GOD’S PARLIAMENTARIAN – WILLIAM WILBERFORCE (1759 – 1833)

William Wilberforce – Gave his life to be used by God tp fight against slave trade and other evil vices in his day as a politician.

The heights of man’s ability and propensity to wickedness towards his fellow man is a reality which every generation must live with. Over and over, man has shown his lack of capacity towards right-living, unless by the intervention of the Almighty God. So many social ills have pervaded our societies over the centuries of man’s existence, but few stretched the limits of man’s wickedness like the slave trade.

Slavery, was a practice almost as old as the history of man. Even more than 5,000 years ago in oriental times, men owned slaves – most times acquired through the throes of warfare, and all that. Slavery was never the invention of the Almighty God. Rather, it was a product of man’s wickedness and the pre-eminence of the fallen nature of man. Though the Lord in his forbearance had to bear with this wickedness in man, just as he bore with divorce, polygamy and many other of such wickedness; he still gave regulations for how slaves should be treated by their owners, and with the passage of time revealed clearly that it was totally against his will to bring another man into slave hood – a lesson that would take more and more years even after the coming of Christ for men to master.

By the turn of the 18th century, slave trade had become an established business in the British Isles. Though slaves were brought from different parts of the world, but the greatest supply of slaves came from the ‘dark continent’ of Africa. In exchange for alcoholic drinks, tobacco and gun powder, African kings and others bundled many of their fellows into slavery, and sold them to the white men. Some were people conquered in battle, others were social outcasts who were considered of no use to the society. Some kings even sold their whole community in exchange for the goods offered by the whites. Men, women and children were beaten into subjection, bungled in chains and packaged like goods into ships to be taken to the foreign lands and be sold. So many died of sea sickness, some died of the bad conditions in the ship, some others of plagues that broke out in the course of travel. In one year alone, over 70,000 Africans were shipped to slavery in the West. By this time, slave trade was the main economic stay of the British empire, providing the empire with both money and cheap labour. The slave traders were the rich men of the land, and used their money to purchase seats in the houses of Lords and Commons. Thus, all the might of the British legal system was in their pocket and had their blessings. But a generation was to arise that will challenge the status-quo – the Clapham sect and their leading figure, William Wilberforce.

His Birth & Education

William was born on 24 August in the year 1759 in the city of Hull. He was born into an affluent family which had their family fortune from the Baltic trade. Willam was a delicate, small and sometimes sickly fellow, who compensated for his smallness with his fiery wits and rhetoric abilities. He studied at Hull Grammar School, Pocklington School, and later St John’s College, Cambridge where he immersed himself in the social life of his day. William got into socializing, partying, gambling and other social vices of his day; though he tried not to do his own in excess. It was in this season that he got into what would later become a lifelong friendship with a young, talented and focused young man called William Pitt.

Journey into Politics

Wilberforce and Pitt grew more and more interested in the world of politics. During their days in Cambridge, they would go to the house of Commons just to sit down and watch debates go on. With the passage of time, these two groomed their rhetoric abilities to the point where they could engage in political debates. In due time, Wilberforce became known for his rhetoric ability. One journalist, James Boswell once went to hear him speak and reported thus, “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.” Such was his rhetoric power and ability to convince that by the age 21 (September, 1780), he became a member of parliament representing the city of Hull. By age 24 (April 1784), he was elected as a member of parliament for the much-coveted county of Yorkshire. His friend, William Pitt, a year earlier, at a young age of 23 was elected the British Prime Minister. Such was the political fortune of this great young man; but shortly he was to embark on a journey that would change his life forever.

Conversion and the Search for a Purpose

While still in his glory days as the parliament’s leading debater, Wilberforce decided to embark on a trip across Europe, and invited Isaac Milner, the younger brother of his school headmaster, Joseph Milner to join him. Isaac Milner was a brilliant scholar and a clergy with the Church of England. In that trip, Wilberforce became interested in a book which Isaac had with him titled “The rise and fall of Religion in the soul”, by Philip Doddridge. They read and discussed that book across the whole journey, and it was in this trip that William Wilberforce began to reevaluate his life and pursuits. By the time the trip was over, he had embraced Jesus Christ as Lord, and rose up every morning to read his Bible and pray, and he kept a personal journal of the things he learnt and understood from God.

He returned from that trip with the testament of a changed life. He stopped gambling, drinking and all the other things which he did and knew that a Christian should not do. He had a challenge, however, as to how he was going to live out his new found faith in the public square. Genuinely born-again believers in Christ Jesus who took their faith serious were nicknamed ‘enthusiasts’, and they were usually subjects of ridicules and insults by the society. At a point, William considered leaving the political space to take up ordination as a priest. That way, he would avoid the ridicule of living the Christian life in the political space.

After much prayers, he decided to seek the counsel of John Newton – the writer of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ – who was then a leading Anglican priest in London. After series of meetings, both Newton and Pitts (the prime minister) encouraged William to continue in the political public square; that it may be ‘for such a time as this’ that William was brought to that space.

That season, as William sought God the more, he came to a conclusion concerning his space in the programme of God. He wrote in his journal, “My walk is a public one; my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.” Thus, settled that God wanted him in the political public square, he faced his duty squarely and took up the daunting task of representing Christ in that environment.

The Clapham Sect

Permit me to donate a few lines in this story to the Clapham sect. They were a group of devout Christians who were in positions of influence in the political and business environment in those days. They met regularly to discuss how they could influence the public space for good. It was to this sect that we owe the gratitude for encouraging, supporting and helping William Wilberforce in living out his life for Christ and fulfilling his calling as a parliamentarian. These included Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Henry Thornton, Charles Grant, Edward James Eliot, Zachary Macaulay, and James Stephen, among others.

.The Holy Trinity Church in Clapham – where the Clapham sect met regularly. The Church stands even till this day.

The Abolition Campaign

With the passage of time, as Christian conscience and awareness grew concerning the treatment of slaves and the entire slave trade business, many sects began to arise with the burden to fight against the slave trade and to bring to an end the slavery business. However, this matter was a difficult proposition to achieve owing to the face that slave trade was a legal business supported by the British society; and there was no way the trade can be fought successfully unless a law is passed in congress abolishing it. To achieve this, many of them had to turn to those in congress, and the chief point of contact -the man who could get this through was no other but William Wilberforce.

William did not rush into the campaign quickly. He took some time to pray about it and welcome the brethren who came to solicit his help on the matter, as well as listened to them. After some time of meditation, he wrote in his journal two lines which was going to be the core purpose of his pursuits for the rest of his life on earth, “God had set before me two objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners”. With this, William threw himself into the Abolition campaign.

It was a battle that was to last for 20 years. Beginning from May 1789, Willaim commenced his fight against slave trade in the House of Commons. He was always defeated each time he brought up the bill. He kept at this every year, campaigning, bringing forth evidence and giving speeches, and as always, he was defeated. In the midst of all these, the grassroot campaigns against slave trade continued. Even Williams himself, within this time, published a book titled, “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity”. The book was a critique of nominal Christianity prevalent in the day, and a call to widespread conversion to Biblical Christianity, as a means of both personal and national salvation. The book was widely read and contributed to revival that began to move in the land. It was published in the year 1797.

February 23, 1807 was to be a memorable day in William Wilberforce’s life and in the lives of the abolitionists as the bill to abolish slave trade passed through second reading in the house of Commons, and was approved by a vote of 283 to 16. The bill was given royal assent in March 23, 1807, and was to be the first major breakthrough the abolitionist had in the fight against slave trade.

Final Battles and The Call of Death

Though the bill stopped the slave trade, it did not change the status of those who were already slaves by this time. Hence, the concept of slavery continued for another 20 years, when finally on 26 July 1833, slavery was totally abolished in the British Isles, and the slaves were set free. This good news was shared with William Wilberforce in his home where he had retired from public service due to tiredness and ill health. This news was to mean that his first major work on earth had been done and victory obtained. Three days later, on 29 July 1833, William Wilberforce died and went to be with his Lord in Glory, at age 74.

William was married to Barbara Ann Spooner (1777–1847), and the marriage was blessed with six children, including Samuel Wilberforce who later lived to become the Bishop of Oxford. William’s fight was not only against slave trade, he also fought for the well-being of prisoners and company workers, he fought for the abolition of child labour, he laboured to send missionaries to foreign countries to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and much of his money went into orphanages and to the poor. The Gospel of Jesus which this funny, care-free young politician had heard turned him into a serious, sober, conscientious young man who cared for the will of God and for the well-being of his fellow men.

Now, what about you?

The story of William Wilberforce clearly reveals to us the manner of men we need in our nations today to change our societies:

  1. We need men who have genuinely encountered Jesus Christ and are willing to follow him day by day.
  2. We need orthodox priests like John Newton and Isaac Milner who are willing to engage the political community in conscientious discussions that will challenge them to consider seriously what their roles in the community is, and how they can utilize their positions for the glory of God and not for self-aggrandizement.
  3. We need groups like the Clapham sect that will comprise of Christians in different spheres of influence in society coming together to discuss, brainstorm and encourage one another as to how they could become a light to the dark world of society in which we live in.
  4. Finally, we need you, yes you! We need you to take a stand. We need you to understand the place where God has called you to be, and to rise up to occupy your place. We need you to step into your duty post. We need you to say, like William Wilberforce, “God has set this before me, and I must walk in it…”

In the end, I pray that God will cause politicians to rise in this country who have reasons for being in that space, apart from financial benefits. We pray that God will cause more men like William Wilberforce to rise – men who will engage the political world (not through fighting, hatred and rebellion, but through political processes and the power pf prayer), in order to pull down the throne of Satan and lift up Jesus.

May such men arise! Amen.

FOR FURTHER CONSULTATIONS

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VRAYPTz1Co
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zv_eToCELs
  3. https://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/w/William_Wilberforce.htm
  4. https://www.abwe.org/blog/slavery-and-gospel-william-wilberforce-261-years-later
  5. https://www.wilberforceschool.org/updated-about-us/william-wilberforce
  6. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/activists/william-wilberforce.html
Joshua Obodozie resides in Enugu, Nigeria, West Africa. He is a believer in Christ Jesus and in the authority of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. He is the chief editor of THE CHRISTIAN IN SOCIETY (www.thechristianinsociety.org) an online blog that reaches thousands of Nigerians and Africans with the word of God. He is also a Materials Engineer by profession.

2 thoughts on “GOD’S PARLIAMENTARIAN – WILLIAM WILBERFORCE (1759 – 1833)

  1. May I be such woman who you’ll use in your chosen sector to bring transformation to your name, Oh Lord!

    Thank you, sir.
    More grace to the ink.

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