In the spring of 1786, William Wilberforce, Member of Parliament for Yorkshire, returned to the House of Commons a changed man. The various evangelical influences to which he had been exposed had at last borne fruit, and now, at the age of 26, he was a Christian.
His conversion profoundly affected his political life. Young and highly talented - Wilberforce was a remarkable orator - his burning ambition had been political distinction, and in the five years that he had been in Parliament, he had certainly made his mark. But everything was now to change. "The first years that I was in Parliament", he confessed, "I did nothing - nothing, I mean, to any good purpose; my own distinction was my darling object." From now on, however, his energies were principally directed to the reformation of religion and morals, both of which were at a miserably low ebb.
He involved himself in a number of causes, amongst which were Sabbath observance, opposition to the fashionable practice of dueling, the circulation of the Bible, and the Christianisation of India and the British Colonies. But it is with the abolition of the Slave-trade, rather than with any of these other activities, that the name of Wilberforce is peculiarly associated. This was his most important and lasting work, and one for which he is deservedly honoured.
The campaign was long and hard. "In attacking the Slave-trade", says one of his biographers, "it was not long ere he saw how deeply it had struck its roots among the commercial interests of the country, and what intense, bitter, and prolonged resistance the movement for abolition was destined to receive from merchants interested in the trade." And he was right. Seeing that their trade was in danger, West Indian merchants did their utmost to keep things as they were.
"First," we are told, "the facts were denied; then it was maintained that if abolition were enacted, an illicit traffic would be substituted for a legal one; this it was maintained, would be a great deal worse for the negroes; then, schemes for gradual abolition and other compromises were proposed; then complications arose with other countries," and so it went on, year after year. The campaign lasted for 20 years in fact, and not until March 1807 was a Bill passed which finally abolished the horrid trade.
There was of course a price to pay. Had Wilberforce continued to do what he did in his early years in Parliament and directed his very considerable powers to the furthering of his own political ambitions, he would doubtless have reached the top. That he didn't was due to his Christian conviction that he ought to make the abolition of the Slave-trade his chief concern, and fight on and on until it was achieved. The sacrifice was undoubtedly felt; but in the success with which his long campaign was ultimately crowned he had a magnificent reward.
Wilberforce quitted Parliament in 1825. "It must be a satisfaction to you," said one of his contemporaries, reflecting back on the many years that he had been a Member,
"to have observed that the moral tone of the House of Commons, as well as of the nation at large, is much higher than when you first entered on public life; and there can be no doubt that God has made you the honoured instrument of contributing much to this improvement."
It is encouraging to review such facts. The need of the hour is undoubtedly for politicians with the Christian commitment and Christian convictions of a Wilberforce; men and women who are willing to campaign long and hard for the abolitions and reformations so urgently needed in our own day. God can give us such leaders, and he can use them to effect the most far-reaching of changes. That is the abiding lesson from the life of William Wilberforce.