Wilberforce, The Tiny Giant
Occasionally on the world’s horizon there bursts an unusual individual, destined to influence human history. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was one of those persons.
One would never guess this, however, based on appearance. Standing barely five feet tall and having a child’s torso as an adult, frail Wilberforce nonetheless stood as a giant in Great Britain’s political arena during some of her darkest moral hours.
What was the world like in Merry Old England 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 in 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 as the dead body was publicly dissected or burned
A little-known problem existed alongside these, which escaped the attention of most people.
British sea captains were earning hefty profits in the slave trade. They overloaded filthy holds on 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, an unusual child, who eventually would spend several decades in Parliament, trying to remedy the situation.
His crowning achievement was abolishing the slave trade in Great Britain, a battle which cost him his health and many years of labor.
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 Wilberforce attended Cambridge, he spent most of those college years frittered away in aimless pursuits. Dances, dinners, and late-night parties served as pleasant diversions.
It was the early Methodists—those of John and Charles Wesley’s group—whose influence caused this affluent young party-goer 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 pursuits while those around him suffered.
After Wilberforce’s “Great Change,” he formed two goals in life: first, to abolish the slave trade, and second, to make manners (meaning morals) fashionable.
He eventually accomplished both, but not without much soul-searching. He was already involved in politics at the time of his conversion, being close friends with Prime Minister Pitt and several influential members of Parliament,
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. In spite of 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.
Wilberforce’s lively personality won many friends, including 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.
The transformed young man was ready to quit the political arena when John Newton encouraged him to think about staying where he was and using his influence for good. And that influence turned the world upside down.
Wilberforce used his wealth to support numerous charities. Much like modern-day advocates for morals, he also endured death threats and public libel. One critic claimed to know inside information that Wilberforce beat his wife—when actually Wilberforce wasn’t even married at the time.
After several setbacks in Parliament, the bill to abolish slave trade finally passed.
The aged Wilberforce, watching from the gallery, put his head in his hands and wept while the crowd erupted into thunderous applause.
The energetic world-changer appeared like a meteor in the sky and vanished, leaving behind a grateful race of dark-skinned people.
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