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February 14, 2007
Column #1,329
Advance for Feb. 17, 2007
"Amazing Grace" - The Story of William Wilberforce
by Michael J. McManus

This Sunday thousands of churches will sing "Amazing Grace," written by John Newton, a former slave ship captain who converted and became a pastor.  This is to promote a major new Christian film. "Amazing Grace" opening across America February 23.

The movie is not about Newton, but William Wilberforce, the person responsible for the abolition of the British slave trade on February 23,1807, exactly 200 years before the film's opening. Abraham Lincoln said, "Every schoolchild should know the name of William Wilberforce." No one does today.

Born in a wealthy family, Wilberforce spent more time gambling and partying than studying while at Cambridge.  Ambitious and charming, he was elected to Parliament at age 21.  One of his closest friends there was William Pitt, who became prime minister.

However, at age 25, Wilberforce experienced a religious conversion that he called "the great change," which he regarded as the supreme event of his life. He believed that "God's good providence"  had turned him around "through a miracle of mercy."  

He confessed, "The first years that I was in Parliament I did nothing - nothing I mean to any good purpose.  My own distinction was my darling object," he wrote as quoted in a superb biography, "Hero for Humanity" by Kevin Belmonte.

He considered leaving Parliament to become a clergyman.  William Pitt and John Newton dissuaded him of "the belief that one could best serve God in sacred rather than secular activities."  Newton advised him to "keep up your connection "with Pitt and to continue in Parliament."

But what should he do now? He began getting up early, spending hours reading Scripture and praying. What moved him was the commandment to love "thy neighbor as thyself."

On Sunday, October 28, 1787 he wrote in his diary, "God Almighty has set before me (ital) two great objects (cl ital) the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners" (morals). He researched the slave issue and found that the ships carrying blacks from Africa treated them so badly that 5 to 10 percent died en route; in some cases, a third expired.

Each year he introduced legislation to end the slave trade, only to see it fail. His goal seemed impossible.  Ending the trade would be a "financial disaster," warned opponents since it was a source of Britain's wealth, as British ships transported slaves captured in Africa to the Americas for sale. He was mocked by politicians and even by such poets as Lord Byron. Slave traders threatened his life.

In 1796 Wilberforce was so discouraged he considered resigning from Parliament, but Newton wrote, "You are not only a representative for Yorkshire, you have the far greater honour of being a representative for the Lord, in a place where many know Him not."

Pitt, a great supporter of abolition, died in 1806 and was replaced by Lord Grenville, an old friend of Wilberforce who urged him to take on the fight 20 years earlier. As Prime Minister, he gave it enthusiastic support. Another ally was a former enemy, Charles Fox, the leader of the opposition, and a person Wilberforce had verbally lambasted in 1784 before his "great change" spiritually. After his conversion, Wilberforce apologized and won Fox's respect.

In the final debate on abolition, Wilberforce was praised by his colleagues. One compared him to Napoleon "who knew the height of earthly ambition" yet returned home "tormented by bloodshed and the oppressions of war." By contrast, Wilberforce would return to "the bosom of his happy and delighted family," able to lie down in peace because he had "preserved so many millions of his fellow creatures."  The vote was 283-16.

Slavery still existed, however, in the British colonies. The small, frail legislator dedicated the rest of his life to abolishing slavery itself, achieving it in 1833, as he lay on his death bed.

Contrast his victory with what happened in America.  Jefferson tried to pledge an end to the slave trade in the Declaration of Independence, but had it edited out. He dropped the battle. The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1787 said Congress could not abolish slave importation until 1808, but it was delayed until 1822.

"Here is a man who resisted temptation, who took the longer view of making a better world,"said Chuck Stetson, director of the Wilberforce Project to honor him. "We have a lot to learn from his character traits.  In Parliament he sought others out, liked to work behind the scenes, who saw his position as a vehicle to get things done and was known for his self-denial and humility."


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