Wilberforce and abolition of slavery
Yesterday we commemorated William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Olauthah Equalano, all of whom were involved in anti-slavery campaigns and social reform.
William Wilberforce’s battle to abolish slavery is well chronicled in the biography of him by William Hague. It is rather too bulky for bedtime reading. There is, however a very good film, available on DVD, called Amazing Grace.– starring Ioan Gruffodd.
It tells of Wilberforce’s battle against strong vested interests, not least within Parliament itself. Year after Year, Wilberforce presented his Bill only to be rebuffed until very near to his death when he finally succeeded. By then, the toll on his health was a reminder that struggle for justice can often be costly.
What comes across most strongly is that he was driven by his faith in God. This led him to have a deep compassion for his fellow-man, and particularly for those who have no one to speak for them; no one to champion their cause. This was especially true of the many, many thousands who were transported from Africa to the West Indies to become slaves living under the most appalling conditions and treated as sub-human.
Wilberforce saw that slavery was a denial of humanity – not just of human rights – but of fundamental humanity. He believed that we are all equal in God’s sight.
Knowing nothing personally about these slaves, apart from one he met who had become free, he acted with a passion that consumed him all his life – a passion that he showed in other social areas of British life too.
He was not just consumed with passion – he was filled with com-passion. But it was a compassion that had a double edge.
In freeing the slaves, he also freed the slave-traders who were deeply sinful in what they were doing. Even Christian people, at the time, thought that slavery was acceptable. By abolishing slavery, Wilberforce hoped to abolish ownership of slaves and so freeing those owners of a misguided and sinful way of treating others.
Despite their failure to see this, he acted, year after year, for abolition until all were free – slaves and slave-traders.
It was an iconic victory and it remains a beacon for all who in this world of ours today are striving for the same freedom for the millions who still live in slavery of many kinds. These include those who are forced to be refugees. Enslaved by despotic rulers and those who support them, they are often deprived of their freedom, livelihood, homes. They are oppressed by stress, anxiety and rejection.
Also from oppressive conditions imposed by owners of sweatshops in Far East (and recently, as we discovered in Leicester), who, in making clothes cheaply for the British market, treat their workers as slaves and with no regard for their working conditions or their safety, and paying them little.
Wilberforce’s victory is a beacon too for those who are engaged in the great struggle for equality of all people today, especially for black people but for so many others who in our world who are treated as slaves.
Slavery comes in many forms but even those who seek to enslave others are, as Wilberforce recognized, themselves enslaved. We need to pray for them too – those who are enslaved by their homophobia, misogyny, prejudice, bullying of others, racial intolerance, behave unjustly towards others, to name but a few!
All perpetrators of hate against others need our prayers. They need to face up to the darkness within which creates their enslavement and be led to repentance so that love and healing can grow within them.All things can be cured by God’s compassionate Grace.
Wilberforce achieved a great thing and it converted lives.
People like John Newton, a former slave ship captain who, sick in his soul, turned away from his vile trade and embraced God and became a minister in God’s Church, recognized the power of this grace in the wonderful hymn – Amazing Grace.
A contemporary of William Wilberforce he wrote from his own personal experience of God’s compassion, grace and mercy which he found in Jesus.
But we are all too aware that what Wilberforce began, we must continue until all are free and all are equal.
Against all this, Jesus stands as our compassionate God who knows and loves each of us which is why He confronts everything that enslaves us; all the things that prevent the love of God working in our lives and which stops Grace from transforming us. He especially does this on the Cross where he confronts evil finally and destroys it with Love.
The Cross is the ultimate statement of God that His compassion for us is eternal.
He would love it if we too showed compassion and thirst for justice for others, as Wilberforce did.