision of his own volition. Paul saw how mutually trusting relationships within the redeemed community of the Church must transcend the brutal and instrumental demands of the ancient world. This letter alone has been described as laying a depth charge under the practice of slavery, yet it was a long time before Christians understood it this way. Meanwhile, a cynically selective reading of scripture was employed to underscore slave owning. Ministers preaching to slaves would routinely refer to Paul’s injunction: ‘slaves be obedient to your masters…as unto Christ’, while steering cautiously clear of the divided waters of the Book of Exodus, with its stirring and subversive narrative of emancipation from slavery in Egypt.
Christians who aspire today to inherit the legacy of William Wilberforce should take account perhaps of five dimensions of his life.
1. The first is that his public commitment stemmed from his private faith. Wilberforce was a good man before his conversion to Christianity, so good that one of his biographers suggested he struggled to find enough sins to repent of on conversion. But afterwards he had a profound conviction that he should do something worthwhile with his life. He would not have understood the mentality of Christians who think their faith has no place in the public realm. His campaigning was visibly rooted in a confessional faith.
2. He showed great stamina and resolve in his twenty year campaign. The commitment repeatedly wrecked his health, nearly killing him at moments when the cause still looked utterly hopeless, but he never lost heart. In an era where we strive for work-life balance, and to a writer here who believes strongly in the biblical grounds for Sabbath rest, it is salutary to see how some people believe they must sacrifice their lives entirely without rest when they are called by God.
3. He was undaunted by public ridicule. In Parliament he was derided as a misguided do-gooder at best and a traitorous fanatic at worst. Vested commercial interests drove the slave trade, buttressed by the complacency of conventional wisdom, and Wilberforce was seen as an irritant, as welcome as a wasp at a picnic. Yet at the point of victory in the campaign, MPs were fighting to pay tribute to him, clapping him and cheering him in displays previously unseen in Parliament. The successful Christian campaigner is resilient, able to distinguish between conventional wisdom and spiritual wisdom, having the courage to believe what others deride.
4. He worked to ensure the law he facilitated was properly enforced. It is a mistake to assume that the passing of any reforming law marks the end of a public campaign. Reforming laws must be rooted in a new culture of respect which gives voice to its ethos as well as its enforcement. Wilberforce spent the following ten years pursuing this cause when every fibre of his body must have been telling him to quit.
5. He was no single- issue politician. On the night of the vote two hundred years ago, he famously and mischievously said to his fellow abolitionist Henry Thornton: ‘Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?’ He had a zest also for evangelism - making the message of Christ known; a passion for the eradication of poverty; and a desire to improve public morals. He had a wider vision of what a just society should look like, which is less true of today’s single-stranded world.
In our era, some of the issues on which Christians have chosen to fight have had unusual clarity: the struggle against apartheid was rooted in part in an understanding of equal human worth in the sight of God; opposition to European Communism was inspired in part by the perception that the Communist Party had set itself in the place of God. Contemporary Christian political engagement aspires to similar clarity – tackling global poverty and global warming, opposing the liberalisation of gambling and the new trade in sex slavery – yet the overall impression is one of drift and disengagement from the noble tradition of campaigning which we have inherited from Wilberforce.
There may be some compelling reasons for this. Many policy questions are too complicated to permit the kind of moral conviction needed to motivate, rather than divide people politically. The abolitionists had the enactment of one law in their sights, whereas many of today’s problems require a multinational response which is harder to muster. There are, nevertheless, several less excusable reasons for disengagement. Karl Marx famously called religion the opiate of the people. He was wrong, of course, because consumerism is the real opiate of the people. It muffles our senses and dulls our consciences. Christians need to demonstrate distinctive lifestyles, otherwise their public voice will become muted because it is not supported by changes lives.
When I was a student and a young Christian, Ron Sider’s book ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger’ had a transformative effect on a generation of Christians who are now exercising leadership. Its argument was not just that more needed to be done to help developing countries lift themselves out of poverty, but that Christians who campaigned about poverty should adopt simpler lifestyles themselves because there had to be a particular integrity to their lives which could stand tall in the searching light of God. Somewhere between 1977 and today we lost sight of that objective. The argument for this kind of integrity is even more compelling when we think about global warming. Is this the moment we rediscover the link between the personal and the public which God never lost sight of in the first place?
It is a safe assumption to say that if Wilberforce were alive today, he would not want us to dwell overlong on his triumph, because he would quickly see three things of concern familiar from his own experience. The first would be existence of an illegal and privatised trade in the bodies of women. It is estimated that human traffickers in London, almost unknown a decade ago, now control eighty percent of street prostitutes. Often rounded up under the false pretence of offering careers in modelling or clerical work in a rich country, sometimes even kidnapped summarily to order, such women are transported across borders with the help of corrupt officials, kept in so-called safe houses where they are broken through beatings and repeated rape before finally arriving on our streets. An Interpol official estimates that fresh supplies of women can be transported to London from the Balkans within forty-eight hours. The misery this causes is incalculable, and it is near at hand. If you want to be involved in addressing this cruel practice, look up the work of Anti-Slavery International or CHASTE, a church agency working in this area. Globalisation, with its rapid flows of capital and labour, has a dark underside which we have barely begun to understand, never mind tackle.
The second thing Wilberforce would notice is the persistence of crippling poverty on the continent of Africa. He would have known there are many complex reasons why some nations are impoverished, including poor governance, burdensome debt, cynical protectionism and hostile climate. He would, I suspect, be aggrieved at how much suffering Africans continue to experience. He wouldn’t really have understood how people could wear white bands on their wrists one year and forget all about campaigning the next. He might also have seen the logic in one aid agent’s observation, ‘Forget about making poverty history. Climate change will make poverty permanent’. Eradicating poverty was at the heart of his Christian commitment.
And finally he would have been distressed to see how poorly understood the Christian Gospel is today in Britain. He had a passion for evangelism, like many of his generation, which included the Wesley brothers. The last letter John Wesley wrote before his death was to William Wilberforce to encourage him in his task with these words: ‘Be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall banish away before it’. By the same token, Wilberforce shared Wesley’s enduring desire to see people turn to God in personal salvation. Political reforms are profoundly important to people’s welfare, but only God can reform the human heart. When this is done, anything becomes possible. That’s why grace is so amazing.
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