Wilberforce and the “Necessary Evil”
Today is the 185th anniversary of a monumental achievement brought about by a great man of faith. In fact, Chuck Colson called him his hero, and he’s mine too. In late 18th and early 19th century, slavery was considered a “necessary evil.” As Historian Christopher D. Hancock wrote, the slave trade “involved thousands of slaves, hundreds of ships, and millions of pounds [sterling]; upon it depended the economies of Britain and much of Europe. “Some Englishmen,” he continued, “including John Wesley and Thomas Clarkson, had taken steps to mitigate the evil. Yet few in England shared the abolitionists’ sense that slavery was a great social evil.” Another historian, Richard Pierard, said that abolitionists were viewed as dangerous radicals, akin to the revolutionaries wreaking havoc in France. Into this dark milieu stepped the English parliamentarian William Wilberforce, a true giant of the faith, who lived from 1759 to 1833. After his dramatic conversion to Jesus Christ in 1785, the heretofore unfocused Wilberforce made three consequential decisions that ended up changing the world: first, stay in politics, at a time when conventional wisdom held that politics was too dirty a business for Christians; second, work for the abolition of the slave trade in Britain; and, third, work for moral reformation in society. Wilberforce was a moral revolutionary in a nation that was, morally speaking, scraping bottom. These decisions went against the grain and would cost the sometimes-sickly man his health and his good, aristocratic name. But rather than retreat to the seclusion of the cloister or the security of an obscure pulpit, Wilberforce decided that God had called him to apply his Christian worldview and principles “for such a time as this.” “My walk is a public one,” he wrote in his private journal. “My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.” Foreseeing the trouble he would face, Wilberforce later wrote, “A man who acts from the principles I profess reflects that he is to give an account of his political conduct at the judgment seat of Christ.” Initially confident of a quick victory, Wilberforce soon learned that the forces keeping the slave trade alive—material and spiritual—would not give up their captives without a long and bitter fight. Antislavery bills sponsored by Wilberforce and his band of dauntless crusaders known as the Clapham Sect were defeated in Parliament eleven straight years. “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear,” Wilberforce wrote, “that my own mind was completely made up… Let the consequences be what they would; I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.” Finally, an act abolishing the slave trade was passed in 1807. Wilberforce wept for joy. But the work wasn’t finished. It had only just begun. He and his comrades would have to toil another 26 years to see slavery itself abolished. So it was, exactly 185 years ago today, on July 26, 1833, that the Emancipation Act passed its third reading in the House of Commons, ensuring the end of slavery in the British Empire, some three decades before the bloody Civil War would end it in America. When an aged Wilberforce heard the news, he said, “Thank God I have lived to witness [this] Day.” He died three days later. You can read all about Wilberforce, of course, in my book, “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery.” We have it for you at BreakPoint.org. Faith, passion, and endurance were so powerfully embodied in the life of William Wilberforce. A life we would do well to emulate as we confront the so-called “necessary evils” of our day.