- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

In August 2015 I had never heard the name William Wilberforce when I curiously selected his name from a list of possible topics for my National History Day project. Eight months later, I count myself fortunate for the opportunity to immerse myself in his life and legacy. As I contemplate graduation from eighth grade and eagerly anticipated high school, I also look forward, beyond school and homework, asking myself what I want to accomplish in life and what is truly important to me. The answers lie within the life and legacy of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was an ordinary and unremarkable person. However, by the strength of his conviction, passion, and pure tenacity, he accomplished a quantum leap forward in the advancement of the morality of mankind he achieved during his lifetime the two great objects that he wrote in his diary on October 28, 1787: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.

I have now fully realized the importance of addressing these questions in the course of studying William Wilberforce and his strategies for success in connection with my National History Day project. The theme for this year is leadership and legacy in history; a theme tailor-made for the life of William Wilberforce.

Little known to the mainstream “history” in American public schools, I was surprised to learn that William Wilberforce was a powerful reformer and diligent abolitionist. He is most famous for targeting Britain’s transatlantic slave trade. British ports like Bristol and Liverpool built their economies on this horrific trade. Ships loaded with finished goods, such as weapons and textiles, sailed to Africa. Delivered to slave ships by unscrupulous traders, African slaves, considered mere cargo, were transported across the Middle Passage to the West Indies. These ships’ horrid conditions, routinely killed more than one-third of the tightly packed slaves before reaching their forced destination. Once they arrived in the colonies, they were forced into hard labor under dangerous conditions. Their average life expectancy was no more than five to six years after toiling in the harsh conditions for more than eighteen hours each day. Tackling this evil head-on, William Wilberforce is considered the father of human rights.

Wilberforce was a man who changed his times and the world he left behind at the end of his life. With my research, I was transported back to the small port city of Hull, England in 1759 where he was born into a wealthy merchant family. He became a member of parliament teamed up with his friend that he met at college William Pitt who quickly became the Prime Minister. Wilberforce was an eloquent speaker, and Pitt was politically powerful and connected. There great leaders face and overcome obstacles, both internal and external.

During a summer vacation through Europe, Wilberforce encountered Sir Isaac Milner, a devout Christian and a scholar. Milner was the tutor to the Royal family and others. Wilberforce and Milner rode in the coach together throughout Europe debating Christianity based on a book Milner had in his luggage titled, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge. Wilberforce came from Cambridge where he had immersed himself in the world and all its vices instead of attending classes. While he was still able to maintain his education, he did not take religion seriously. Milner’s ideas called him to consider his position in parliament and his faith in God. He concluded he could either proceed as a man of the church or a member of parliament, but not both.

I learned that Wilberforce became overwhelmed with the rampant political corruption and considered leaving public service for a life in the church. His friend John Newton, a former slave trader for more than 25 years, preacher, and well known as the composer of the universally-recognized hymn, “Amazing Grace,” convinced him that he should remain in Parliament while also serving God fighting the good fight to abolish the slave trade.

As a privilege, I was granted a reader card by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, England necessary to view their special holdings of Wilberforce papers and manuscripts. While studying Wilberforce’s manuscripts, I read in a diary entry dated October 28, 1787 “God Almighty has set before me two great objectives, the abolition of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners.”

For the next 46 years, William Wilberforce fought tenaciously, debating on the floor of Parliament, participating in leadership roles in the abolition societies, and advocating against the insidious trade. Who was this man who fought for so long and hard? Not who you would first envision. He was small in stature, and weak by reason of multiple illnesses including deafness, ulcerative colitis, and severe curvature of the spine.

While battling his physical ailments, William Wilberforce also faced fierce opposition from the wealthy and powerful invested in the slave trade. That opposition included the Monarchy, fellow members of parliament, and entire sectors of the economy and society. The constant struggle in addition to his physicall infermaties, ultimately leading to nervous breakdowns and internal turmoil. These conditions caused him to rely heavily on support from his friends and family.

Wilberforce also recognized the value and necessity of collaborating with other bold activists. His group of close friends and fellow believers, who lived in the village of Clapham, located five miles south of the center of London and now part of London, collaborated with him in the fight to rid Britain of the slave trade. His tactics reveal the power and strength one can gain from constructive friendships and by collaboration. In William Pitt; Hanna Moore, the greatest playwright of the day; William Cowpers, a famous poet and many others, Wilberforce surrounded himself with like-minded believers, each of whom played a crucial role in the success of Wilberforce’s many undertakings.

These friends sustained him during his lifelong crusade against the slave trade and slavery until in 1807 with the passage of a bill in the House of Commons outlawing the slave trade in Britain. With a vote 283 to 16, the evil practice was ended. The Royal Assent of the king came on March 25, 1807, three weeks after President Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. signed similar legislation.

With a profound victory over the British slave trade, Wilberforce obtained the status as a moral powerhouse, which emboldened him to address the second part of his life’s work, the reformation of manners.

The same Britain built on the slave trade was thriving, but with corruption, widespread poverty, exploitation of children and women, and political scandal. It was fashionable to have weak morals and skepticism of religion. Wilberforce was determined to change the morals of society seeking to bring about change so that “goodness” was fashionable, and society functioned with civility and respect. He revived the Society for Reformation of Manners. He inspired the leaders of society to gain a different attitude, focused on serving others and helping those suffering and less fortunate. This moral movement gained momentum because of Wilberforce and his best-selling book in five languages, A Practical View of Real Christianity, together with the work of his strong allies. This book, first published in 1797, was popular for fifty years and by 1826 had 13 editions in England and 26 in the U.S. and was a critical part of the Second Great Awakening in England and the U.S.

His Christian compass guided Wilberforce, leading him to strive to alleviate the suffering of his fellow man. He addressed his energy and resources toward this end by participating by donating money and actively participating in 60 of 69 charities, many still going strong 200 years later. (see list). Wilberforce’s great compassion based on his reading of the Bible helped to make him the first world-class philanthropist independent of the monarchy and a pioneer of charitable giving, beginning 100 years before Andrew Carnegie formulated his philosophy in the article he wrote on the Gospel of Wealth.

It is this great man, the “Washington” of humanity, that caused me to reflect on my life. Wonder in the legacy of William Wilberforce armed me with a renewed enthusiasm to challenge myself. How might I conduct myself in parallel ways to this man who is considered the father of the human rights movement and the leader in Parliament against the pervasive slave trade? I have been inspired by his descendants whom I have met in England who are carrying on his great legacy of fighting for human rights with their service in Anti-Slavery International that combats modern day slavery and human trafficking around the world. I am honored to have met these modern day William Wilberforce’s who opened their homes and life stories to me. These unique individuals who even bear his first and last name also share in his spirit of determination and concern for their fellow creatures here on Earth have caused me to search for what objectives God might set before me as He has so clearly done for them with their work.

How can I be sure to recognize these objectives in time to accomplish good in my life?

What limitations will I have to overcome in my life to accomplish good in this world both physically and spiritually?

Who are my detractors, naysayers, and fierce opposition?

How will I marshal the strength to persevere in the face of their attacks?

With whom will I deliberately surround myself to help me persevere and press on?

How might I actively practice William Wilberforce’s motto of service over self?

Who, among my fellow man, is voiceless and in need of a champion a voice to speak on their behalf?

Like Wilberforce, I now find myself praying to God asking him to show me the great objectives He plans to set before me and the people He will place in my life to help me accomplish these great tasks.

• Jessica Stump is the 2014 National History Day Winner.

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