Wilberforce – a life of lobbying: about believes and making a difference

Wilberforce was a deeply religious English member of the British Parliament and social reformer who was very influential in the abolition of the slave trade and eventually slavery itself in the British empire. Wilberforce retired from politics in 1825 and died on 29 July 1833, shortly after the act to free slaves in the British empire passed through the House of Commons. He was buried near his friend Pitt in Westminster Abbey.

English: The Official Medallion of the British...
The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, Wilberforce’s story is neither short nor easy to go through. At the beginning he was highly successful in raising public awareness and support, and local chapters sprang up throughout Great Britain. His companions travelled the country researching and collecting first-hand testimony and statistics, while promoting the campaign, pioneering techniques such as lobbying, writing pamphlets, holding public meetings, gaining press attention, organising boycotts and even using a campaign logo: an image of a kneeling slave above the motto “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” designed by the renowned pottery-maker Josiah Wedgwood.

They also sought to influence slave-trading nations such as France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Holland and the United States, corresponding with anti-slavery activists in other countries and organising the translation of English-language books and pamphlets. They and other free blacks, collectively known as “Sons of Africa”, spoke at debating societies and wrote spirited letters to newspapers, periodicals and prominent figures, as well as public letters of support to campaign allies. Hundreds of parliamentary petitions opposing the slave trade were received in 1788 and following years, with hundreds of thousands of signatories in total. The campaign proved to be the world’s first grassroots human rights campaign, in which men and women from different social classes and backgrounds volunteered to end the injustices suffered by others.

Lord Grenville, the Prime Minister, was determined to introduce an Abolition Bill in the House of Lords rather than in the House of Commons, taking it through its greatest challenge first. When a final vote was taken, the bill was passed in the House of Lords by a large margin. Sensing a breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey moved for a second reading in the Commons on 23 February 1807. As tributes were made to Wilberforce, whose face streamed with tears, the bill was carried by 283 votes to 16. The Slave Trade Act received the Royal Assent on 25 March 1807.

Wilberforce believed that the revitalisation of the Church and individual Christian observance would lead to a harmonious, moral society. He sought to elevate the status of religion in public and private life, making piety fashionable in both the upper and middle-classes of society. To this end, in April 1797 Wilberforce published A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity, on which he had been working since 1793. This was an exposition of New Testament doctrine and teachings and a call for a revival of Christianity, as a response to the moral decline of the nation, illustrating his own personal testimony and the views which inspired him. The book proved to be influential and a best-seller by the standards of the day; 7,500 copies were sold within six months, and it was translated into several languages.

Wilberforce fostered and supported missionary activity in Britain and abroad. Horrified by the lack of Christian evangelism in India, Wilberforce used the 1793 renewal of the British East India Company’s charter to propose the addition of clauses requiring the company to provide teachers and chaplains and to commit to the “religious improvement” of Indians. The plan was unsuccessful due to lobbying by the directors of the company, who feared that their commercial interests would be damaged. Wilberforce tried again in 1813 when the charter next came up for renewal. Using petitions, meetings, lobbying, and letter writing, he successfully campaigned for changes to the charter. Speaking in favour of the Charter Act 1813, he criticised the British in India for their hypocrisy and racial prejudice.

This is a long post to be shared before a movie but, since Christmas is almost here, we should remember that Christ is not always honoured while dining around shiny trees, neither when passing gifts to friends or family. It’s more about honouring the first and greatest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” as Jesus said in Matthew 22:37-40.

I recommend the movie „Amazing Grace” (2006) which is presenting a part of Wilberforce’s life. I think it’s a well invested time while thinking of our own lifes and believes.

More about Wilberforce in Wikipedia

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4 thoughts on “Wilberforce – a life of lobbying: about believes and making a difference”

  1. Indeed we should think of our souls while still alive, I totally agree. It was a good time to find your article. Thanks.

  2. Looking at my life… what have I done with it? Working, eating, drinking… dying… what is it worth for?

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