- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2002

The following excerpts are from a lecture on 19th-century British parliamentarian and anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce, given Friday by Kevin Belmonte, author of "Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce."
Mr. Belmonte spoke at the Family Research Council offices in the District and directs the Wilberforce Project at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. He is the lead historical consultant on an upcoming film on Wilberforce's life.

Wilberforce battled for 46 years to end slavery. The slave trade in Britain was abolished on Feb. 23, 1807, and three days before Wilberforce's death on July 29, 1833, the House of Commons passed the law that emancipated all slaves in Britain's colonies.

"The legacy of Wilberforce [1759-1833] is immense, so much so that Oxford scholar Os Guinness has described Wilberforce as 'the greatest reformer in history.'
"Yet he was no stodgy icon or paragon of unattainable virtue. He believed strongly in cultural renewal and social justice. This flowed from a faith commitment all consuming as that which had transformed Blaise Pascal, whose writings Wilberforce deeply admired and read for hours at a time.
"Wilberforce's influence in early America was profound. He was a source of inspiration to William Lloyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He knew or corresponded with John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and other Founding Fathers like John Jay.
"After his embrace of evangelical Anglicanism in 1786, Wilberforce immersed himself in a remarkable program of self-education. He strove to love God with his mind.
"Once an idle undergraduate, he now turned every moment to account, and read books, a catalog as large and multifarious as that read by John Wesley books of poetry and fiction, philosophy and history. Wilberforce described his great change in 1795 in terms that are at once eloquent and philosophical:
"'It is scarce too strong to say, that I seem to myself to have awakened about nine or 10 years ago from a dream, to have recovered, as it were, the use of my reason after a delirium. In fact, till then I wanted first principles; those principles at least which alone deserve the character of wisdom, or bear the impress of truth.
"'Emulation, and a desire for distinction, were my governing motives; and ardent after the applause of my fellow-creatures, I quite forgot that I was an accountable being; that I was hereafter to appear at the bar of God; that if Christianity were not a fable, it was infinitely important to study its precepts, and when known to obey them; that there was at least such a probability of its not being a fable, as to render it in the highest degree incumbent on me to examine into its authenticity diligently, anxiously and without prejudice.'
"Even as Wilberforce strove to understand and live by the precepts of Scripture, he believed it was vitally important as well to be conversant with the intellectual currents of his time. One intellectual current that profoundly affected Wilberforce's life was the Enlightenment, and his thought has many points of connection with it. Wilberforce and [Colonial American evangelist Jonathan] Edwards both condemned slavery on the basis of the golden rule.
For Wilberforce, respect for the rights of others meant the application of the golden rule to every area of life. It informed his abolitionist labors and other human rights and philanthropic issues with which he was involved. As he wrote, 'Let every one regulate his conduct by the golden rule and the path of duty will be clear before him.'
"The golden rule was directly linked to the third ideal set forth in Wilberforce's vision of the good society: forwarding the views of others.
"In the case of abolition, he defended the rights of slaves who had no voice in the British legislature. Wilberforce is saying that it is when the individual citizens promote the happiness of others that they are most truly promoting or pursuing their own.
"In an age where people voice concerns about religion 'intruding into public life,' many are more comfortable with [Thomas] Jefferson than Wilberforce. However, we should recognize and value Wilberforce. For if, like Martin Luther King Jr., he didn't intrude into public life, the terrible abuse of human rights known as slavery might have continued in Britain for much longer as it did in the United States and have become more entrenched. For Britain, slavery could have become the intractable problem it became in America.
"In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal. He did try to push some abolitionist aims early on, but once he saw that victory could not be gained either easily or quickly, he ceased in his efforts.
"In contrast, Wilberforce's tireless pursuit of social justice set him apart from Jefferson. Wilberforce was more committed to equality than Jefferson, who believed that the fight to rid America of slavery was one that could not be won in his lifetime. Still more tragically, though he owned more than 200 slaves, he never saw fit to free them.
"It is perhaps from an American perspective that Wilberforce's work as an abolitionist can be estimated at its true worth. For the contrast between what took place in America and what had taken place in Britain is striking.
"The abolition of slavery throughout Britain's colonies took place in 1833, 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln. Britain legislated slavery out of existence. In America, slavery ended only after our costly and bloody Civil War.
"Wilberforce's influence was deeply felt in America. Abraham Lincoln himself had written in 1858: "I have not allowed myself to forget the abolition of the slave trade by Great Britain.'"
"This achievement was so well known, Lincoln continued, that school children throughout the nation understood how Wilberforce had 'helped that cause forward.'
"Many Christians in his day weren't at all convinced that Christians could play an important role in the political arena. It was John Newton who gave what must have been in that day very unconventional advice, and said, 'No, you have an opportunity.'
"Look at the examples of Queen Esther or Daniel or Moses. It was the Newtonian understanding of calling that transformed Wilberforce, and he was able to convince many other young men who had obvious political gifts to serve God in Parliament.
"I think when it came to the question of abolition, many Christians looked askance at any notion of becoming involved in the political arena, whether it be on abolition or many other issues. They thought the purpose was to speak to church issues.
"Wilberforce came along and was really something of a trailblazer. There were a lot of folks who genuinely felt based on their reading of theology that slavery was something supported by the Bible, and Wilberforce for his own part said, 'I won't have any of it.'"

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide