Dear Concerned Citizen,
I was just reading a brilliant book about Winston Churchill that looks at him in “40 ways” (by Gretchen Rubin, Random House). Churchill’s greatness – as the towering human being of his long generation – is beyond dispute, whatever the ambiguities of his faith. Yet greatness is a quality we do not often acknowledge, and we tend to overlook it especially in men and women of Christian conviction. In our eagerness to set events and achievements under the sovereignty of God we tend to assume they are “inevitable,” and in the process play down the vast human cost they represent.
So it is with William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a man of surpassing greatness – as Eric Metaxas makes so plain in his new biography, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (HarperSanFrancisco). He gave God the glory, yet the glory of God was rarely manifested so plainly in a human life. A politician of genius and stature, tipped to be British Prime Minister and therefore leader of the greatest empire on earth, he opted instead for a long and often lonely campaign that had two special purposes (or “Great Objects,” as he put it): to reform the conduct of his (permissive) generation, and to abolish slavery.
It’s hard for us to imagine the world of the eighteenth century in which few had challenged the idea that certain human beings could be the property of others. One of the best ways to get its flavor here in the United States is to read what is almost universally agreed to be the worst ever judgment of the U.S. Supreme Court, Dred Scott, a cold and evil affirmation of chattel slavery as late as 1857 from the highest court of the nation that had since its founding trumpeted human freedom. When two generations earlier Wilberforce committed himself to the cause of the slaves, his decision was not exactly popular.
One of the lessons of his life is that of persistence. He did not pursue abolition simply for one electoral cycle, or until he got interested in something else. It proved to be the work of his lifetime. He spent more than 40 years in parliament arguing year after year against slavery. And in 1807, in the first major blow against slavery, the slave trade was ended in the British Empire. It took another quarter-century, but when Wilberforce was dying the British parliament was in the act of passing the law that finally abolished slavery in all the vast tracts of the British Empire.
Another lesson is that of teamwork, as we would call it. The so-called “Clapham Sect” brought like-minded people together year after year to support each other and sustain their common efforts.
And another is that of strategy. Wilberforce was under no illusion that he could get everything he wanted in one shot. So he determined to move incrementally, and indeed the original name of the organization he founded to fight slavery was called “Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” First mitigate – in the process gaining allies who might not favor abolition, and drawing attention to particular evils (such as the distance between each slave as they lay shackled in the slave-ships). Then abolish. And note that abolition came in two steps, decades apart – the abolition of the trade, and then of slavery and the millions of slaves themselves.
As we face the vast moral challenges of the 21st century – from slavery itself, which continues in many lands and in the terrible guise of sex-trafficking in our own, to abortion, to the transhumanists who plan to remake human nature by blending us with computers – the lessons are there to be learned. William the Great laid them down in the closing years of the 18th century. Let us take them up in the 21st.