It took 46 years of determined effort by William Wilberforce before slavery was abolished in the British Empire.
by Samantha Coon and Michelle Patterson
“So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I, from this time, determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.” William Wilberforce
In the late 1700s, English traders raided the African coast—capturing, shipping and selling into slavery between 35,000 and 50,000 people a year.1 Many crammed into the hold of slave ships never lived to see daylight again; they died on the journey. Britain’s economy was so dependent on the slave trade, its roots were so deep into British society that, even though some felt it an inhuman institution, few thought anything could be done about it. One did—William Wilberforce.
Young William attended St. John’s College in Cambridge, but didn’t distinguish himself as a student or apply himself to serious study. Two important things came of his time in college, however: a life-long friendship with future Prime Minister William Pitt, and an interest in politics.
While still a student in 1780, and only 21 years old, Wilberforce was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Kingston upon Hull. As was customary at the time, he bought the necessary votes.
Wilberforce began his political life with strong personal ambitions. He resolved to not be a member of either major party, but voted according to his conscience, though he lent strong support to his friend William Pitt.
“The first years in Parliament I did nothing—nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object,” Wilberforce stated.
A PURPOSE IN LIFE
But in 1786 he was converted to Jesus Christ and began to see his purpose in life. “My walk is a public one,” he wrote in his diary. “My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.”
In the 1780s the abolition movement, mostly a Quaker movement, was gaining momentum. Abolitionists asked the Christian Wilberforce to help bring the issue to Parliament, but it was Thomas Clarkson and his irrefutable evidence of the horrifying conditions endured by slaves, that finally convinced him to take up the cause. William felt that God was calling him to aid in the abolition of such an unchristian and inhuman business.
Year after year, William presented his bill before the House of Commons, though he seemed to always be outmaneuvered by those whose financial investments made them want the slave trade to continue.
Once Wilberforce took a stand on abolition, though, he never backed down. For years, he fought; for years he admitted defeat. But through all those years, he never lost hope, and every year he got a little closer. In 1807, Parliament outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire. It was a stunning victory, but not enough. Wilberforce’s goal was more—an end to slavery itself.
Finally, in June of 1833, three days before his death—slavery was outlawed in the British Empire.
If there ever was a time when we needed people like William Wilberforce, it is now. One man with the help of Christ moved a nation. One man, with passion and determination, went forward to do what others saw as impossible, touching lives all over the world.
What about us? Why sit and do nothing? We have so many more advantages in this era, yet so much more to do. William Wilberforce was called by God for his day, for that purpose. What is God’s call for us today?