Church History

The opened eyes of Wilberforce

The royal assent which was given to the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act on 25 March 1807 represented the fruition of 18 years of persistence for William Wilberforce who introduced his first bill outlawing the slave trade in the British Empire in 1789.

Despite that initial victory there was more work to do. It took another 26 years for parliament to finally vote for a comprehensive ban on the practice of slavery itself throughout the colonies of the British Empire. By this time Wilberforce had handed on the campaign leadership to Thomas Buxton but he still remained involved, speaking to meetings and writing petitions. He passed into glory on 29 July 1833, a mere three days after a messenger had rushed to his door to let him know that the Abolition of Slavery bill had passed its third reading in the Commons. His life’s work was completed.

It is tempting to see Wilberforce as a ‘one-issue’ man. His name will forever be associated with the great achievement of abolition. The reality is that he was a man of many related interests. The young William was converted in an age when religious enthusiasm was almost considered a social embarrassment. His remarkable response to this charge of fanaticism is well known:

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.

This ‘fanaticism’ was expressed in various ventures, all of which could be summarised by Wilberforce’s pithy journal entry on Sunday October 28, 1787,

God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.

Notwithstanding his many moral concerns, the suffering of slaves was the one that moved him most greatly. As he explained to the House of Commons, when speaking in support of his first anti-slavery bill in 1789,

You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.

Blindness to the issue of slavery and the preservation of comfort were the main anchors dragging on the ship of change. As with many social issues it was not that the entire populace was entrenched in support of slavery. They simply needed to have their eyes opened, so that with that very first clear look at the issue they could never again plead ignorance. On this basis the abolitionists employed what looked very much like a viral campaign of images. Medallions depicting a kneeling and enchained slave imploring, “Am I not a man and a brother?”, were employed alongside detailed schematics of the slave ships depicting the barbaric conditions in which Africans were transported to the Americas. The tea drinking population of the United Kingdom was confronted with the realities concerning colonial plantations and their production of sugar – the question of “one lump of two?” could never be asked with a clear conscience again.

The campaign took courage and a great deal of time, but it was worthwhile. Wilberforce, having had his own eyes opened, could no longer un-see what he had seen, and longed that others would also have clarity on the matter.

Christians today face another social tragedy of even greater devastation than the slave trade. The vexed question of abortion has long been with us but now has renewed impetus with the recent legislation put before the NSW Parliament. While our social context today is vastly different, the fundamental issue remains the same: the humanity of unborn children and their barbaric treatment.

Christians are uniquely placed to lead this campaign. We have the only world view that should and will consistently stand against these evils. It is, ultimately, the truth that unborn children – just as with slaves – are made in the imago Dei. With that fundamental truth, we may protect their right to life. Without that fundamental truth, there is no consistent basis on which we may act. And if we will not act, who will? Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams astutely observed,

If the abolition of slavery had been left to enlightened secularists in the 18th century, we’d still be waiting.[1]

So, what will prevent us from acting in this way? The answer is, sadly, the same two things that took many so long to act on slavery.

First, we are simply not aware of the tragedy of the issue. We are blind to it. But we need our eyes opened. It is unacceptable that we do not look long and hard at what happens in abortion. It cannot be that we stand back and don’t want to know anything about the fate of those made in the image of God.

The reality is that today it does not take long at all to be adequately educated on this topic. 

Therefore, secondly, our real issue is something else: we like our tea sweet. 

Often our blindness is wilful. This is simply too difficult a topic, too fraught with the possibility of conflict and the diminution of our standing in the various relationships in which we find ourselves. We realise that if we pursue this campaign, we will lose much of the sweetness of our social standing. This will make us unpopular and we fear it. The church where I serve hosted a public conversation on this topic recently. It was one in a series of such meetings, but this was the first where we received a torrent of abuse on social media.

If we want sugar in the tea of our social acceptance, then we will not tread this difficult ground. But we need to know, like the British middle classes before us, that the sweetness of those relationships comes at a great cost.

It is a cost that we will effectively be transferring onto the slain unborn and their scarred mothers. Either they bear it, or we do. As evangelicals we are known for our love of what is often known as The Great Exchange. That is, Christ taking our burden on himself and covering us with his righteousness. He could, of course, have simply done nothing. He could have pretended that he didn’t know the horrible reality of the situation and reckoned that the cost of rejection was too much. I trust my point is made. 

Wilberforce led the charge more than 200 years ago. Leaders are now taking a stand in the church on the question of abortion. It’s time for us to open our eyes and take our tea without sugar.

ACR Journal: This article was originally published in the ACR’s Journal for Spring 2019.

[1] See at 4:55-5:07.