Abolitionist Icon; Wilberforce Was Inspiration for Britain's Move to End slavery.(NATION)(CULTURE, ET CETERA)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 11, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Abolitionist Icon; Wilberforce Was Inspiration for Britain's Move to End slavery.(NATION)(CULTURE, ET CETERA)


Byline: Jen Waters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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.

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