William Wilberforce as a Young Man

William Wilberforce as a Young Man

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.

Prime Minister William Pitt

Prime Minister William Pitt

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.

William Wilberforce as an Older Man

William Wilberforce as an Older Man

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

When John Newton, eventual author of the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” first came to saving faith in Jesus Christ, he did not immediately renounce the slave trade that he was then part of. The story of why that was the case is worth considering and has relevance to our own moral blind spots today.

When Newton (1725-1807) became a convinced Christian at twenty-three years of age, he was serving as first mate on a trading vessel in the Triangular Trade (TT). In the TT, cutlery, wool and guns were shipped from England to the Grain Coast (modern Sierra Leone) of western Africa. From there Africans were taken as slaves to the West Indies. Normally around twenty percent of the slaves died aboard ship in that Middle Passage of the TT. Sugar, rum and spices were then taken back to England.

Newton was disgusted by the revolting aspects of the slave trade – the squalor, horrid smell, deaths, etc. But that was more due to the inconvenience those caused himself rather than out of pity for slaves. Slaves were viewed more as cattle than as humans. Slave trading was considered a perfectly legitimate, even respectable vocation.

Three weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday Newton set sail as captain of a small trading vessel in the TT. He faced grave and constant dangers from a rebellious, mutinous crew as well as a near slave insurrection when twenty Africans escaped their chains temporarily. Newton’s treatment of the slaves became more civil – the crew was not allowed to abuse them, they were not packed as tightly, the hold was hosed down periodically to reduce the smell, and they received an improved diet. During that voyage, six crew members died from fever, which was not at all abnormal. Only six slaves died, which was highly unusual.

Before a serious seizure forced Newton to retire from the sea trade at age twenty-nine, he was twice captain of a large trading vessel in the Triangular Trade. In the 1752 voyage of his ship “only” 28 of 174 slaves died in the Middle Passage. The following year only 87 slaves were transported and none of those died.

After working in the Customs and Excise Office at Liverpool for nine years Newton was ordained as a minister in the Church of England at age 38. That same year, 1753, his personal testimony was published in book form. After devoting a chapter to the deplorable treatment of slaves in that trade, he wrote: “The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself, that knowing the state of this vile traffic as I have described, and abounding with enormities which I have not mentioned, I did not at the time start with horror at my own employment as an agent in promoting it. Custom, example [of others], and interest [i.e., personal financial gain] had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly, for I am sure had I thought of the slave trade then as I have thought of it since, no considerations would have induced me to continue in it. Though my religious views were not very clear, my conscience was very tender, and I durst [dared] not have displeased God by acting against the light of my mind.”

While in his first pastorate at Olney, seventy miles northwest of London, Newton befriended and made a positive impression on a young teen, William Wilberforce, who often visited Newton’s home and church with his uncle and aunt, William and Hannah Wilberforce. (William and Hannah were William’s guardians at the time and good friends of John and Polly Newton.) Young William Wilberforce went on to become a Member of Parliament just before his twenty-first birthday and came to Christian faith at age twenty-six. By that time Newton was serving a prestigious congregation in London. He affirmed Wilberforce’s newfound Christian convictions and encouraged him to serve God by remaining in Parliament.

In 1788, one month before Wilberforce first introduced legislation to abolish Britain’s slave trade, Newton published a best-selling, highly-influential pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.  In it he detailed the degrading, inhumane, brutal and murderous aspects of the slave trade, not only for male and female slaves but also for their captors. When Wilberforce renewed his legislation in the House of Commons for the abolition of slavery in 1791 and 1792, Newton preached sermons against slavery. Newton also bore powerful, informed testimony against the slave trade before a Select Committee of the House of Commons.

The battle to abolish British slavery stretched out for decades. On May 1, 1807, just months before Newton’s death, an Act of Parliament was passed, making it illegal to ship slaves from any British territory. Less than three months after Newton’s death, in March, 1808, another Act of Parliament forbade the landing of slaves onto British territory. The Emancipation Act, setting free all slaves and completely abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire, was officially brought about in August, 1833, one month after the death of Wilberforce.

John NewtonThe initial moral blindness of not only Newton but also Britain and America (including many evangelical Christians in those countries) with regard to the slave trade should lead us to careful personal introspection. What are the widely-accepted evils of our own day that even large numbers of professing Christians are blind toward and participants in? May God graciously grant us as individual Christians and as the Christian Church collectively the ability to perceive, repent of and actively warn against the tragic moral and spiritual blind spots of our own generation.

A number of excellent biographies have been written on Newton’s extraordinary life and ministry: John Newton, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, by Jonathan Aitken (Crossway, 2007 & 2013); “But Now I See,” The Life of John Newton, by Josiah Bull (Banner of Truth, 1998, a reprint of a work first published in 1868); The Life of John Newton, by John Newton and Richard Cecil (Baker, 1978, a reprint of a work originally published in the 1800s); John Newton, The British Slave Trader Who found “Amazing Grace,” by Catherine Swift (Bethany, 1991, a somewhat shorter account of Newton’s life).

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie