Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas was one of the best biographies I have ever read. Metaxas writes in a way as to show the providence of God over this tumultuous point in history. He demonstrates how entirely separate people, events, and circumstances all collide into one man’s life to spur him in a 20 year battle to end the Slave Trade in Britain.
Beginning the book by detailing the early life of William Wilberforce, Metaxas also details the spiritual resurgence of Protestant Christianity through the work of George Whitefield.
George Whitefield came to the realization that would have far-reaching effects. He saw that the Bible didn’t teach that we must work harder at becoming perfect and holy, but that we must instead throw ourselves on God’s mercy. Moral perfection wasn’t the answer. Jesus was the answer. Jesus had been morally perfect and we weren’t supposed to save ourselves – we were supposed to ask him to save us. (p. 8)
And so George Whitefield, despised and opposed by the Church of England, the media, and the secular atheists, began to preach in open fields so that more people could hear him, sometimes up to crowds of thirty thousand. Metaxas even accounts a particular story of Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin.
Either that or the crowd numbers were exaggerated, as Benjamin Franklin, good Yankee skeptic that he was, initially suspected might be the case. When Whitefield came to Philadelphia in 1739, Franklin – ever the empiricist – resolved to walk around the circumference of the crowd and measure its size for himself. After completing the vast circuit, Franklin estimated that there were indeed at least twenty thousand there, and he said that he had never been out of the range of Whitefield’s voice. Franklin eventually became a fan and friend of Whitefield’s, and later became his publisher, though never quite a convert. (p. 9)
The author then shows Wilberforce’s progression through the ranks of the political elite along with his friendship with Britain’s youngest prime minister, William Pitt. Wilberforce, a man of humor and quick wit, was soon rising in the political game through his amazing oratory skills, no doubt something that God was already crafting in him. Even reporters stated that “his address is so insinuating that if he talked nonsense you would feel obliged to hear him.” (p. 38)
The Great Change
Then the Great Change came about in Wilberforce’s life, his conversion to Christianity. Growing up through his teens and early twenties, Wilberforce knew and understood the Gospel of Christ, yet he never truly repented and put his faith in Christ. He seemed to be a man who weighed every option and had a clear understanding that if he was to surrender all to Christ that would have to deny himself and devote his entire life to the Lord. Eventually God’s calling and work of regeneration proved to be the Great Change that would forever alter the direction of his life.
Now Wilberforce was faced with a dilemma. How could a changed man continue to work in this sinful and carnal profession. His eyes were immediately opened to the immoral nature of politics and he now had a heavy decision to make. For advice he turned to a Christian man he met as a youth – John Newton, a former British slave-ship captain who had been converted and become an Anglican clergyman.
Newton didn’t tell him what he had expected – that to follow God he would have to leave politics. On the contrary, Newton encouraged Wilberforce to stay where he was, saying that God could use him there. Most others in Newton’s place would likely have insisted that Wilberforce pull away from the very place where his salt and light were most needed. (p. 59)
So deciding to stay in politics, Wilberforce set out on two eventual endeavors.
“God almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” (p. 85)
England was filled with a host of societal evils such as “epidemic alcoholism, child prostitution, child labor, frequent public executions for petty crimes, public dissections and burnings of executed criminals, and unspeakable public cruelty to animals.” (p. 69) Wilberforce set out on a crusade to make goodness fashionable and enforce the idea that all leaders in society were under a responsibility for being moral examples to the public.
Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?
Is is lawful to enslave another man against his will? This West Indian slavery was almost invisible to the public at large as well as the politicians. Few British people even saw the sight of it and so it was Wilberforce along with some key other figures who set out to make everyone aware of the atrocity set out against its fellow man, one that was created in the image of God. It became quite clear to Wilberforce that the Slave Trade, like all other evil systems, corrupted the lives of all associated with it.
A facet of the Slave Trade that really affected Wilberforce was the rank hypocrisy of Britain, a nation that called itself Christian and used that Christian label whenever it seemed to benefit, and yet stood by and watched the oppression of hundreds of thousands of human beings.
Wilberforce’s faith had given him first and foremost a painful but very real knowledge of his own sinfulness, and when he now spoke, he did so with remarkable generosity and graciousness: “I mean not to accuse anyone,” he said, “but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty – we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others.” (p. 133)
Policy, Sir, is not my principle, and I am not ashamed to say it. There is a principle above everything that is political. And when I reflect on the command that says, “Thou shalt do no murder,” believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare set up any reasoning’s of my own against it? And, Sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is here in this life which should make any man contradict the principles of his own conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God? Sir, the nature and all the circumstance of this Trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it. For it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitudes of their grounds and of the principles of their decision…Let not Parliament be the only body that is insensible to national justice. (p. 136)
Since 1787, Wilberforce had put out a bill to abolish the Slave Trade only to have it defeated year after year. And yet in 1807, after a twenty year battle, the abolition of the Slave Trade passed 283-16 in the House. Wilberforce, with God’s help, had almost completed his journey. Almost meaning that when the Slave Trade was abolished, slavery was still at large within the British Colonies. Those slaves would not be emancipated and slavery entirely would not be abolished until three days before his death on July 26, 1833.
The Irish historian William Lecky gives us his own oft-quoted verdict: “The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.” (p. 213)
The Conscience of the Nation
Conscience means “with knowledge” and your conscience reminds you of the difference between right and wrong. England has lost its conscience and could not distinguish between right and wrong. No atheist, no agnostic, no secular man would have stood up against the Slave Trade. Only through God’s work of regeneration and conversion in changing William Wilberforce’s heart would a man have the fortitude to fight a twenty year battle, continually sick and suffering from ulcers, to do what is right according to God’s Word.
I thank the Lord for saving William Wilberforce and using him as the salt and light to the world for His Glory. I only pray that America has a few men and women like him that will stand up as the Conscience of our Nation.