During the late 1700s, English traders regularly raided along the gulf coast of Guinea, capturing 50,000 Africans a year who would be sold into slavery across the Atlantic. It was a profitable business that played an essential role in the United Kingdom’s economy. Some even considered slavery to be an absolute necessity that would never be abolished. There were only a small number of people who were bold enough to challenge the state of affairs during this time, and that small number included a teenager named William Wilberforce.
This would have been shocking to anyone who knew William growing up. Born into a wealthy background, William wasn’t a serious student during his time at St. John’s College at Cambridge. But aside from his lack of interest in academics, he did have political ambitions and became the youngest member of the Parliament, the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom.
William began his role in the Parliament as a young 21 year old, who was known for his wit and as an eloquent speaker. Interestingly enough though, William admitted that during his first few years in the Parliament, he had no impact because he had no sense of purpose. On Easter of 1786, William records experiencing a spiritual rebirth as he deeply reflected on his life and reevaluated his morals as he was embracing his newfound Christianity. Guided by his conscience, he began strongly rejecting the practice of slavery around him, believing that no man or woman should undergo such horrible experiences as slavery displayed.
Although William struggled with his Parliament position in light of his new faith, he reached out to his friend John Newton who would give William the encouragement he needed to pursue his calling – to be a voice for those who who did not have a voice and abolish slavery. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to take an active role as an abolitionist and soon was spearheading the movement. Then, in 1789, Wilberforce spoke passionately to the House of Commons as he argued that slavery was a matter of great injustice and did not follow the principles of human dignity.
Despite William’s efforts to diligently prepare arguably the most important presentation of his life, the anti-abolitionists outvoted the bill to abolish slavery. This was a hard loss for the Abolitionist Movement, but it did not discourage William who displayed incredible resilience as he returned year after year and continued to get outvoted by various tactics. Wilberforce did not quit until the year 1807 when the House of Commons finally passed the Slave Trade Act with a large margin of 283 to 16 votes. Despite the diligent work William put in, the act of 1807 only made the trade of slaves illegal. There were still other parts of the British Empire where slaves were still in bondage. William dedicated the remainder of his life to work for the rights of slaves in Africa and other parts of the world.
Finally, after more than 25 years of persistent work, on July 26, 1833 the Slavery Act was passed which completely abolished all forms of slavery in the British Empire. William Wilberforce would die 3 days later after this final act was passed.
William Wilberforce was a man who embodied sacrifice as he followed his passion to help others as he became a voice for the abolition movement. He was a man whose faith led him to do more than he ever imagined.
Following are two lessons we can learn to be this kind of “force”:
1. Surround yourself with the dreamers and doers.
William had numerous people in his life that greatly influenced him in his endeavor to abolishing slavery in the United Kingdom. Whether it started as a dream when he met William Pitt in Cambridge, he was a friend and he knew Wilberforce’s talent and potential to make a lasting impact to end slavery and he pushed him to not quit and to dream on. Then there was John Newton, who was the last person that helped Wilberforce ingrain drive in his passionate pursuit to present his case to the Parliament, he was the final push for William to become a doer. As talented as Wilberforce was, he couldn’t do it without the help of Pitt and Newton, who believed in him, more than he ever believed in himself.
2. Be a voice for others who can’t speak out for themselves.
William Wilberforce followed his conscience after his conversion to Christianity in 1786. He reevaluated his morals and decided to dedicate his life to abolishing slavery as it was against his morals and believed no human should undergo such conditions. His passionate dedication for thousands of men and women whom he never met speaks centuries later as we recognize his leadership today. He was a pioneer for many activists that followed him. One persistent voice can make a big difference in the world.