255 years ago, a “force” was born into this world. The aptly named William Wilberforce would prove to be instrumental — not just in ending legalized slavery in England, but sparking unprecedented social reform in the Western World, and also in setting a framework for future generations to follow his path of persistence, faith and sacrifice for others.
Wilberforce still inspires generations of social reformers and political leaders over two and a half centuries since his birth.
Wilberforce has lessons for pro-lifers. One of the most important is an acute understanding of the obstacles that block success and how to combat them — an understanding of the nature of social evil and the forces that sustain it. The campaign against slavery was much more complicated and difficult than portrayed in the familiar movie, Amazing Grace. While the movie is stirring, it provides only a snapshot of Wilberforce’s taxing campaign, just the first 20 years of Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade, from 1787 to 1807.
Wilberforce’s work took more decades, including the next 25 years of his struggle against slavery itself (not just the trade of slaves), which was not abolished by Parliament until 1833, years after Wilberforce’s retirement from Parliament and just a few days before his death. And after the full abolition of slavery in 1833, the struggle took many more years to effectively enforce the laws on the high seas and throughout the British Empire.
There were no silver bullets, though there was healthy (sometimes heated) debate about the right solution to the obstacles and the right road to success.
Wilberforce battled tremendous odds throughout his life. His greatest virtue was perseverance in the face of constant illness and many setbacks, while mastering political rhetoric and seeking cordial relations even with his most strident adversaries. Strategically focused, he combined long-term goals with short-term objectives. These included limiting the slave trade and reducing it as much as possible, and then regulating slavery (through e.g., registry laws) before it could realistically be prohibited.
One urban legend that needs to be dispelled is that Wilberforce “repented” of his “incrementalism,” or step-by-step approach. There’s no historical record of this. The fact is that Wilberforce pursued abolition of the slave trade and the full abolition of slavery along with short-term objectives that would limit it. It was not either/or; it was both/and.
This unfortunate myth is apparently based on one passage from Wilberforce’s diary: After the 20 year fight against the slave trade (1787-1807), Wilberforce and his allies refocused on the full abolition of slavery itself.
They encountered tremendous obstacles, domestic and foreign. In his book Amazing Grace, author Eric Metaxas writes that
Britain’s horrendous domestic situation in 1818 prompted [British Foreign Minister] Castlereagh to strongly advise Wilberforce against pushing for emancipation just then. But Wilberforce was unhappy about waiting. That April, feeling ill, he poured out his feelings in his diary: ‘I feel more and more convinced of the decay of my own faculties both bodily and mental and I must try to husband the little that remains. Alas how grieved I am, that I have not brought forward the state of [the] W. Indian slaves.’ His guilt over the situation grew when the next day, again obviously sick and weak, he fumbled an opportunity to bring the subject up at a meeting of the African Institution…
This disappointment, during one of his recurring illnesses, hardly suggests repudiation of his strategy. In fact, a great victory that advanced governmental involvement in the fight against slavery was a law that at first may have seemed incremental.
When England was a war with France, Wilberforce’s allies quietly put forth a bill that would allow the Royal Navy to commandeer the cargo of foreign ships captured. This innocuous bill allowed Britain to seize the cargo of slave ships that sailed under a number of national flags.
Writer David Perrin observed, “This meant that, over a period of time, English slave-traders were deprived of their ships and profits…This disabling of the slave trade meant that they could not pay off their supporter-MPs. Hence, Wilberforce’s legislation to abolish the slave trade eventually passes in 1807.”
Wilberforce’s prudence and success should inspire us. Prudence is practical wisdom, which requires deliberation about concrete opportunities and obstacles in the specific context of our day. Under great pressure, Wilberforce discussed and debated tactics and strategies with a spirit of humility and goodwill. That may be the most important lesson that we can learn from him.
And we will follow the example of one of the greatest heroes ever born. Happy Birthday William Wilberforce, and thank you for living a life that exhibited timeless lessons.