Tuesday, November 29, 2011
(Engraving of William Wilberforce at
William Wilberforce (1759-1833) is celebrated as the man who won the fight in the British Parliament to abolish first the slave trade in 1807 and then the practice of slavery in 1833 in all the countries under its rule.
But his victory was even greater than that. For five thousand years, everywhere on the globe, writes Eric Metaxas in his book Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, “slavery was as accepted as birth and marriage and death.” Today, after the work of Wilberforce and his friends, “even though slavery continues to exist here and there [in the trafficking of the sex trade, for example], . . . the idea that [slavery] is inextricably intertwined with human civilization, and part of the way things are supposed to be, and economically necessary and morally defensible, is gone.”
How did Wilberforce, as a young member of Parliament, win this great battle to change the hearts and minds of so many?
When he was only 25 years old, Wilberforce underwent a profound conversion of faith. “He saw the idea that all men are brothers and that we are all our brothers’ keepers,” writes Metaxas. “He saw the idea that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself and that we must do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
This is the very essence of Agape, or charity.
Wilberforce let Agape guide him in Parliament, as we can see in his most famous speech, his Abolition Speech of 1789, which he delivered when he was only 29 years old.
“I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered [allowed] this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty, we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others. . . .
“[W]hen I reflect on the command which says, ‘Thou shalt do no murder,’ believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare to set up any reasonings of my own against it? And, sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?
“Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision.”
Metaxas writes that “in the thick of the battle for abolition, one of its many dedicated opponents, Lord Melbourne, was outraged that Wilberforce dared inflict his Christian values about slavery and human equality on British society. ‘Things have come to a pretty pass,’ he famously thundered, ‘when one should permit one’s religion to invade public life.’”
The lyrics of the hymn below were composed by John Newton (1725-1807), an Anglican minister, former captain of a slaving ship, and great friend of Wilberforce.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear,
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
’Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
And Grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.