Rusty Wright on Changing Racist Hearts: Abolishing the Slave Trade

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795). Josiah Wedgwood, et al. / Public domain.

Few examples of systemic racism are more glaring than the African slave trade.  British parliamentarian William Wilberforce led a grueling twenty-year struggle to outlaw it.  Inspired by a former slave trader, he became a model that current anti-racism activists could do well to emulate.

Abraham Lincoln acknowledged Wilberforce’s significant role in abolition.  South African president Nelson Mandela, addressing the British Parliament in 1996, declared, “We have returned to the land of William Wilberforce who dared to…demand that the slaves in our country should be freed.”

Legal, lucrative, brutal

Eighteenth-century Britain led the world in slave trading.  A pillar of colonial economy, the trade was legal, lucrative, and brutal.  In one notorious episode, a ship’s captain threw 132 slaves overboard because of illness and water shortage.  British law protected the ship’s owners, considering slaves property (like “horses,” ruled one judge).

Enter Wilberforce, young, eloquent, popular, and ambitious.  He seemed destined for political greatness.  Then, a profound change led him on a path that some say cost him the prime ministership, but made an indelible historical mark for justice.

Pivotal decisions

While traveling with Cambridge professor Isaac Milner, a skeptical Wilberforce spent long hours discussing biblical faith.  His doubts receded as Milner answered his objections.  Initial intellectual assent to Christian faith morphed into deeper conviction and a personal relationship with God.

Considering leaving Parliament for the ministry, he consulted John Newton, slave-trader-turned-pastor and writer of the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace.”  Newton counseled Wilberforce to remain in Parliament, that God had raised him up “for the good of the nation.”

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SOURCE: Assist News