Allen, one of my late friends, taught me a lot about open-mindedness because of how he identified himself. With no irony at all, he often called himself a compassionate evangelical. This was during the late 1970s and early 1980s, much like today, when evangelical Christian preachers and politicians expressed extremely negative opinions about gay people.
Allen was a graduate of the local Christian Seminary but had never acquired his own ministry. However, he was often a guest preacher or filled in as pastor for vacationing ministers. He was also one of the rare few members of the clergy with whom I had formed a deep friendship. This comaraderie flourished because we accepted each other for what we believed and who we were as young men.
During one of our late night philosophical discussions, I asked Allen why he seemed so different from other evangelicals I knew personally or national newsmakers who were hell-bent on being famous and powerful. He brought out a copy of Real Christianity by William Wilberforce. Allen told me Wilberforce’s writings were one of his primary inspirations. He then loaned me his copy of the book.
William Wilberforce was a frail, short statured man who became a leading light for human rights in the British Parliament. He was born on August 24, 1759 in East Riding of Yorkshire, England. He was the son of a well-to-do merchant Robert and wife Elizabeth Wilberforce. Following the death of his father in 1768, the young William was sent to live with relatives who lived in Wimbledon and London and attended classes at a boarding school.
After a brief encounter with fundamentalist Christianity, his relatives pulled him from the boarding school, changed schools, and encouraged more secular pursuits. While attending Cambridge University, Wilberforce befriended William Pitt. At the youthful age of 21, Wilberforce was elected to Parliament. He became known as a witty, eloquent, charismatic speaker.
In 1783 the young lawmaker met the Reverend James Ramsay a leading Anglican priest and abolitionist, who introduced Wilberforce to the issue of slavery. This triggered a renewed interest in religious matters and an eventual conversion to evangelical Christianity. In the meantime, Wilberforce had befriended former slave ship captain John Newton, who disowned his own past and became a strong advocate for abolition of slavery. At a time when Wilberforce seriously considered leaving Parliament, it was Newton who encouraged him to remain in office.
“What should we suppose must naturally be the consequence of our carrying on a slave trade with Africa? With a country, vast in its extent, not utterly barbarous, but civilized in a very small degree? Does any one suppose a slave trade would help their civilization?”–William Wilberforce
As a newly minted evangelical, Wilberforce and his circle of peers became influential in charitable causes and the fight against the slave trade. In 1787, Wilberforce was introduced to one of the foremost British campaigners against slavery and the slave trade, Thomas Clarkson. The two men became close friends and collaborators. Wilberforce became more vocal and advocated against the most privileged members of society. He crossed political party factions and built support from a cross-section of Members of Parliament.
From around the early 1790s, Wilberforce introduced anti-slave trade legislation, but Parliamentarians who benefited from slave trading resorted to delaying tactics to defeat the bills. Finally, in 1792, Wilberforce’s proposal to end slave trading was passed by the House of Commons. However, an amendment stated the ban should be gradual. A much more strongly worded measure was enacted in 1807. “The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act” did away with slave trading in the British Colonies.
Still, there was the problem of existing slavery throughout the British Empire. Work was necessary to free the existing non-consensual indentured servants within Britain and her colonies. To aid in the effort, Wilberforce became a member of the “Society for Gradual Abolition”. By the 1820s, Wilberforce’s health declined alarmingly so he recruited abolitionist, philanthropist, politician Thomas Fowell Buxton to lead the struggle for full abolition. In 1824, Wilberforce resigned from Parliament due to ill health.
“It is the true duty of every man to promote the happiness of his fellow creatures to the utmost of his power.”
In spite of strong public support of abolition, Parliament dithered in its efforts. Wilberforce submitted a citizen’s petition to reconsider debate on the issue. Finally, on July 26, 1833, the “Abolition of Slavery” bill passed the House of Commons on its third reading.
A messenger was sent to inform Wilberforce at home. He was told that slavery throughout the British colonies would be officially abolished. Three days later, July 29, 1833, Wilberforce passed away.