Sometimes carrying out a particular ministry that the Lord would have us to fulfill requires not just weeks or months of effort. Sometimes it demands many years or even several decades of unrelenting, determined endeavor. But with the renewed encouragement, strength and tenacity that God Himself provides, we can successfully fulfill even the longest-term tasks to which He calls us.
William Wilberforce’s relentless efforts to bring an end to slavery in the British Empire are a sterling and instructive example of that. From the time he was twenty-eight years of age, Wilberforce felt definitely led of the Lord to do what he could to stop the British slave trade. As a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons, Wilberforce initially intended to move for the abolition of the slave trade in February, 1788. But that month he became dangerously ill with ulcerative colitis (an excruciating, stress-induced condition of the digestive tract) and was told he might not live two more weeks.
However, Prime Minister William Pitt, Wilberforce’s close friend and powerful political ally, got the ball rolling for Wilberforce during his illness. Pitt was able to pass legislation to conduct a formal government investigation of conditions in the slave trade.
Debate on Wilberforce’s bill for abolishing the trade did not start for three more years, until April, 1791, and it was defeated. When Wilberforce again moved for the slave trade’s abolition in 1792, the House of Commons voted to gradually eliminate the trade over the next four years. But the following year, 1793, the House refused to confirm that decision because France had just declared war on Britain, and many concluded it was not the right time to address the deeply divisive issue of slavery.
Those were extremely difficult years for Wilberforce. He was accused of undermining the British economy and received death threats on his life. He was challenged to a duel (which he refused on Christian principles) by anti-abolitionists who still strongly supported the slave trade.
In 1796 Wilberforce’s renewed motion that the slave trade be abolished was narrowly defeated by a vote of 74 to 70. Twelve supporters of his bill carelessly missed the session when that vote was taken, instead being at a new opera with free tickets supplied by anti-abolitionists! Wilberforce was bitterly disappointed at that tragic development and shortly thereafter suffered a serious relapse of intestinal problems.
The struggle to abolish the slave trade dragged on eleven more years. Every year from 1797 to 1803 the abolition cause suffered setbacks. Finally on February 23, 1807, the House of Commons voted to abolish the trade by an overwhelming majority of 283 to 16. Slave trading and the shipping of slaves to or from British territories were outlawed. Nearly twenty years had passed since Wilberforce had first agreed to lead the legislative effort to end slavery.
In the 1810s Wilberforce campaigned to emancipate slaves and completely abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. In 1821, due to failing health, he turned over the leadership of that legislative responsibility to Thomas Buxton, a young Quaker MP whose efforts at prison reform Wilberforce greatly admired. Wilberforce officially retired, for health reasons, four years later, at age sixty-five.
On July 26, 1833, Wilberforce received news that a bill for the complete abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire was now assured of becoming law. England was willing to give twenty million pounds to purchase the freedom of the 800,000 slaves in Britain’s colonies.
Just three days later, William Wilberforce died at age seventy-three. Forty-six years had elapsed since he was first led of God to take up the cause of ending slavery.
A number of beneficial biographies have been written on Wilberforce in recent years: William Wilberforce, A Hero for Humanity, by Kevin Belmonte (Zondervan, 2007); Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas (Harperone, 2008); Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce, by John Piper (Crossway, 2007). Belmonte’s and Metaxas’s works are full-length biographies while Piper’s booklet of sixty-four pages focuses more specifically on Wilberforce’s conversion and Christian convictions that were at the foundation of his remarkable career of public service.
Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie
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