Sunday, 22 February 2009

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce is one of my heroes. A talented orator, many of his fellow politicians said he could be Prime Minister but instead he devoted himself to what he felt called by God to do-The abolition of slavery. A year after read a biography telling his life story, I had the privilege of being an extra (as an MP) in the filming of the Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace. Both highlighted what a remarkable man he was.
William Wilberforce was born in Hull, Yorkshire to Robert Wilberforce (1728–68), a wealthy merchant, and his wife Elizabeth, A sickly child, William was their only son. After his father's death the nine-year-old slightly built Yorkshire boy went to live with his aunt and uncle in Wimbledon. William became interested in evangelical Christianity through the influence of his aunt, but his stanch Anglican mother, alarmed at the youngster's increasing non-conformist leanings, bought him back to Hull. Another influence on William's faith was the former slave trader, John Newton, who had become the vicar of Olney in Buckinghamshire. However after it was decided that the evangelical Newton was a bad influence on the him, they lost contact and William drifted away from God for a time. At Cambridge University he pursued a hedonistic lifestyle enjoying cards, gambling and late-night drinking sessions. He was also developing an interest in politics and at the age of 21, whilst still a student, he was elected Member of Parliament for Kingston Upon Hull. Wilberforce's eloquent speaking voice whilst making political speeches was immediately noted as was a tendency towards tardiness. He was seen as a man, who whilst weak in health and insignificantly small in body was blessed with an unique gift of witty and eloquent oratory. After hearing him speak, Dr Johnson’s biographer, Boswell, wrote: “ I saw what seemed to be a shrimp mount upon the table but as I listened he grew and grew until the shrimp became a whale.”
However in 1785 a journey across Europe with a Christian friend, Isaac Milner changed his life for ever. During the trip, Wilberforce's reading of the Bible and Philip Doddridges book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul brought him to a spiritual crisis and he returned to God. At first Wilberforce wanted to go into the church but eventually his friends persuaded him to stay on as an MP. One friend was John Newton, with whom Wilberforce had renewed acquaintance.
Around the time of Wilberforce's conversion, a British campaign to abolish the slave trade, originally by Quakers had began to gain support from within the evangelical wing of the church. In the 1780s over 100,000 Africans were being shipped abroad every year and more than half were being carried on British ships. The testimony of John Newton and many others about the cruel conditions, the slaves had to endure convinced many that something had to be one about it.
As he grew in his faith, Wilberforce had become interested in humanitarian affairs. He became a leader of the Clapham Sect, centered on Holy Trinity Church, Clapham in London, a fellowship of influential Anglicans who prayed several hours a day to get laws changed, lobbying hard to MPs. Wilberforce was seen as a potential key figure by the slave trade abolitionists and after a number of meetings and exchange of letters he saw that God was calling him to be a figurehead of the movement. He said "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners." In 1791, Wilberforce moved in the House of Commons that the import of African slaves be banned but lost the vote 168-88. In 1793, another vote to abolish the slave trade was narrowly defeated by eight votes. The war with France effectively prevented any further serious consideration of the issue, and as politicians concentrated on the threat of invasion, there was a decline in public support for several years. However, despite battling ill-health , Wilberforce refused to give up and in 1804 he bought another bill to Parliament. Though that was defeated, a radical change of tactics, which involved the introduction of a bill by another MP banning British subjects from participating in the slave trade to the French Colonies and an increasing amount of abolitionist MPs in the House of Commons, finally bore fruit for the persistent Wilberforce, In 1807, the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire though all existing slaves were still bound to their masters. A blind, elderly John Newton witnessed the passing of the bill in the visitors gallery. Britain was the first Western country to abolish the slave trade and much of this was due to the persistence of William Wilberforce MP.
As a postscript, in 1833 all slaves in the British Empire were released, with the British Government paying a huge sum to compensate all the Slave owners. When the dying Wilberforce heard this news on his deathbed, he mumbled, "Thank God that I have lived to witness a day when England is willing to give 20 million sterling for the abolition of slavery."
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