Resurrecting a Great Reformer: Statesman William Wilberforce, Who Led Efforts to Halt the Slave Trade in the British Empire, Now Stands as the Perfect Example of What Faith-Based Politics Can Achieve. (the World: William Wilberforce)

By Goode, Stephen | Insight on the News, January 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Resurrecting a Great Reformer: Statesman William Wilberforce, Who Led Efforts to Halt the Slave Trade in the British Empire, Now Stands as the Perfect Example of What Faith-Based Politics Can Achieve. (the World: William Wilberforce)


Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News


William Wilberforce's name isn't a household word anymore, and that's a shame. He was one of the great British statesmen of his time--Wilberforce was born in 1759 and died in 1833--but that was only part of his achievement. He was an evangelical Anglican who made his profound faith so deep a part of his everyday working life that it was visible for all to see and appreciate, even when they didn't share his passionate faith.

Wilberforce also was one of the world's great reformers. Some scholars such as Christian activist and theologian Os Guinness [see picture profile, April 17, 2000], a senior fellow at the Washington area's Trinity Forum, regard him as the greatest reformer of all time. Consider:

On the evening of Feb. 23, 1807, the House of Commons began the second reading of a bill designed to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire. For two decades, Wilberforce had spearheaded the controversial fight against that very profitable business, first almost alone, but then with support that grew slowly. More than once his life had been threatened by those who didn't want to see the trade in slaves come to an end. By 1807, times had changed, and on the evening of the 23rd the vast majority of the members of the House of Commons rose to give him a standing ovation. They then voted overwhelmingly to end that sad and cruel business, 283-16. Wilberforce could be seen sitting, head bowed, with tears streaming down his face.

Wilberforce's Christian faith was at the very core of his hard struggle to bring a halt to the buying and selling of human beings. But his good works did not stop there. He fought the very institution of slavery, an evil perhaps as old as man, and learned just a few days before his death when he no longer was a member of the House of Commons that Parliament soon likewise would abolish human bondage in the empire.

Wilberforce summed up his evangelical beliefs in a Practical View of Christianity, a book read widely throughout the world. The list of his faith-inspired achievements is a long one. Not only did he promote public-health legislation, but it has been estimated that he was a member of or helped lead 69 philanthropic societies, some of which have influenced British society down to the present day, making him an early advocate of faith-based initiatives, Wilberforce biographer Kevin Belmonte tells INSIGHT.

And it is important to realize that this man's robust faith was a joyous one. No dour, long-faced and dull Christian, Wilberforce took great pleasure in the company of others. A generous host, many of the famous men and women of the time recalled with approval the scintillating conversation and wit at his dinners and regarded his presence as charismatic. No man has taken greater delight in wife and family, or the companionship of an impressively loyal group of friends.

Throughout the 19th century, Wilberforce's name was well-known, especially in the Christian and English-speaking world. In 1858, no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln noted that he'd never allowed himself to forget that Wilberforce had led the fight against the slave trade in the British Empire. It's a fact "schoolboys know," Lincoln noted. Then he asked, "Who can now name a single man who labored to retard it?"

The 19th century black leader and writer Frederick Douglass likewise acknowledged Wilberforce's greatness. "Let no American, especially no colored American, withhold a generous-recognition of this stupendous achievement. Though it was not American but British" said Douglass, it "was ... a triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil; and a victory for the whole human race."

But there are efforts afoot to revive Wilberforce's name and his story with the aim of placing the example of Christian activism he set two centuries ago once again before the world as an instance of what faith-based politics can achieve:

* Each year Prison Fellowship Ministries, headed by Charles Colson, bestows the Wilberforce Award. …

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