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William Wilberforce, the Man God Used to Defeated Slavery in Britain

In our day we are seeing lots of Black Lives Matter jargon.  We are witnessing the tearing down of statues of men who have made a significant contribution to history.  The rhetoric we are hearing from the Black Lives Matter crowd is bringing up issues relevant to slavery.  There is no question that slavery was a sickening evil that plagued the world for centuries. It was the driving force of the British economy for many years until one man decided to take it on as his life goal to defeat, along with a strong faith in Almighty God to help him prevail.  It took him his entire lifetime but he did prevail and his goal reached. Very few people recognize the name if it were mentioned.  However, his fight for the abolition of slavery and victory to attain it was actually the catalyst to end slavery all over the world in the 19th century.  His name was William Wilberforce.  Wilberforce was a brilliant, well-educated man who entered politics in his twenties.  He was from a wealthy family, a rising star in the political world, who showed all kinds of potential, in a time when England needed good leadership.  However, there were some things that greatly changed the direction of William Wilberforce’s personal ambitions.  

At the end of 1784, at 25 years of age, Wilberforce went on a long tour. He went with his mother and sisters and a friend, Isaac Milner, a fellow student from Cambridge University.  He discovered during this tour or holiday that Isaac was a committed Christian.   It was the beginning of many long discussions for Isaac and William on the issues of faith and the Bible being true or not.  However, before I make further comment about William Wilberforce,  I want to consider the condition of society at the time Wilberforce lived. 

The time when Wilberforce was growing up in London was best described by an Anglican Bishop named J.C. Ryle, who writes: “The state of this country in a religious and moral point of view is so painfully unsatisfactory that it is difficult to convey any adequate idea of it…..England seems barren of all that is good…..Christianity seems to lie as one dead. Morality, however much exalted in pulpits, is thoroughly trampled under foot in the streets.  This is darkness in the court, the Parliament, and the bar - darkness in country, and darkness in town - darkness among rich and darkness among poor - a growing thick, religious and moral darkness - a darkness that might be felt.  The spirit of slumber is over the land.  In a religious and moral point of view, England is sound asleep.”  

These words seem like they are written for our time, not 200 years ago in Britain. The time of 18th century England was deplorable.  It was a time of widespread immorality and godlessness.  Bishop Ryle noted that “adultery, fornication, gambling, swearing, Sabbath breaking, which means people worked and did recreation on Sunday instead of going to church.” He mentioned that drunkenness was a serious issue during that time.  But there was one more deplorable evil that prevailed above all else in England during this time –the slave trade.  It seems like Ryle was writing about Saskatchewan in 2020, with the exception of slavery.   The good news to this story when darkness and hopelessness ruled the land is that it was changed for good.  

Bishop Ryle further criticized the church in his time, “for the utter incapacity of the pulpit to stem the progress of all this flood of evil.”   He was basically stating that the church did little to slow the progress of evil in England during those dark times.  That seems like Canada today.  

Following his tour of England, Mr. Wilberforce and Mr. Milner continued for another year to have debates and discussions about the credibility of the Christian faith and the Bible. Finally, Wilberforce came to the conclusion that Christianity and the Bible were true, but for him to put his faith in Christ and become an actual convert to Christ, would mean giving up many things he enjoyed like parties, drinking, and other things he enjoyed in political circles.  He struggled with the thought: Could he could even remain in politics if he was a Christian?  Wilberforce met and counselled with the only clergyman he trusted in England at the time – John Newton.  John Newton is best known by the hymn he wrote entitled “Amazing Grace.”

William Wilberforce became a born-again Christian and committed his life to serving Christ.  John Newton told Wilberforce that he could be a useful vessel in politics if his commitment to God was first in his life.   He told him, “Light was needed in the halls of parliament.”  John Newton had a tremendous impact in the life of William Wilberforce.  Newton, who had been a slave trader himself, had converted to Christianity after many years of rebelling against God and living a wicked godless life.  In the gospel message, he found mercy, grace and a new life. Now we understand why the first verse of this great song is: “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.”  These words describe what happens to a person when he/she is born-again by faith in Jesus Christ, and who make the Bible the new rule of life and living.  It is the same today as it was for these men 200 years ago.  I can testify that what William Wilberforce and John Newton experienced and what I experienced in 1977 are the same.  One biographer said of Wilberforce, “The Bible became his best-loved book and he learned stretches of it to memory.”  That has been my experience too.  

William Wilberforce gave his life to fighting the evil of slavery but he also became active in his church and varied ministries of outreach in England during his lifetime.  He took on the abolishment of slavery as his life calling.  He knew it was a terrible evil that England needed to get rid of.  During his lifetime, the shipping industry and many other industries in England were hugely dependent on the slave trade.  Ships would depart England, go to Africa, load up with human slaves, then sail to the West Indy British Colonies – and the Americas—and trade slaves for tea, sugar and other commodities. During those many decades, millions of slaves were traded like cattle throughout the British Empire.  It was a life-long battle that Wilberforce fought, one that brought him lots of opposition and even threats to his life where he had to hire bodyguards.  The slave trade earned great wealth for many shipping companies and rich families during that time and Wilberforce was threatening to end it all and he eventually did. Whenever money is involved with evil, corrupt business trading, bloodletting opposition can be expected.  Wilberforce never relented and fifty years later he finally reached his victory in the English parliament, February 23, 1807 when the house of parliament voted 283 to 16 in favour of abolishing slavery.  

The point I want make here is that slavery was abolished in England and in America by Bible-believing Christians who saw it as evil and did something about it.  We need to do the same in our generation with evils that prevail in our time.  The only answer for our country is the Bible and God.  People in our country need to personally do what William Wilberforce did.  They need to give serious consideration to the Bible, study it, find the answers to life and living, then do something about it. It has been said. “All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”  My plea is to all the good men and women out there: Please rise up for God and good before it is too late.  

I encourage you to join our Live Stream services each Sunday at 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. by going to www.pabaptist.ca    If you want a Bible we will send you one for free by email via our web site or text or call (306) 961-9866.    

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