SEPT / OCT 2012: BY CARISSA HORTON
In the late 1700s, a man named William Wilberforce came on the political scene of England. He would one day be almost single-handedly responsible for the abolition of the slave trade in England. Wilberforce was a devout Christian who desired desperately to bring his principles into the political field. History books skip by him. Films of the era conveniently ignore him. All except one, Amazing Grace, that tells of his life and his accomplishments for God and for his country.
His is not a name most Americans are familiar with today. Out of all of the men in his time, Wilberforce accomplished the most good by serving where God placed him, in the political realm. He had his doubts, and yearnings to live a simple life out of the political limelight, but it was not meant to be. Amazing Grace shows Wilberforce’s change of heart occurring during a dinner when one of his guests, a revolutionary by the name of Thomas Clarkson, pulls out slave chains from a carpetbag and demonstrates how they would be worn. Wilberforce always despised slavery. It was bitter gall to him or as he says in the movie, like arsenic whose effect worsens each time it is encountered. The solitary life of spiritual contemplation that he found himself leaning toward was not in his destiny.
Instead, he was called to social reformation and the abolition of the slave trade. How this man fought! What fervor, what passion, what desperation to right a horrible wrong. Each year he presented a bill for abolishing the trade to the House of Lords. Each year he lost. Illness started creeping up on him. It was more a sickness of the heart than of any real malady, although the historic Wilberforce did suffer from illness and a malformed spine. With each passing year he worsened. And just when it seemed that he stood a chance of winning in 1793, with 390,000 names on a petition and numerous supporters in the House, one man jumped ship, admitting slavery was wrong but claiming that it needed to be changed slowly, re-addressed at some future time. In translation, this meant never.
What must it have been like for this man on fire for God and for justice to lose just when victory was in his grasp? Did he dream of the slaves he couldn’t save? Did the people dying on sugar plantations, burnt by fire, visit him as he slept? Amazing Grace has Wilberforce saying how he sleeps and only sees what he cannot accomplish. The fight could have ended there with a broken William Wilberforce, viewed as a seditionist because the war with France put fear of any change into the hearts of all Englishmen, his illness worsening, no hope on the horizon.
But God still had a plan for William Wilberforce. You see, God does not abandon His children. The road will not be easy, especially when it is traversed by social reformers like Wilberforce. But God promises to be with His children every step of the way. And for this man of integrity God brought an angel. Well, perhaps not really an angel, but she must have seemed one to the disheartened hero. Barbara Spooner was the love of Wilberforce’s life. She imbued new energy into him, reinforced his beliefs, encouraged and uplifted him. She was the blessing Wilberforce needed to keep fighting.
Fifteen years older and a bit worse for wear, Wilberforce determines to try again. Only this time it can’t be in the open. Another bill to abolish slavery would only get shot down just as every other attempt had been. In 1806 the Foreign Slave Trade Bill is sneaked through. This accomplishment, the banning of all British participation in the slave trade to foreign governments such as France, was a small one but the first of its kind. This started the ball rolling in the right direction. Wilberforce realized that by making it illegal for English ships to carry slaves, it was as good as abolishing slavery itself, all without ever using the term “abolish.”
God was faithful to this man. Every step of Wilberforce’s journey was guided by His will. It was no accident that William Pitt the Younger, a powerful member of the House of Lords, urged Wilberforce to put his loquacious charisma to political use. It was no accident that Barbara Spooner stumbled into his life just when he needed her. And it was no accident that Wilberforce finally thought of banning English ships from carrying slaves instead of abolishing the trade itself. He is a little-known hero who, by his efforts, reformed Great Britain, making a better world. “If you change one thing for the better,” as one of his supporters said, “then you change everything for the better.” ■
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carissa Horton sews, knits, and writes. She works for Compassion International, which finds sponsors for third world children, and dreams of being an agent at a publishing house. She blogs about life, faith, relationships, and fandom in her free time.