The Reverend Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar
Sunday, 30th July 2017 at 6:30 PM
While William Wilberforce may have been a diminutive figure, standing at around five foot three or four, his Christian faith was such that he was a veritable giant. To his political opponents, his physical features may have made him a target of fun, one noting that Wilberforce was ‘an ugly little fellow with a long tipped-up nose - too long for his face’, yet as the New York Herald reported following his death, he was as ‘pure and virtuous a man as ever lived’.
Despite his wealth, his life was far from easy. He suffered poor health and could be bedridden for weeks at a time. On one such occasion, in his late twenties, he wrote, ‘[I] am still a close prisoner, wholly unequal even to such a little business as I am now engaged in: add to which my eyes are so bad that I can scarce see how to direct my pen.’ Today, Wilberforce would probably be diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, but then in the late eighteenth century his physicians could only treat the symptoms and turn to a new drug, opium. Unaware of its side-effects, Wilberforce experienced terrifying hallucinations and episodes of depression.
In good health, it was a different matter. Wilberforce was a persistent and effective politician, in part due to a natural charm and in part to his skills as an orator. Elected to the House of Commons at the age of twenty-one, he regarded it as some sinecure later admitting that in ‘[t]he first years in Parliament I did nothing—nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object.’ To this end, like most rich young gentlemen of his day, Wilberforce joined the clubs in the fashionable St. James’ area of London: the exclusive White’s, Brookes’ for gambling, Boodle’s and Goosetrees’ for dining and conversation. He attended the theatre, opera, the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and would attend the races watching his own horse compete.
All that was to change with his spiritual rebirth: a gradual process in the mid 1780s which began with his intellectual acceptance of the Christian gospel and, over a period of twelve months or so, the realisation that his life was marred by sin for which the only solution was the acceptance of Jesus Christ as his saviour. He turned his back on the endless socializing, which was part and parcel of the politics of his day: ‘the temptations at the table’, the endless dinner parties accompanied by conversation which fuelled self-importance and achieved little. Instead, he turned his attention to charitable and humanitarian causes, the most prominent being the campaign to bring an end to slavery across the British Empire. As he was to write, ‘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.’ It was a campaign prompted by the Quakers when they set up antislavery committees and were instrumental in bringing before Parliament the first slave trade petition. That was in 1783. Three years later, following his conversion to evangelical Christianity, Wilberforce was persuaded to lead the abolitionists in Parliament.
On 12 May 1789, he made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons, claiming that the trade was morally reprehensible and an issue of natural justice. Drawing on reams of evidence, he detailed the terrible conditions under which slaves were transported and, subsequently, moved twelve parliamentary resolutions condemning the slave trade. Predictably, he was outmanoeuvred by those who had a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Time and time again, the introduction of parliamentary bills to abolish the trade in slaves ended in defeat: in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. Eventually, in February 1807, the slave trade was abolished and twenty-six years later, three days before Wilberforce died, slavery itself was abolished throughout the British Empire.
Wilberforce became a national hero and it was the government that requested he be buried here in Westminster Abbey. His coffin, carried by two Royal Dukes, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons and four Peers of the Realm, was followed into this Abbey by members of both Houses of Parliament. Of course, the abolition of the slave trade and slavery was more than the work of one man. The lengthy struggle to end the slave trade was much more complex and while Wilberforce deserves recognition, the story of emancipation belongs to many others, both black and white, men and women, in Britain and the Caribbean.
Tragically, their achievement did not bring an end to the horrors of slavery. Today, it is estimated that there are 21 million people around the world trapped in some form of forced labour or modern slavery. This includes trafficking, debt bondage and child labour. In the United Kingdom alone, an estimated 13,000 people are working as slaves in agriculture, hospitality, fishing, private homes, brothels, nail bars and cannabis farms. The United Nations has revealed that modern slavery and trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world, with some putting the annual profits from forced labour at $150bn.
Ten years ago, in this place, Rowan Williams, at that time Archbishop of Canterbury, asked this: have we [as Christians] good news to tell the world today, or only the grim recognition of just how deeply addicted human beings are to inhuman behaviour?’ Think back to our reading a moment ago where, in a Nazareth synagogue, Jesus set out his manifesto which speaks of the Spirit of the Lord bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and by which the oppressed go free. In every age, if only we listen to the Spirit of the Lord, we too can become channels of God’s salvation to those who are victims of man’s inhumanity to man. Their exploitation summons us to respond not only with prayer, not only with advocacy, but by changing our own behaviour for in the products we buy, wear and consume we can become complicit with those who profit from modern slavery.
This evening, as we leave this place where the mortal remains of Wilberforce lie buried, let us recall the way he and others challenged the complacency of their age, and, empowered by God’s Spirit, let us ask how we can make each other more free and more human.