Wilberforce-England's Tiny Meteor
Occasionally, someone bursts onto the world’s horizon, destined to influence human history. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was one of those persons.
One never would guess based on his appearance. As an adult, Wilberforce stood barely five feet tall and had a child’s torso. Nevertheless, this frail man stood as a giant in Great Britain’s political arena during one of her darkest moral hours.
What was Merry Old England like during the 18th century? Not so merry for many people. A wide gap appeared between the wealthy class and the poor. While the wealthy enjoyed extravagant dinner parties, dances and feasting, the poor grubbed for a living and struggled to put food on the table. Alcoholism ran rampant among both classes.
Child prostitution and child labor were problems, as were brutal forms of amusement. Entertainment consisted of watching hangings for petty crimes, then gazing while the dead body was publicly dissected or burned.
A little-known problem existed alongside these, which escaped the attention of many people.
British sea captains were earning hefty profits in the slave trade. They overloaded the filthy holds on their ships with captives from Africa and sold them to British sugar plantation owners in Jamaica. Conditions were harsh; many died in torturous conditions while on ship.
Into this era of cultural paradox arrived Wilberforce, the unusual man who spent several decades in Parliament, trying to remedy the situation. His crowning achievement became abolishing the slave trade in Great Britain, a battle which cost his health and many years of labor.
Wilberforce’s backstory is as fascinating as his history of achievements. Born into a contradictory world where the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer, young Wilberforce had all the privileges a prosperous merchant family could afford. Though frail in health, he made friends easily with his pleasant, energetic wit and outgoing personality.
While attending Cambridge, the spoiled rich boy spent most of his time frittered away in aimless pursuits. Then he came under the influence of the early Methodists—those of John and Charles Wesley’s group—whose impact caused the affluent young partygoer to change his ways.
After studying the Scriptures, Wilberforce experienced what he called his Great Change. The more of the Bible he read, the more he regretted wasting his life on empty pleasures while those around him suffered.
Joining oneself with the Methodists of Wesley’s day usually cost one’s social standing.
Society’s elite looked down on the Methodists-- said they carried things a bit too far with their refusal to attend plays, dances, or the theater. Despite opposition, this dedicated group of people energetically attacked society’s problems. They ran soup kitchens as well as homes for orphans, widows, and other destitute persons. It was thankless work, and the elite didn’t mind letting someone else get their hands dirty.
After Wilberforce’s Great Change, he formed two goals in life: first, abolishing the slave trade, and second, making manners (meaning morals) fashionable. He eventually accomplished both, but not without much soul-searching. He was involved already in politics at the time of his conversion, being close friends with Prime Minister Pitt and several influential members of Parliament.
Wilberforce’s lively nature won many friends, among whom were the ex-slave trader John Newton (author of the hymn Amazing Grace), the great preacher John Wesley, famous hymn writer William Cowper, and of course others in Parliament where he served. His joyful, bubbly personality contradicted society’s impressions of the sober, black-robed Methodist preachers.
He was ready to quit the political arena when John Newton encouraged him to stay where he was and using his influence for good. And that influence turned the world upside down.
Much like modern-day advocates for morals, this political giant endured death threats and public libel. One critic claimed to know inside information that Wilberforce beat his wife—when Wilberforce wasn’t even married at the time.
After several setbacks in Parliament, the bill to abolish slave trade finally passed, accompanied by thunderous applause from the crowd. The aged Wilberforce, watching from the gallery, put his head in his hands and wept.
The energetic world changer appeared like a meteor in the sky and vanished, leaving behind a grateful race of dark-skinned people.
This information was gleaned from a wonderful book called Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas. One of the most informational works on history I’ve read in a long time, this book explains in great detail the heroic campaign to end human suffering long before it crossed the Atlantic into America.
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