What can we learn from William Wilberforce?

William Wilberforce was a key figure in the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and yet over 200 years after his bill was passed, we are still fighting slavery today. So what can we learn from his legacy? The Rt Revd Simon Burton-Jones, Bishop of Tonbridge, shares his thoughts.

William Wilberforce introduced his first bill to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade in 1789.

It is estimated that between 9 and 15 million Africans were captured and enslaved on the continent, although one author puts it as high as 24 million.  It’s hard to tell because they weren’t properly counted. Conditions on the Atlantic crossings were so horrific that it is believed at least one in every five Africans died on the seas. Many more did not survive the brutal treatment they received in the Americas. 

The slave trade inflicted incalculable damage on the African continent, robbing it of its most able-bodied people. At the same time, it helped to lay the foundations for the wealth and industrialisation of the western world. Beyond the economic legacy, countless untold social and psychological impacts were made. And the ideologies which supported the slave trade remain with us in mutated forms today in the racism and discrimination that pervade many societies, and also in the casual abuse and rapacious ownership of human beings across the world.  

Wilberforce’s first bill was defeated in 1789. He then raised the issue in Parliament for eighteen successive years until he was successful, during which his health was broken. For much of this time, he was a deeply unpopular man. Many Christians up until then had taken slavery to be endorsed by scripture because the early Church did not try to get it abolished. But the Apostle Paul included slaves in the instructions he gave to the churches, suggesting that he saw them to be a part of the new community God was creating, famously saying that in Christ there is ‘neither slave nor free’. The letter of Philemon concerned a runaway slave called Onesimus who became a Christian under Paul and whom Paul believed he had the authority to set free, even though he preferred his owner Philemon to reach that decision of his own volition. 

Paul saw how mutually trusting relationships within the redeemed community of the Church must transcend the brutal and instrumental demands of the ancient world. The letter of Philemon alone has been described as laying a depth charge under the practice of slavery, yet it was a long time before Christians understood it this way. Meanwhile, a cynically selective reading of scripture was employed to underscore slave owning. Ministers preaching to slaves would routinely refer to Paul’s injunction: ‘slaves be obedient to your masters…as unto Christ’, while steering cautiously clear of the divided waters of the Book of Exodus, with its stirring and subversive narrative of emancipation from slavery in Egypt.  

In the eighteenth century, Lord Nelson, whose column can be found in Trafalgar Square, attacked ‘the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies’, seeing Wilberforce as a traitor to the national interest. An interesting early example, perhaps, of trolling in British life. But the reformer had encouragements, too. Shortly before John Wesley died, he said to Wilberforce: ‘Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall banish away before it’.

Those in the Church who aspire to inherit legacy of William Wilberforce today should take account of three things:

  1. The first is that his public commitment stemmed from his private faith.  Wilberforce was a good man before his conversion to Christianity, so good that one of his biographers suggested he struggled to find enough sins to repent of on conversion. But afterwards he had a profound conviction that he should do something worthwhile with his life. He would not have understood the mentality of Christians who think their faith has no place in public life. His campaigning was visibly rooted in a confessional faith.

  2. He was undaunted by public ridicule. In Parliament he was derided as a misguided do-gooder at best and a traitorous fanatic at worst. Vested commercial interests drove the slave trade and Wilberforce was seen as an irritant, as welcome as a wasp at a picnic. Yet at the point of victory in the campaign, MPs were fighting to pay tribute to him, clapping him and cheering him in displays previously unseen in Parliament. The successful campaigner is resilient, able to distinguish between conventional wisdom and spiritual wisdom, having the courage to believe what others dismiss.

  3. He worked to ensure the law he facilitated was properly enforced. It is a mistake to assume that the passing of any reforming law marks the end of a public campaign. Reforming laws must be rooted in a new culture of respect which gives voice to its ethos as well as its enforcement. Wilberforce spent the following ten years pursuing this cause when every fibre of his body must have been telling him to quit.

 William Wilberforce and John Wesley would be shocked to know how deep, cruel and pervasive today’s slave trade would be in an era that prides itself on its sense of fairness and justice. And you know in your bones that both men would want us to pick up the baton in our generation. Like many problems today, the trafficking of slaves is a complicated, tenacious and unseen process. It is the dark shadow of globalisation, where capital, labour, goods and services flow across borders. And it is the product of the iniquitous way that people are viewed as commodities rather than as people made in the image of God and loved by him with an everlasting love. 

The temptation when faced with densely knotted problems is to despair of making a difference and to leave it to other people to untie the bonds. It is so much easier to virtue signal instead: to show by our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds that we care about these issues – and to leave it at that. This is not to run down the things we can achieve on social media, but if this is all we ever contribute to a debate, little will get changed and the will power of those who seek personal gain by harming other people will prevail over us.

There’s a lot of talk about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in this chaotic, uncertain world, but we can be sure of one thing: it is by acting as a disciple of Christ that we learn what it means to be one. True Christian living is to join with Jesus in setting the prisoners free – in this case, those whose self-esteem and trust in others is beaten out of them so they can be re-shaped to service evil people.

It is easy to be deterred by the size of the task in front of us, especially when we can only guess at its extent. This is the greatest threat to our UK citizenship and our Christian discipleship – that we slide into self-justified apathy. What difference can I make, when there is so much to put right? The Bible, Church and British history say something different. In Matthew 25, Jesus basically says that when we help another human being we are helping him, personally. And the Church’s story is one of social action, healing this world of the sin that disfigures it. 

Margaret Mead, an anthropologist who spent her life studying human society once said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
— Margaret Mead

She could have been speaking of the twelve disciples.  She could be speaking of us today.