Today I want us to travel together into the past, to England in the late 1700’s. King George III is on the throne, though this is before the madness that would mark his final days. The Industrial Revolution is well underway and life is changing as people begin a great migration to the cities to pursue those new factory jobs. On the other side of the Atlantic the American colonies have recently declared their independence.
Let’s zoom in on the year 1789 and the city of London. A well-dressed man walks into the British parliament and he delivers a daring speech. He makes a bold proposal. He wants to bring to an end a great evil, an evil he believes is staining his entire nation.
At this time in history, England is a nation that not only allows slavery, but actually condones it and supports it. In fact, the English economy has come to depend on it. British ships are constantly sailing down the African coast and as they go they are capturing men, women and children and shipping them across the Atlantic into a life of slavery. Countless thousands of these slaves will die along the way. Families are ripped apart; women are treated savagely; children are torn from their parents. These slaves are regarded as less than human, unworthy of rights and freedoms. North American plantations are producing vast wealth and making England a rich nation, but only at this cost—the cost of allowing and advocating slavery. Slavery is so much a part of the economy that almost nobody believes that anything can ever change.
But one man does. One man believes he can make a difference. His name is William Wilberforce. Wilberforce had become a member of Parliament in 1780 when he was only twenty-one years old. Five years later he experienced a great change in his life when he read a Bible and came to believe that he was a sinner who needed to be saved by Jesus Christ. That experience forever transformed his life and now, just 4 years later, he has come to see slavery as a great and reprehensible evil and he will dedicate his life to ending it. He believes that whether a person has dark skin or light skin, whether he was born in Africa or England, all are equally created in the image of God. All human beings have equal dignity and worth because all are equally made in the image of the Creator. None has the right to enslave another.
And so this man stands in front of his fellow members of Parliament and makes a speech in which he pleads justice for slaves and he proclaims that slavery is immoral, it is wrong. He is being very strategic here. He is not proposing that slavery be done away with all together. Not yet. There will be time for that. First he simply proposes that the slave trade be regulated and curtailed. Yet even with this modest proposal he is defeated. It is not even close.
He is defeated and slavery continues. Those ships continue to steal thousands and thousands of people and take them far away. But Wilberforce will not stop fighting. He will not go away. He brings bills again in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, 1805. And every time he is defeated. He is defeated by filibuster. He is defeated by illness. He is defeated by unrest and rebellion among slaves. He is defeated by international interests that simply refuse to allow the slave trade to die. He is defeated by plain old bigotry.
But still he does not give up. He does not surrender. His enemies come up with a strategy: If we can destroy the man we can destroy the cause. Even when great personal attacks come against him, even when people try to destroy his name and reputation, he persists. He fights on.
Much later he reflects on this time and says, “So enormous, so dreadful did the slave 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.”
His first success comes in 1807, almost 20 years after he first began his crusade. In this year his persistence leads to a bill to abolish the slave trade in the British West Indies. Now, suddenly, the slave trade is illegal. This does nothing for those who are already slaves, but it is a start—an important start. And that day, too, will come. Wilberforce will live to see the triumph of his cause when slavery is finally and completely abolished. He is a man who changed the world by staying committed to his cause, by staying committing to his principles, by staying committed to what he knew God had called him to do.
We look back on William Wilberforce today and see his life and times as a great triumph of good over evil. Rightly do we regard him as a heroic figure. But his life was one of constant battles and discouragement. The one great victory came only after many, many crushing defeats. It was his persistence that changed minds, that changed his nation, that changed the course of history. If he had grown weary, if he had lost his confidence in his cause, he would not have rewritten history. He would not have been the hero he is today.
William Wilberforce exemplified one great but rare characteristic, one great but rare Christian trait. He was a model of determination. A model of persistence. A model of perseverance as he pursued what he knew God had called him to do. God had given him a desire and an opportunity and he persisted until he had completed the work God had called him to.