A Life Led by Choosing Self-Worth Over Net-Worth. The Story of William Wilberforce
The battle is not ours, but God’s.
2 Chronicles [20:15]
On July 26th, 1833, William Wilberforce received word that the British government had agreed to the required concessions resulting in the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. It marked the end of a decades-long battle for this witty, compassionate, and deeply faithful person.
Three days later Wilberforce died.
William Wilberforce was born into a life of luxury. During his childhood, he benefitted from a life of privilege and, even with his father’s early death, his relatives provided substantial support. Wilberforce thrived, was well-educated, and went on to Cambridge to receive his higher education.
During his teens, he caroused and was hardly interested in studying. Because of his extraordinary wit, wealth, and intelligence, he was able to successfully position himself in society. He was invited to the best parties and traveled throughout Europe. Through the death of his grandfather and uncle, he inherited a sizeable fortune and became independently wealthy.
A Renewed Journey
But nagging thoughts about doing more to help the world began to enter his psyche. In 1785, he began a renewed journey of discovering Jesus. In his youth, he had become attracted to early Methodist, but his mother steered him away from this new renegade denomination, and with that, he put away his Christian yearnings. They then resurfaced in his early adulthood. Now, he knew he had to change— to no longer be driven by achieving fame and net-worth but to instead live morally and chase self-worth.
Together with his friend William Pitt, who would later become Prime Minister, they decided to run for parliament. At the age of twenty-one, Wilberforce won his election, buoyed by his gift of oratory and personal funds. Pitt was elected as well. This began a lifelong journey together in politics.
Pitt would become an important influencer of British politics for many years. Wilberforce took another course—that of fighting against injustice. Wilberforce was certainly capable of following Pitt’s path, but his moral compass led him to defend the disadvantaged.
In 1787, Wilberforce was noticed by abolitionists as a potential leader in the fight against slavery. His oratory and across-the-grain speeches made him standout in Parliament. He began to study the issue of slavery and heard about the horrid conditions in which the slaves lived. Wilberforce agreed to help, even with the knowledge that this would be a hard fight and would likely isolate him from his friends.
One of the turning points for Wilberforce was an arranged meeting between himself and Pitt under an oak tree. Encouraged by Pitt, it was here that Wilberforce became convinced of his purpose: to fight slavery. It was a purpose he felt came from God. The oak tree is dead now, but a seat and plaque commemorate the meeting.
Today this place is called the Wilberforce Oak.
Wilberforce began to speak out in parliament. At first, he made little headway. Later, as it became clear to those who ran the slave trade that Wilberforce was gaining traction, they began to circulate rumors and to vilify Wilberforce. People slowly began to distance themselves from him.
The opposition had very strong monetary backing. Almost eighty percent of the foreign income for Great Britain came from trade associated with slavery. The slave trade and the products slaves produced were very lucrative.
Essentially, ships would leave England and sail to the coast of Africa where they would pick up captured Africans and then journey to the Caribbean. After selling the slaves to local distilleries and plantations, the ships would be loaded with rum and molasses. They would then sail back to England to deposit the goods produced by the slaves. It was a triangle that created wealth at the expense of innocent human beings.
The slave’s life was very hard.
Ten percent died on the way from Africa to the Caribbean. Once there, they were subjected to a dark life of hard work and very poor living conditions.
For the slave traders, plantation owners and rum runners, any thought of interrupting this lucrative trade system would mean a large reduction in profits or the end of their business enterprises altogether. Like all social justice changes that bump up against money, resistance is always very strong.
Wilberforce continued despite the isolation and other effects on his social life. He and the abolitionists decided that trying to completely eliminate slavery would be a long and hard battle. They instead focused first on just eliminating the slave trade and not slavery itself. For nearly two decades, Wilberforce worked on introducing bills to end the slave trade. These attempts were often denied by parliamentary procedure. Even when the issue was brought up for a vote, the bill was defeated.
The English public began to become vocal about the issue of slavery.
Politicians began to run on an anti-slavery platform. Over a period of years, they began to win elections to Parliament. Finally, in 1807, there were enough votes to pass the bill. It passed 283 to 16. As the bill was read, and while many members of parliament paid tribute to Wilberforce’s efforts, Wilberforce sat overwhelmed, and his eyes teared from the emotion of success. The first phase of ending slavery was done.
With the passing of the bill, Wilberforce and his allies—a group that was now much larger than when he had begun—began to focus on the complete abolishment of all slavery throughout the British Empire.
Wilberforce never had a completely healthy life. He was often sick and suffered from colitis. During this last push to end slavery altogether, he was ill for lengthy periods. He continued his fight, but because of declining health delegated the task of gathering votes to others. A key factor was creating concessions for the landowners who would lose their slaves. These concessions amounted to twenty million dollars. This money was to be given to a group of people who had profited from the horrendous scourge of slavery. With this difficult compromise and concession in 1833, a bill was passed, finally ending slavery. Another decades-long fight had come to an end.
William Wilberforce had suffered for months before this final vote.
While he was bedridden, many others picked up his flag and pushed the final steps up the mountain of resistance called change. Finally, so near to the end of his life, word came: his efforts had paid off.
Wilberforce’s greatness could be expressed in his dogged determination and also in his charming wit and persuasive oratory. Instead, it resides in a choice he made at a young age—a choice to take a more difficult life journey than one of privilege and wealth. He could have continued to attend all the right parties, have tea with the rich and powerful, or simply enjoyed his wealth. Instead, he put all of his effort into fixing a terrible wrong. He chose to follow Jesus. It was a difficult course that temporarily removed him from his friends and at times isolated him.
Still, he chose to increase his self-worth and not his net-worth.
After he died, Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey next to his friend William Pitt—an honor only given to those who achieved greatness. Those who had abandoned him in his youth now honored this great warrior of justice.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
We love to give credit to budding photographers