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The first abolitionist

I counting on the Lord; yes, I am counting on him. I have put my hope in his word. I long for the Lord more than sentries long for the dawn, yes, more than sentries long for the dawn.

O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is unfailing love and an overflowing supply of salvation. Psalm 130:5-7

The slave trade in the late 1700s involved thousands of Africans, hundreds of ships, and millions of British pounds; upon it depended the economies of Britain and much of Europe. Yet few were aware of the horrors of the so-called Middle Passage across the Atlantic, where an estimated one out of four Africans died. And those who were aware didn't think it possible to do anything about a system so entrenched in the culture and economy.

The exception was a small band of activists, mostly Christian, that included William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament with a gentle grin and a small, twisted body.

Upon his conversion in 1786, Wilberforce had written in his journal, "My walk is a public one. My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men." Not long after that Wilberforce became increasingly disturbed about the slave trade and determined that its abolition was one of his life's great purposes. Later he reflected, "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."

In May 1788 Wilberforce, with the help of researcher Thomas Clarkson, introduced a twelve-point motion to Parliament indicting the slave trade. The motion was defeated, but Wilberforce was not. His campaign intensified, and so did the opposition. Planters, businessmen, ship owners, traditionalists, and even the Crown stood against him and viewed abolitionists like him as dangerous radicals. But even they couldn't deny his perseverance: As one Jamaican agent wrote, "It is necessary to watch him, as he is blessed with a very sufficient quantity of that enthusiastic spirit, which is so far from yielding that it grows more vigorous from blows." He was right. In 1791 Wilberforce introduced another anti-slave-trade bill, which was also defeated. Defeats of further motions followed in 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.

But slowly abolitionist efforts turned the tide of public opinion, and in 1806 Parliament relented and abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce wept with joy.

Not willing to rest on his laurels, he next sought the abolition of slavery itself. Though age and illness forced his retirement from that battle, he did see a victory twenty-six years later: Parliament abolished slavery throughout the British Empire.

Mark Galli


In what areas am I now tempted to give up? In which of these am I called to persevere?


Lord, help me to discern those obstacles that indicate I should abandon the project, as well as those that are calling me to exercise more faith and perseverance.

"Every noble work is at first impossible."

—Thomas Carlyle (1795—1881), Scottish historian and essayist

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