William Wilberforce, a Christian, a statesman, and through his 20-year fight against slavery, a national figure in England, died within days of achieving his life’s goal. On July 26, 1833, Parliament passed a bill abolishing slavery across the British Empire. Three days later, 180 years ago today, Wilberforce finished his earthly race.
Eric Metaxas’ Wilberforce biography Amazing Grace and the film by the same name have popularized this diminutive English statesman for American audiences—although “Wilberforce” has yet to crack the top 10 baby names list in the United States. But his popularity is justly deserved. Though other men and women were involved in the abolition movement, England’s “culture war” of the late 18th century, Wilberforce did more than any other individual to win the battle.
On Oct. 28, 1787, two years after his conversion to Christianity, Wilberforce wrote in his journal, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” (By the latter Wilberforce meant public morality.) These two goals would occupy the rest of his life, and he would pursue them through setbacks with remarkable endurance. The parliamentary debates for abolition of the slave trade began in 1789; only in 1807 did Wilberforce see the bill finally passed. “What shall we abolish next?” Wilberforce joked to a friend.
His commitment to his cause is worthy of emulation in our day, especially as Christians engage in uphill and very public political and cultural struggles. But while we often turn our attention to Wilberforce’s dedication, let me suggest another way Wilberforce can instruct us.
In his book A Practical View of Christianity, Wilberforce wrote a sentence that, by all contemporary accounts, defined his life: “Measure your progress [in Christianity] by your improvement in love to God and man.” During the long fight against slavery, Wilberforce was publicly slandered, lampooned in cartoons, and attacked in print: “Go Wilberforce, begone, for shame / Thou dwarf with big resounding name.” He was challenged to a duel by a slave-trading captain and stalked by an ex-convict. Yet in the midst of all this opposition, Wilberforce remained a gentle and loving man, even toward his opponents. Friends knew Wilberforce had a keen, witty, and sarcastic tongue. Once when the recipient of a bitter personal attack in Parliament, Wilberforce forgot himself and responded in anger, decimating and humiliating his opponent. But a friend who was present observed, “It [was] the most striking thing I ever heard. But I look upon it as a more singular proof of Wilberforce’s virtue than his genius, for who but he was ever possessed of such a formidable weapon and never used it!”
In an age of heated public debate, many of us may be tempted to use whatever weapons we have in our cause. But caustic blog posts, bitter editorials, and public attacks, even if effective, discredit our Lord. May we, like Wilberforce, measure our progress by our growth in love to God and man—even our opponents.