Fri 23 March 2018

William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

Sunday 30 July

'If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large'. these are the words of William Wilberforce, remembered particularly for his campaigning against slavery. He came from a prosperous family of merchants and, at the age of 21, was elected MP for his home city of Hull. Turning away from the typical life of the wealthy, he belonged to the Clapham Sect, a group of Evangelical Christians devoted to social reform. Wilberforce declared that there were two main causes to which he would devote his time and energy. 'the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners (morality)'.

In the late 1780s, he recruited support for his campaign against slavery from his friend, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, the Younger. Each year Wilberforce would introduce into the Commons a motion for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. The vested interests of the slave traders and preoccupation with the wars against France prevented any success until 1807 when at last slave trading was abolished. Even so, it was not until 1833, the year of Wilberforce's death, that slavery was finally ended in British colonies. Wilberforce continued to press for reform in many other directions - improving working conditions in factories, providing education for all children, improving conditions for prisoners and protecting animals from cruelty.

When he retired as an MP in 1825 he refused the peerage offered to him because he thought that aristocratic society would be bad for his children!! Were Wilberforce to return to the world of 2009 he would surely continue to campaign against slavery which is still evident in many parts of the world. Many thousands of women are trafficked as sex workers. In Haiti, for example, many thousands of children are domestic slaves (restavecs). In other countries workers are bound by debt into forced labour for their employers. In some African countries to hold someone in slavery has only very recently been recognised as a crime. So the campaigning of Wilberforce has to continue. Some thought Wilberforce to be a saint, others thought him sanctimonious, some saw him as liberal and others saw him as reactionary. But his commitment to his Christian faith was absolute and he answered his own question with his customary forthrightness: 'Can you tell a plain man the road to heaven? Certainly, turn, at once, to the right then go straight forward'.

Richard Allen