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The Political Leadership of William Wilberforce: Christian Activism and the Abolition of Slavery

Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 28 years.

Since the film Amazing Grace, the name William Wilberforce has become widely-known. The life and efforts of this parliamentarian reformer provide a great example of Christian political activism. During his life, Wilberforce put feet to his faith, and as a result, he spearheaded the move to abolish the slave trade, and eventually the abolition of slavery.

According to historian Marcus Rediker, the author of The Slave Ship: A Human History, it was said that you could sometimes smell a slave ship before you could see it on the horizon. The wretched conditions to which slavers subjected fellow human beings is a testament to human depravity and what some men will do line their pockets with silver. These suffering masses came to the attention of Wilberforce, who about the same time had converted from being a cultural Christian to a true disciple of Christ. Because of his life, we have a model for the Christian activist to make a difference for God and humanity. This essay will be more practical, focusing on strategies and tactics of successful activism. Given that Wilberforce was looking to apply his faith in a political environment, what were some of the methods that he used that you could also use to be politically effective?

Wilberforce at age 29. When he was about 28 he penned, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners."

Wilberforce at age 29. When he was about 28 he penned, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners."

Craft a Mission Statement

Write down your mission. Get it in black and white. John Adams did this. Adams, who Benjamin Rush called the “Atlas of Independence,” was probably the most important founding father in crafting a vision of national independence. In his book, The Founding Fathers on Leadership, author Donald T. Phillips talks about how Adams created a “mission statement” for independence. Adams said he envisioned “a union and confederation independent of Parliament, Minister, and King.” Here, Adams penned the “what” of independence. You can read more about John Adams in this article.

Like Adams, Wilberforce also wrote down his mission. In 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his journal that God had set before him two great missions:

  • The abolition of the slave trade
  • The reformation of manners

Not only should the mission statement be written, it should be stated often. Wilberforce publicly stated his mission often, only to have his pleas fall on deaf ears. And this is where the hard work of leadership begins. Simply put, most leaders are too impatient while waiting for their people to mentally transition to accept the mission. They want followers to listen to them and change immediately. But most people transition slowly.

Recognize that when people first hear your message, they are likely to distrust it as people tend to distrust information heard for the first time. Therefore, you need to find creative ways to repeat the vision so that people can acclimate to what you’re saying. Coaches have to be good at this; they have to be willing to say the same things over and over again.

A second reason for repeating the mission is that you’ll find out who’s on board with the vision and who's not. When it comes to your goals, not everyone is going to travel with you. Some people will find out immediately that you’re not going their direction, and they’re going to jump ship. Others will tire of your continually singing the same song and they’re going to jump ship too. Of course, in the beginning you may lose some people for hammering away at a defined vision (“I’m tired of hearing about it”), but some people will also come on board, albeit slowly. If you’re not willing to repeat the vision, you’re not going to get those followers.

The image of the abolition movement. This medallion image, engraved by Josiah Wedgewood contains the famous words "Am I not a Man and a Brother?"

The image of the abolition movement. This medallion image, engraved by Josiah Wedgewood contains the famous words "Am I not a Man and a Brother?"

Employ Others Who Have Abilities You Don't

Ronald Reagan once said that “it’s amazing how much one can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit.” Like Reagan, Wilberforce was secure enough to surround himself with people who were better at certain skills than he was. One such man, Grenville Sharp, had previously promoted the outlawing of slavery in England. Sharp provided Wilberforce with his previous experiences so that Wilberforce did not have to “reinvent the wheel.”

A second man important to Wilberforce’s team was Zachary Macaulay, who had the skills of a researcher. He knew the facts and combed through the reports of slavery abuse. Macaulay knew the details. Having a team member like Macaulay will provide your team answers and answers lend credibility to your mission. Macaulay is the guy you get to dig for the facts; he is familiar with academic knowledge, that knowledge to be found in libraries: books, articles, and printed research. He knows where to get the facts you need. Facts are going to be important in helping you refine the “how” of your mission. Knowing the facts also increases your trustworthiness in that it shows that you care enough to do your homework.

Third, there was Thomas Clarkson, a clergyman and writer who traveled to the African coasts to get first-hand reports on the treatment of slaves. Clarkson did the “on the site research” whether in Africa or on actual slave ships. Clarkson is not just getting book information, he's providing first-hand accounts. Guys like Clarkson do not just want to read about the problems; they want to see them “up close.” He will give your mission credibility. He will notice the little things that might escape others who are writing about events, but whose writing is second-hand. He will also likely be passionate about the mission. He will help you locate the focal point of action, allowing you to focus your resources effectively. Clarkson’s relationship with Wilberforce would be a vital one with the two of them collaborating over a 50-year period.

But Wilberforce also employed the help of those that had authority that he lacked. He employed the assistance of leaders who might be able to advance his cause, like Great Britain’s Prime Minster, William Pitt the Younger. Remember Nehemiah of the Diaspora who returned to his homeland to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, but he did so with the authority and resources of the King of Persia.

The best way to employ the help of authority is by helping your boss to be better than he currently is. In his book The 360 Degree Leader John Maxwell talks about helping the leaders above you, beside you, and below you. A good leader will recognize your contribution and will usually later be willing to help you. A poor leader won’t recognize it, but this can still be a “win” for you, because you don’t want to work for such a leader.

An 1828 portrait of Wilberforce by Sir Thomas Lawrence. While the painting went unfinished, Wilberforce's life work did not. By the time he died in 1833, Wilberforce witnessed both the eradication of the slave trade and slavery in Great Britain.

An 1828 portrait of Wilberforce by Sir Thomas Lawrence. While the painting went unfinished, Wilberforce's life work did not. By the time he died in 1833, Wilberforce witnessed both the eradication of the slave trade and slavery in Great Britain.

Use Both the Printed and Spoken Word

Pamphlets, tracts, papers, editorials, articles. You’re more likely to change viewpoints when you can put something in people’s hand. John Maxwell and Zig Ziglar were talking one day about when they began to notice a change in their audience’s receptivity to their public presentations. Both men noted that the response from their audience began to change when they began to write books and sell audio tapes. Maxwell said that people would come to him and say, “John, I just got your tape; it was a big help” or “I just read your book and it was just what I needed.”

Wilberforce used the force of the printed word by distributing pamphlets that revealed the evils of slavery. Like Maxwell and Zigler, Wilberforce was putting in people’s hands something to take home and then give to someone else to read. He also worked to place in the hands of the government the opinions of the British people by circulating petitions, bringing to the House of Commons 519 petitions containing thousands of signatures by the British people.

Wilberforce also relied on the spoken word. Speeches are good to inspire and inform, but some leaders shy away from public speaking because they don’t see themselves as “polished presenters.” It’s important to note that Wilberforce was not that impressive of a speaker in some respects. He was dynamic, but was also short and sickly. So, while a solid public presence can be valuable, it’s not required to be effective. Sincerity and competence will cover the multitude of sins committed from a lackluster presentation.

Take the Fight to the Opposition

Don’t wait for your opponents to come to you; take the fight to them. Even as a Christian in politics, you’re going to have to go on the offense and play to win. I like John Ashcroft; he was a fine public servant. However, during his confirmation hearings for Attorney General in 2001, he was vilified by liberals for his Christian convictions. His response to these attacks struck me as those of a man whose feelings had been hurt. If your political opponents know that they can wound you because you’re thin-skinned, they’ll be all over you like sharks after blood.

Even as a Christian, you have to be willing to play rough if you’re going to play the political game. Having said that, there are limits. You can neither lie nor do anything that would be immoral, illegal, or unethical against your opponent. However, there are those that will act in an immoral and unethical way against you. This makes for an uneven playing field. However, this only calls on you to be more “creative” in your opposition in order to gain leverage.

Wilberforce went on the offense by participating in a boycott of sugar manufactured by slaves in the West Indies in an attempt to economically punish those that were facilitating the slave trade. Today, the American Family Association does a good job of bringing to the public’s attention businesses that are helping to serve anti-family agendas such as those that are promoted by the gambling and homosexual lobbies. Very often, boycotts ensue against these businesses as a result of their schemes.

Keep Encouragements Nearby

In his book, The Quest for Character, Charles Swindoll gives report to a unique container. On the outside of the box was printed CONTENTS OF THE PRESIDENT”S POCKETS ON THE NIGHT OF APRIL 14, 1865. This box, once held by the Library of Congress, contained the following:

  • A handkerchief embroidered with “A. Lincoln”
  • A penknife
  • A spectacle’s case
  • A $5 bill of confederate money
  • Some worn newspaper clippings

One of the clippings was in response to a Lincoln speech in which the author, John Bright, called Lincoln “one of the greatest men of our time.”

That’s no new news today; many people hold Lincoln in high esteem. However, that was not the consensus during the Civil War. We need look no further than George W. Bush to get an idea of the scorn heaped on a president waging an unpopular war. Lincoln faced the same kind of resistance. Swindoll goes on to say that “there is something touchingly pathetic in the mental picture of this great leader seeking solace and self-assurance from a few old newspaper clippings as he reads them under the flickering flame of a candle all alone in the [White House].”(1) It might be that such encouragements provided Lincoln the strength to endure the darkest hours of the Civil War.

Keep encouragements close: Wilberforce did this. He read letters that encouraged him, like the letter from the Methodist John Wesley that has now become famous. In one of the last letters he ever wrote, Wesley encourages Wilberforce to persevere, telling him

Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it. (2)

Do Good Works

That’s required anyway—As Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Humanitarian causes are the most likely to be politically successful, especially in a democracy. This is only right; the Bible says that the civil magistrate is a “minister of God to thee for good” (Romans 13:4). While slavery is the most widely-known cause Wilberforce engaged in, he also worked with other groups such as the Society for the Education of Africans, Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, and the Society for the Relief of Debtors. (3) However, Wilberforce’s causes were not merely humanitarian; he also worked toward the “reformation of manners” (morals). He sought legislation that would curtail vice and immorality.

One of the criticisms that pro-lifers faced many years ago by feminists was that all that they cared about was the fetus, but not the mother. As a result of this, pro-lifers began to offer crisis pregnancy centers for the purpose of aiding the mothers. This gave their cause more credibility because it showed that pro-lifers were concerned about the life of the mother too, and not just that of the infant. Wilberforce started many associations for the purpose of advancing humanitarian causes—education for Africans, betterment of the poor, improving prison conditions, and debtor relief.

Stay Long Enough Until Things Go Your Way

By the time Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940, many of his old political opponents were dead. Gone were most of the people who hated Winston for the devastating Dardanelles Offensive of World War I, the naval disaster that occurred while Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty. A second benefit Churchill received from “hanging in there” was Churchill’s continuous, often irritating single-minded attack against Hitler. After several years of this relentless polemic, people intuitively trusted him to tell them the truth. Those victories don’t come to those that fail to persevere.

The 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, believed that persistence provides its own unique contribution: "Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.“

In his book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, political scientist John Kingdon talks about the “policy entrepreneur” who has an agenda he continually advances in the policy arena, waiting for the right moment to bring his idea to fruition. Like the surfer waiting for the right wave to ride in, the policy entrepreneur waits out unfavorable conditions until he finds the right moment. (4)

Wilberforce persisted from the end of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth only to face defeat after defeat in the House of Commons. In 1804 Wilberforce actually won the vote in the House of Commons to end the slave trade only to have it voted down in the House of Lords. The following year, his own House defeated his initiative again. In 1807, Wilberforce’s victory seems to come from nowhere when William Grenville and Foreign Secretary Charles James Fox, the “Ministry of all the Talents,” backed the abolition of the slave trade, only after the House of Lords had worked on the provision. On February 22 the House of Commons carried the anti-slave trade motion 283 to 16.

Wilberforce did not start out to do all he did. He did not start out to abolish slavery, yet under his efforts and within three days of his death in 1833, England abolished slavery. It is said that has he slipped into a coma, he said,

Thank God that I should have lived to witness a day in which England was willing to give twenty millions sterling for the abolition of slavery.


(1) Charles Swindoll, the Quest for Character (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1987), 62-3.

(2) Charles W. Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (New York: William Morrow, 1987), 105.

(3) Charles W. Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (New York: William Morrow, 1987), 106.

(4) John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (New York: Harper-Collins, 1984), 188-193.

© 2009 William R Bowen Jr


Sembj on May 22, 2011:

Interesting and informative hub. It is interesting that slavery is approved of in the Old Testament and never properly condemned in the New, though.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on September 05, 2009:

Thanks James. I first heard about Wilberforce years ago after reading Charles W. Colson's book Kingdoms in Conflict (now re released as God and Government). Wilberforce is still one of my favorite Christian statesmen. He lacked the authority to impose his beliefs; rather, he advanced his cause by moral persuasion and he did it nicely.

James A Watkins from Chicago on September 04, 2009:

This is one of the greatest and little remembered men in history. My friend, Eric Metaxas wrote a fine book about Wilberforce a year or two ago. I have two Wilberforce biographies. Thank you for your outstanding article.

My Friend Shiyloh on September 03, 2009:

I am so glad that love came to abolish slavery for all mankind.

Sadly though, not all love freedom as much as freewill.