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William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade

December 2017 | by Dennis Hill

This month marks the end of Kingston upon Hull’s year as the UK’s City of Culture. One part of Hull’s celebrations has been remembering William Wilberforce, ‘the friend of humanity’ and Hull’s ‘most illustrious son’.

Wilberforce’s untiring efforts to abolish the slave trade were rewarded with that famous Act of Parliament of 1807, an event which historian G. M. Trevelyan called ‘one of the turning events in the history of the world’.

William Wilberforce was born in Hull on 24 August 1759. He dedicated his life, to a great extent, to the abolition of the slave trade and ultimately of slavery itself. He said, ‘I have attached my happiness to their cause and shall never relinquish it’.

He was one of Britain’s greatest social reformers, involved in education and penal reform, along with many other charitable activities, including helping found the RSPCA.

Motivation

There is one fact though that is not always mentioned when he is remembered. The overwhelming motivation behind all the good this good man did was his evangelical Christian faith. It was this that motivated all his love to fellow human beings that we remember him for.

Wilberforce was not always an evangelical Christian. In fact, though some people know about Christ all their lives, no one is born a Christian; people have to become Christians, through faith in Jesus Christ.

Wilberforce came to that faith through conversing with Isaac Milner. Milner was at various times a member of the Royal Society, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University and president of Queen’s College, Cambridge. It was Milner’s formidable advocacy of biblical Christianity and their reading together of a book called The rise and progress of religion in the soul, by Philip Doddridge, that helped bring Wilberforce to the conviction that Christianity was true.

By that time, Wilberforce had already begun his career in politics, having been elected MP for Hull, in 1780, at the age of 21. He was a rising star, and close friends with another rising star: future prime minister William Pitt the younger.

At first, Wilberforce thought his new found faith would mean the end of such a worldly calling as politics, but, soon after his conversion in 1785, conversations with Rev. John Newton and others helped change his thinking. It was so appropriate that Newton played this role, since before his own conversion Newton had been a slave trader.

‘Two great objects’

Over time, Wilberforce came to believe God had prepared him to work for the abolition of the slave trade. He wrote in his diary entry for Sunday, 28 October 1787: ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals]’.

It is ironic that most of those in Hull this year who celebrated Mr Wilberforce for the abolition of the slave trade would part company with the reformer over many of his Christian convictions. The history of Britain is filled with men and women who shared Wilberforce’s moral and religious beliefs and who have done incalculable good for the nation, but, sadly, this is a part of British history many wish to leave out of the record.

Wilberforce believed all the essential teachings of the Bible that evangelicals believe today. Perhaps the defining belief of evangelicals is their conviction that the Bible is a revelation from God and authoritative in all matters. Wilberforce wrote, in the introduction to his book, Real Christianity: ‘From the decision of the Word of God there can be no appeal’. In other words, he saw the Bible as the final authority.

Wilberforce was a Bible man, through and through. And he was Christ’s man. The compassion of the Saviour, whom he learned about in the pages of Scripture, helped to convince him that slavery was wrong and had to be abolished.

Wilberforce was deeply concerned about the whole moral and spiritual condition of the nation. That was why he wrote the book I quoted from above. Its full title is long (in keeping with the custom of that day); it is A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians, in the higher and middle classes in this country, contrasted with real Christianity.

Near the book’s end, Wilberforce summed up what he saw as the major problem for our nation: ‘[It is] my firm persuasion, that to the decline of religion and morality our national difficulties must both directly and indirectly be chiefly ascribed’.

Same thing today

I am convinced that, if he were alive today, Wilberforce would say the same thing about the conditions of our day, only more so. The ‘decline of religion and morality’ which he decried over 200 years ago has deepened and widened beyond anything Wilberforce would have anticipated.

And the great perplexing and destructive problems that engulf not only Britain, but Western civilisation, today result from the West’s rejection of the God of the Bible, the same God who motivated Wilberforce and many others like him through British history.

The most fitting response we could make to Wilberforce’s life would be to pick up a copy of the Bible that he loved so much, read it and pray to the God that he adored, through his Son, Jesus Christ. It would be to ask the Lord to have mercy on us and open our eyes to his truth while there is still time.

Dennis Hill is minister of Kingston Evangelical Church, Hull