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23 March 2017

Five lessons for Christians in politics from William Wilberforce

This Saturday marks the 210th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807. When passed through parliament, it made slave-trading illegal in the British Empire. It did not bring slavery itself to an end, as this was only outlawed completely in British territory with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. However, the 1807 Act was an incredibly important step in that direction, that encouraged abolitionists around the world. 

A key player in the campaign for this Act was the evangelical Christian MP William Wilberforce. On this anniversary, it is worth reflecting on Wilberforce's successful example and his lessons for Christians in politics today. 

Don't let anyone tell you that your voice doesn't matter. There was very little that was inevitable about the campaign to abolish the slave trade. Slavery had many wealthy and influential supporters, who bitterly resisted any change. Without the work of dedicated campaigners such as Wilberforce, the abolition of slavery would have taken much longer, and may even not have happened at all – however inconceivable this may be to us today. 

Be inspired by the gospel. Wilberforce and others saw an intrinsic connection between the free grace of God in the gospel and the freedom of their fellow human beings. No-one embodied this connection more than John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace. Newton was himself engaged in the slave trade before his conversion, but after coming to faith he bitterly repented that he had ever been so involved. It's also worth noting that Newton, Wilberforce and their circle were as passionate about the spread of the gospel through global mission as they were about the abolition of slavery. This connection between the gospel and freedom is a source of inspiration even today. For example, to recognise the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation issued a threefold statement: salvation not for sale; human beings not for sale; creation not for sale. 

Be prepared to be called an extremist. It is difficult for us to imagine how opposition to slavery could be seen as extreme or dangerous, but that is exactly what Wilberforce experienced. As the Christian Institute's Little Book of Non-Violent Extremists notes, Wilberforce was seen as a danger to national security for his position that slavery was wrong. Abolition, after all, was seen as encouraging rebellion, or a sign of sympathy with the recent French Revolution. This temptation to see non-violent but controversial positions as a threat has never really gone away

Recognise that change can take a long time. Before the 1807 Act was passed, anti-slavery bills had been defeated again and again in Parliament. Wilberforce himself first decided to campaign on the issue in 1787 – 20 years before the Abolition Act. This is important, because today we can be far too present-focused in our advocacy, and be discouraged if we don't see immediate fruit. However, Wilberforce's example should encourage us to persevere in the campaigns to which God calls us. 

Get involved and stay involved. It would have been tempting for Wilberforce and other abolitionists to see the 1807 Act as their mission accomplished. However, it would be another 26 years before slavery was formally outlawed in the British Empire, and many more before emancipation in the United States. And even today, many organisations still campaign against the evils of modern slavery and human trafficking. More information on the organisations which the Alliance is working with on this issue can be found here. Please do get involved, support these groups in their work, and publicise them in your churches. 210 years on, there is still more to do. 

If you'd like to think more about how to follow Wilberforce's example of being a Christian leader, please do take a look at our Public Leadership website www.thepublicleader.com