Friday, September 1, 2006

My confirmation classes sixty years ago were held in a church across from my school whose significance was unknown to me at the time. This was St. Paul's Church which was built by William Wilberforce who has become one of my heroes.

My confirmation classes sixty years ago were held in a church across from my school whose significance was unknown to me at the time. This was St. Paul's Church which was built by William Wilberforce who has become one of my heroes. Wilberforce, sometimes described as Britain 's Abraham Lincoln, led the parliamentary battle that ended the slave trade two hundred years ago. In 2007 many events will mark this bicentenary including the addition of a museum at the church.

John Pollock's classic work Wilberforce is being reissued as well as Garth Lean's God's Politician , regarded as one of the most readable on the subject. The former leader of Britain 's Conservative Party, William Hague who represents the same city, Hull , as Wilberforce did in Parliament, is also bringing out a book. He says, ‘Wilberforce, more than any other man in his generation, exemplified in his life how to translate a religious calling into political action.'

Thirty years ago I wrote to a number of film producers, including David Puttnam, suggesting that Wilberforce's life and battle had all the ingredients of a blockbuster movie. My suggestion fell on deaf ears and so I am particularly delighted that a major film Amazing Grace is also in the works for 2007.

I once played a cameo part of Wilberforce in a musical revue and have never forgotten his memorable words, ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.' By that he meant the moral and spiritual state on the nation.

William Wilberforce was well off, a gifted speaker and singer and his best friend was prime minister. But in a remarkable change he faced the fact that in his first years in parliament he had achieved nothing worthwhile. As he said, his own distinction had become his ‘darling object'.

He decided to put these twin God-given aims before allegiance to party or the possibility of his own advancement, including the chance to be prime minister. He began what became a lifelong habit of rising early to spend time in meditation. He enlisted men and women around him who were said to be more talented than the cabinet. They would meet in what they called ‘cabinet councils' where they devised imaginative strategies for advancing their aims.

They came under violent opposition and vilification. Indeed, John Wesley, in the last letter he ever wrote, cautioned 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 is with you who can be against you?

Wilberforce kept at it – for forty-six years. After twenty years of unrelenting battle the House of Commons passed the bill, abolishing the slave trade. On his deathbed twenty-six years later he was given the news that within a year all 800,000 slaves in British territories were to be set free.

Meanwhile such a change of the moral climate had occurred that it was reckoned that scarcely a hundred upper-class families remained where at least one member had not undergone what was called the ‘great change' and the groundwork was laid for many important reforms and democratic developments that followed.

In this next year there will be many echoes of Wilberforce's struggle. There will be events to help people recognize unacknowledged debts to the past. Already in February this year, for instance, the Church of England has apologized for the role it played in benefiting from slave labor in the Caribbean. According to Sonia Barron, adviser to the Archbishop's Council for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, the sharing of perspectives on the legacy of slavery is one way to progress: ‘Commemorating the Abolition Act provides a springboard from which to move into redressing the balance. It's everyone's legacy – blacks and whites – and repentance and forgiveness will help communities move forward.'

Commemorative events may take the shape of a ‘March of the Abolitionists' from Hull to Westminster or further work on the Reconciliation Triangle, as it has been dubbed, between Britain, West Africa and the US, bringing together the descendants of slaves, of those who sold them and those who profited from the trade. The Methodist Church Women's Network is launching a social action project to draw attention to the trafficking of women and children and the Religious Society of Friends is drawing up a work pack for schools focussing on the way ordinary people have been key to changing history.

I wonder if in this year we will find more bold men and women who will accept other great objects which will make a difference in our world. Wilberforce's biographer John Pollock, with whom I play tennis, tells me that he has been advising the British government on how to mark this landmark event. He believes that ‘Wilberforce proved that one man can change his times, but he cannot do it alone'.

This article first appeared on the website: in August/September 2006