William Wilberforce: the Christian Politician
“They took me in the night, ripped me away from my family. Tried my wrists and took my dignity. I was sold for coins like we sell cattle; my ‘owner’ led me to a ship with hundreds more like me, I was cuffed to another, feet to wrists to neck. We were forced on board and sent in between decks and into apartments.
As we set out for sea and the days pass, at night I lay in my own waste and during the day I feel nothing but pain and hear nothing but the splash of the waves and the moaning of the others” (Falconbridge 1788) (Ioan Gruffudd 2006). This account of the experience of a slave does not come close to enforcing the reality of the brutality of what these slaves went through. This is, however, what William Wilberforce spent his entire political career, and until his death, to abolish.
Through his faith and prominence in the British government in the late 1700s through to the early 1800s he was determined to end this brutality against fellow human beings. In the film Amazing Grace, Wilberforce’ political career was depicted as a great success by his belief in God, his determination, ability to speak in public persuasively with prominence and passion, and the support of his friends and wife; and in this success he was able to fulfill his dream and calling to forever abolish slave trade in the British Empire.
In the 2006 film Amazing Grace, director Michael Apted, tells the story of William Wilberforce and his journey from becoming an evangelical Christian and politician, through his movement in parliament for the abolishment of slavery to his success in the abolishment and his death. His character and career is beautifully depicted through his acts and in the way works his way through British parliament in order to fulfill his dream (or calling) of ending the transatlantic slave trade. The film also depicts the influence different people had in his life as a Christian politician.
Since his birth in 1759 he lived in pre-Victorian England until his death in 1833. He was actively taking part in parliament from 1780 to 1825, which was time where the upper-class expressed outward Christianity, but also took part in gambling and duelling (White 2008). In 1787 was when Wilberforce seriously started to take part in government; wrote in his diary: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners” (Windschuttle 2008) (Colson and Morse 2007); these are the two things he would eventually make a great difference in.
At the start of his career in 1780, Wilberforce was just like the other upper-class men in high positions. He visited gentleman’s clubs almost every night, gambling and drinking late into the night. He also became famous for singing at the parties he went to and had a good singing voice (Windschuttle 2008). Wilberforce converted to evangelical Christianity at the age of twenty six. “He underwent a process of self-examination, doubt, agony and awakening” (Windschuttle 2008). In the film, he was sitting in a field behind his house early in the morning.
He was confused, but sure that faith was the path he was supposed to take, and he professed this in a letter to his good friend and soon to be Prime Minister of England, William Pitt (Ioan Gruffudd 2006). Pitt wanted Wilberforce on his side in government, so he introduced him to some people, including Thomas Clarkson, a slave trade abolitionist all over the world, and Olaudah Equiano, an African who was taken into slavery as a child, bought his freedom and wrote an account of his own experiences in his autobiography called The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equian.
This introduction would be the beginning of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. It was this new committee that opened Wilberforce’s eyes to the possibility of combining his new found faith in evangelical Christianity with his passion for politics. A key belief of evangelism was the idea of providence; that God in involved in every aspect and event in life, no matter how small. For Wilberforce, God gave him a seat in parliament for a reason: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners” (Windschuttle 2008).
With these two visions in mind he set out with his team to end slavery for once and for all, but it would not be an easy journey, as is depicted in the film. Wilberforce spent over twenty years on this mission, fighting both members of opposition parties in the House of Commons as well as illness and bad physical health (Colson and Morse 2007). Wilberforce also sought out the advice of John Newton, a previous slave ship captain and the writer of the inspiring hymn “Amazing Grace”. The song itself was quite prominent in the film.
Not only because it is the title of the film, but also because it can be seen as the anthem for anti-slavery. The song was an inspiration, and a symbol of a new beginning; it can be heard in its lyrics and it can be seen in the events of the film. At the first meeting with Newton, Wilberforce was looking for the advice of a troubled man, one who was “…in the company of twenty thousand Africans” (Ioan Gruffudd 2006) and haunted by his past, yet unable to speak of the horrors he caused.
Although Newton did not share his experience with Wilberforce, he did encourage him to take on the challenge that God has set before him by saying “you have work to do” (Ioan Gruffudd 2006), “Newton calmed Wilberforce and strengthened his resolve, urging him to combine his new religious beliefs with his existing political career” (Windschuttle 2008). With this conformation of what to do, Wilberforce was ready to take on the abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce’s character was attractively depicted in the film.
Stating out with his love for animals early on in the film, even in his form of ill wealth, he was willing to get out in the rain to defend a horse that was being beaten (Ioan Gruffudd 2006). His love for animals can be seen throughout the whole film, including multiple dogs and a rabbit. The passion Wilberforce felt for animals, though, does not come close to what he felt for the rights of human beings. A glimpse of this can be seen when Prince William, the Duke of Clarence calls his slave into the club where they were gambling.
This inhumanity offended Wilberforce to the point that he could not be in the same building as the Duke and ended the game (Ioan Gruffudd 2006). This was also where he had his revelation of what he should fight for, who he should fight for. To change society is to change the minds and actions of the public. For Wilberforce the key to this layed in the concept of evangelical Christianity; “Evangelicals also believed Christian principles should be applied to all areas of life. Worldly indulgences were to be avoided and leisure was an opportunity not for entertainment but personal renewal” (Windschuttle 2008).
This then, left no room for the things that Wilberforce himself once indulged in such as gambling and drunkenness. Britain’s upper-class morality was in decline, so Wilberforce had a proclamation issued by King George ?, with the help of his friend and Prime Minister Pitt and the Archbishop of Canterbury, denouncing impiety and extravagance (Windschuttle 2008) and organized the organization called “Society for Giving Effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation against Vice and Immorality”.
This would be the first steps he took towards his goal of the Abolition; Wilberforce needed to “purify” the minds of society, before he could open their eyes to the inhumanity of the transatlantic slave trade because only when they are moral beings with value for life, will they understand the horrors their indulgences (such as sugar) cause. “It was Wilberforce’s aim to reform the middle and upper classes, and thus end slavery and improve morality” (White 2008).
In the film Wilberforce introduces the “Madagascar”, a slave ship, to a group of upper-class philanthropists as part of his quest to reach out to people about morality and slavery, urging them to open their minds and hearts to the suffering of the slaves being transported in these ships. He shows them the shackles and explains the smell coming from the ship as “the smell of death” (Ioan Gruffudd 2006). Although, this scene may not be historically accurate in that it may not have happened, the truth is distorted in order to show the importance of reaching the upper-class and the opening of their eyes and minds to the pain their luxury caused.
In 1797 Wilberforce wrote a book called A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity whose message spread like wild fire among the middle and upper class society. His rhetoric as well as his writing transformed the way society thought of social matters such as slavery and human rights (and animal rights too! ). Throughout his ventures in reaching out to the public, Wilberforce always kept in mind the will of God, and the goals that He has set before him.
And in doing so, he realised, that one task cannot be done without the other as one member of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade said (in the film) “If you make the world better in one way, it becomes better in every way”, a statement that is bold, and yet, have truth to it. Change in the world may not always come easy or with immediate results, but no matter how small or big the change, someone will benefit or experience some form of loss from it. For Wilberforce’ society, “culture needed to change if politics were to change.
And only in this cultural change would a society have hope for its future” (White 2008). Wilberforce’s wife, Barbara Spooner, was a great source of inspiration to him in finishing his work for the Abolition. As portrayed in the film, Wilberforce seemed to have given up, until he met the younger Miss. Spooner. She urged him to talk and share his thoughts about the slave trade and ultimately convinced him to give the Abolishment another try (Ioan Gruffudd 2006). She was also there for him during the worst times of his sickness, and the mother of his children.
Perseverance was another aspect that pushed Wilberforce to continue. The lawyer James Stephen proposed a change of tactics for the abolitionists. “Cheating”, according to the film was the new tactic. They would propose a different bill as a start to soften up to House members: The Foreign Slave Trade Bill. This bill would ban the Brits from helping or participating in the slave trade to the French colonies. This was a clever move since the majority of British ships were raising American flags and supplying slaves to foreign colonies with who Britain was at war with (Ioan Gruffudd 2006).
The ban would decrease the profits of the captains and various business men and negatively affect the investors who were also involved in the House of Commons. Following this bill was The Slave Trade Act, “in 1807, Wilberforce finally succeeded in passing a law to end the slave trade. But, his work came to full fruition only in the year of his death, 1833, when all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated” (White 2008). The film makes a great point of the importance of determination and passion for success.
These factors are of great importance for promoting positive social change, whether is it the abolition of slave trade or saving child soldiers in Uganda. No cause is small enough to ignore or give up on when it involves the life of a living, breathing being. The film places a great amount of emphasis on the role of Wilberforce in the abolition because he can be seen as a wonderful role model and example for leaders and humanitarians. Although Wilberforce was certainly not the only person nvolved in the abolition of the slave trade, there is surely something to be learned from him. They can learn from his passion, commitment and also from his love for all living things, and made a difference in society, not with a hidden agenda, but with an open heart and mind, the way a Christian should. God sat two tasks before Wilberforce: to reform society, back to one with proper Christian morals and values, and the abolishment of the slave trade. Without a doubt Wilberforce succeeded in both of these tasks, but it was not an easy road to success.
Fighting through chronic illness and parliament he fought for about fifty years to complete his calling, but he did not do it without help. His talent for rhetoric and public speaking was his gateway to success, and with the help of many friends including Clarkson, Pitt, Newton, his wife Barbara and the Will of God, he was able to put a stop to the inhumanity of the transatlantic slave trade and the horrors that came with it. He was able to die in peace, knowing that he fulfilled the tasks that he was destined to.
Colson, Charles, and Anne Morse. The Wilberforce Strategy: Britain’s great abolitionist worked to change society’s values, not just its laws. ” Christianity Today, 2007: 132-318.
Falconbridge, Alexander. An Account of Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa. London: James Phillips, 1788. Amazing Grace. Directed by Michael Apted. Performed by Albert Finney, Michael Gambon Ioan Gruffudd. 2006.
White, John. “Christian Responsibility to Reform Society: the Example of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect. ” Paternoster Periodicals, 2008: 166-172. Windschuttle, Keith. “William Wilberforce: The Great Emancipator. New Criterion, 2008: 17-24.
I made this viewpoint up, with the help of the contents in “An Account of the Slave Trade from the Coast on the Africa” as well as Olaudah Equiano’s account in Amazing Grace.
It was important for them to connect with the upper-class because that’s where the money and power was, both in terms of authority and of trend. Lower-classes were also reached by Wilberforce and his team and showed great success in changing their society (White 2008).