Lessons We Can Learn From Wilberforce


Article for Triple Helix, journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship

William Wilberforce was elected in Hull as the youngest member of the House of Commons. The year was 1780 and over the 53 years that would follow, Wilberforce became the principal spokesman against slavery.

On February 22nd 1807 the House of Commons voted for the abolition of the slave trade and May 1st 2007 marks the bicentenary of its enactment. It would take until the night before Wilberforce’s death, in 1833, – for Parliament to enact the final emancipation measures – including the paying off of the slave owners. Wilberforce said that he “thanked God” that “I have lived to witness the day on which England is willing to give 20 million pounds sterling for the abolition of slavery.”

What can our generation learn from this remarkable life?  What might we elucidate from his patient endurance, and perseverance, his methods, his strategy, his tactics?

And what dragons are waiting to be slain today?

In trying to understand Wilberforce’s motivation, it stands out that he never held high political office but I doubt that he entered politics devoid of ambition.

At Cambridge he was already marked out for a successful political career. He and Pitt the Younger formed an enduring friendship and many believed that it was Wilberforce, rather than Pitt, who was destined to lead the nation.

This decision to eschew the usual ministerial career path and to use his parliamentary position instead to champion a great cause teaches us a lot.

In assessing today’s aspiring politicians we might usefully ask ourselves the simple question: “what are their causes?” If their sole purpose is simply to climb the greasy pole – to be things rather than to do things – it probably tells you everything you need to know.

Wilberforce had a passion to do things. He had a single-minded determination and zeal.

Yet, it remains the case that it was politics which initially attracted him – not the abolition of slavery.

Aristotle, the father of democracy, reminds us that the call to political service is among the greatest virtues and that shame – aidos – attaches to those who simply opt out. What would Wilberforce have made of those who self-righteously assert their cynical disregard for the political classes, and opt out of communal responsibilities?

Wilberforce brought to political life a good education. He was articulate, well-informed, compassionate, and a man of deep integrity – but, no doubt, so were many of his contemporaries.

What marked him out and changed his destiny was his decision to embrace Christianity.  It redefined how he saw humanity – the imago Dei – in all men; how he perceived political service.

His conversion post-dated his entry in to Parliament. It orientated all his subsequent actions.  Cardinal John Henry Newman said that God appoints a task for each of us, given to no-one else.  We each need to find what that task is and never lose sight of it.

For Wilberforce, the task became clear seven years after he entered the Commons and despite set-backs and defeats he never gave up.

After a deeply affecting encounter in 1787 with the Quaker abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce knew he had found his appointed task. He wrote in his diary:

“God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the Reformation of society.”

How Wilberforce translated this spiritual insight into practical action is instructive.

With Clarkson, Newton, Equanio, Wedgwood, Roscoe, and many others, he formed a broad-based alliance which sought to change public attitudes as well as parliamentary opinion. He knew that if he did not do the former he would not achieve the latter.

Adam Hochschild, the author of “Bury The Chains”, brilliantly sets out the details of the campaign which was waged throughout the UK. Abolition was not a single-handed feat achieved by William Wilberforce alone – and those who neglect the role of the campaign coalition miss a crucially important point.

Nor did Wilberforce believe that he could succeed through his own strength.  He knew that there was a spiritual dimension.

A notable member of the so-called “Clapham Sect” – Christians who met at the Clapham home of Henry Thornton – he offered regular prayer. The Clapham Christians understood the importance of St. Augustine’s maxim to “pray as if the entire outcome depends upon God and work as if the entire outcome depends upon you.” Wilberforce never neglected to do both.

One of his detractors – and there were many – was William Hazlitt. That scion of radical endeavour accused Wilberforce of being obsessed with misery in far away places. Thornton defended his friend, stating that it was like attacking Christopher Columbus for discovering America but for failing to go on to discover Australia and New Zealand as well.

The moral:  success in politics is governed by an abiding sense of what matters – by priorities, not being distracted by every daily dust fight; not being deflated or deterred by personal attacks.

Incidentally, it was not Hazlitt, but Shaftesbury, who then proceeded to reform the social squalor of England. His Factory Act was enacted just one day after the Abolition of Slavery received its Royal Assent on August 28th 1833.

The religious mood of England – not secularism – became the determining factor in shaping much of our social progress.

And what of the dragons which remain to be slain today?

2007 is the year of another anniversary. It took Wilberforce 40 years to abolish slavery. This is the fortieth anniversary of the Abortion Act – but there is no prospect of its imminent repeal.

Nearly 6 million unborn babies have been aborted in the UK in the past 40 years, 1 million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon, laws which permit abortion up to birth on babies with disabilities and laws which permit “therapeutic cloning” have all been enacted. Attempts continue to be made to legalise euthanasia.

In addition, Britain indirectly funds the coercive one-child policy in China – which recently led to the blind barefoot lawyer, Chen Guangchen,  being given a four year prison sentence for exposing the forced abortion or sterilisation of 130,00 women in the Shandong Province.  We should be deeply ashamed that it takes a man with no sight to see so clearly what we choose to ignore.

Two hundred years ago Wilberforce won his argument because men like Captain John Newton – a leading Liverpool slave trader, and composer of Amazing Grace – changed his mind.  We, too, need to change many minds.  And doctors are in a unique position to help create a mentality which appreciates the unique sanctity of every life.

Like Newton, one of the world’s leading abortionists, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, changed his mind about the “right to choose” to end the life of an unborn child.  Google have made available Nathanson’s story (http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=6632732813222390835&q=silent+scream).  We should invite others in the profession and in wider society to do the same as Nathanson.

And what of other evils?

Perhaps as many as 27 million people continue to be enslaved today. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 8.4 million children, approximately one child out of every 175 in the world are held in slavery.

In addition to gross exploitation, it is said that around 700,000 people are trafficked every year – generating billions of pounds worldwide.

Modern day forms of slavery – based on discrimination because of racial origin, forced labour, child labour trafficking and debt bondage – all underpin the economic and trade relationships from which we and many others continue to benefit. Perhaps compared with 1807, slavery tip-toes in carpet slippers but it remains a pernicious and all-too-real contemporary reality.

I chair the Parliamentary Committee on North Korea – and am Secretary of the Committee on the Sudan.

My visits to Southern Sudan and Darfur have left me in no doubt about the degraded view of humanity held by the regime in Khartoum – who continue to permit the sale as slaves of men, women and children.

Equally, in countries like Burma and North Korea, people are treated as sub-human.

Leaving North Korea without permission is a criminal offence that can carry the death penalty so deportation carries very serious consequences.  Most of those deported  spend between one and three months in a prison labour camp where they will be malnourished, live in unsanitary conditions and be subjected to forced labour. There are testimonies of beatings, torture, degrading treatment, and even forced abortions and infanticide from those who have escaped.

The workday in a prison labour camp begins at five in the morning and ends at seven or eight in the evening.  Pregnant, elderly and sick women are not exempt from work.  Types of labour include collecting heavy logs and brick-making.  Meals consist of a meagre quantity of corn and soup.

In these gulags there are a high number of deaths, resulting from hard labour coupled with a below-subsistence diet and unhygienic living conditions.  In the absence of medical care, prisoners who are sick or injured are often released early to prevent them from dying while in custody, thus, removing the administrative burden of processing a death.

However you choose to define it, this is slavery.

So, in 2007, there is no shortage of contemporary dragons to be slain: and there are some singular campaigners – like the redoubtable Baroness (Caroline) Cox. But we must hope and pray that out there somewhere are some next generation men and women who will search for their appointed task and rekindle the spirit of William Wilberforce.