"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

William Wilberforce

“So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the Trade's wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for Abolition. Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”

British abolitionist William Wilberforce was born August 24, 1759 in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire. He attended St. John's College, Cambridge, where he was a classmate of future Prime Minister William Pitt. Wilberforce was elected to Parliament at the age of 21 while still a student. Although small and sickly from childhood, with extremely bad eyesight, he soon became known for his oratorical skills. Diarist James Boswell said this about him: "I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale."

Raised in a traditional Anglican family, Wilberforce had been introduced to evangelical Christianity during the years he lived with an aunt and uncle who were followers of Methodist preacher George Whitefield. His faith was reawakened on reading William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life in 1785. He became increasingly involved in moral and social issues and began working for the abolition of the slave trade in 1789. John Wesley wrote these words to him shortly before Wesley's death in 1791:
               "Unless the divine power has raised you up to be an Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be fore you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
              "Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a "law" in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?"
Wilberforce worked with the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, led by Thomas Clarkson and Charles Middleton. This was perhaps the first grass-roots civil human rights organization, using many modern methods such as lobbying, public meetings, and even a logo (pictured at right) designed by Josiah Wedgwood.

Before Parliament could be persuaded to pass anti-slavery legislation, the war against France in 1793 created a more conservative climate and no progress was made for another decade. In 1804 Wilberforce introduced a bill prohibiting British subjects from participating in the slave trade which was passed within two years and took effect in March 1807.

Wilberforce continued to work to abolish slavery, even after his retirement from Parliament in 1826. Aided by the 1832 slave revolt in Jamaica, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was passed just days before his death on July 29 of that year.

Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce
Wilberforce is the subject of the 2007 film Amazing Grace, released on the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Ohio's Wilberforce University, the nation's oldest private historically black university, is named in his honor. His birthplace in Hull has been opened as a museum honoring the abolition movement.

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