William Wilberforce: His Battle Resonates with Ours

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In the pro-life movement we often draw parallels between the practices of slavery and abortion.

As I read a biography of William Wilberforce, who fought to ban the slave trade in Great Britain in the last 18th and early 19th Centuries, it struck me that the campaigns to ban these great historical evils also have a lot in common.

A Calling, Not a Choice

One thing that struck me was the way Wilberforce became involved in the campaign. It was not merely a choice he made. Rather, it was an unavoidable calling from God that must be answered. Wilberforce embraced his Christian faith not long after being elected to the House of Commons. As a result of his conversion, he began to question whether he should leave public life.

But once his eyes were opened to the depravity and evils of slavery, he became committed to fighting it. As author William Hague wrote, slavery “became a natural target for Evangelicals and Methodists…their beliefs in applying Christian principles to the whole of life…gave many of them a sense of unavoidable responsibility to combat slavery, rather than a choice of whether or not to do so” (p. 131).

The battle against abortion has a similar moral imperative. Those of us involved in this fight believe that, if we are to live out our Christian beliefs, we have an “unavoidable responsibility to combat” the greatest evil of our time, abortion.

God Will Provide the Strength

With this calling comes the strength to see it through, if you are where God wants you to be. As John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, wrote to Wilberforce, “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 for you who can be against you. Are all of them together stronger than God?” (p. 195)

While this battle is exhausting emotionally, spiritually, and physically, if this is where God wants you, he’ll keep you there. The tenacity of pro-lifers like Joe Scheidler, Jack Willke, and Henry Hyde is a clear demonstration of this.

Wilberforce wrote in his diary in 1795: “Indeed, the great point for our comfort in life is to have a well grounded persuasion that we are, where, all things considered, we ought to be” (p. 263).

Indeed, no matter what job you have or what cause you fight for, knowing that you are where God wants you is indeed the greatest comfort a person can have.

The Opposition Will Criticize You

The opposition not infrequently accuses us of focusing on abortion instead of more “important” problems. Most Saturdays in front of Planned Parenthood someone will harangue me for not spending my time wisely, telling me my time would be better spent fighting for some other cause. (Which amuses me, because if I weren’t at the clinic praying on Saturday mornings, I’d be asleep. Some contribution to humanity that would be!)

It struck me, then, when I read this argument against working to abolish slavery, which was made by a plantation owner:

If Great Britain be seriously bent upon humanity, let it … reform at home before it venture to make romantic trials of compassion abroad! Let it look into itself…! Let it look into the situation of the peasantry; let it look into the state of the parochial … let it look into prisons… (p. 173)

In other words, don’t “waste” time getting rid of slavery until you’ve fixed every other problem that exists in the world. Spend your time elsewhere, rather than on the cause that you hold dear.

Have Persistence

The persistence of William Wilberforce and his fellow campaigners is admirable and something we should ourselves strive for. In 1791, Wilberforce concluded a speech against the slave trade thus:

Never, never, will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country. (p. 198)

A year later he told the House of Commons that, “In his exertions for the present cause, he had found happiness, though hitherto not success; …┬áhe carried the topic with him to his repose, and often had the bliss of remembering, that he demanded justice for millions, who could not ask it for themselves” (p. 232).

This is reminiscent of the famous quote by Rep. Henry Hyde:

When the time comes, as it surely will, when we face that awesome moment, the final judgment, I’ve often thought, as Fulton Sheen wrote, that it is a terrible moment of loneliness. You have no advocates, you are there alone standing before God — and a terror will rip your soul like nothing you can imagine. But I really think that those in the pro-life movement will not be alone. I think there’ll be a chorus of voices that have never been heard in this world but are heard beautifully and clearly in the next world — and they will plead for everyone who has been in this movement. They will say to God, ‘Spare him, because he loved us!'”

But perhaps most important is this insight into how Wilberforce was able to keep fighting what seemed like an impossible battle. He wrote in his book, A Practical View, published in 1797,

Accustom yourself to look first to the dreadful consequences of failure; then fix your eye on the glorious prize which is before you; and when your strength begins to fail, and your spirits are will nigh exhausted, let the animating view rekindle your resolution, and call forth in renewed vigour the fainting energies of your soul. (p. 276)

When you know what evils will persist if you fail, you will find the strength to keep fighting.

We know that every year abortion continues unabated in our country, over one million babies will die. Let this knowledge strengthen our resolve to keep fighting and give “renewed vigour” to our souls.

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