A few good men: Friendships that put an end to the slave trade in BritainWritten by Paul McCusker
What's inside this article
In 1785 William Wilberforce was a rising star in British politics. He had recently become a Member of Parliament for the prestigious and powerful county of Yorkshire at the age of 24.
He was in close company with Britain’s greatest political power players. He was wealthy and indulged in the leisurely activities available at all the best London clubs. He had everything a man of his time could possibly want.
Yet he was in crisis.
The crisis had begun, oddly enough, with the rediscovery of an old friend named Isaac Milner. Milner was renowned as a Cambridge tutor. He was also one of the new breed of Christians emerging in England: an "evangelical."
The unusual combination of intellectual and Christian faith intrigued Wilberforce. He invited Milner to join him on a vacation to France to discuss Christianity. Milner agreed. Neither could have known how their discussions would impact Wilberforce personally—and the entire world.
In his talks with Milner, Wilberforce found that the closer he came to the truth of Christianity, the more shallow and pointless his life seemed to be.
"I was filled with sorrow," he admitted to his son years later. "I am sure no human creature could suffer more than I did for some months."
As he often did, Wilberforce turned to friends for help. He wrote to William Pitt, his closest friend and the current prime minister. He couldn’t imagine being a Christian and a politician at the same time. Pitt was alarmed, cautioning him not to take on a faith that would remove his talents from the service of mankind. Wilberforce was not comforted. He couldn’t reconcile his Christian call with his political career.
Five days later Wilberforce paced nervously outside the house of another friend, this one long-estranged. John Newton.
To us, John Newton is best known as the slave captain who later became the composer of the hymn Amazing Grace. To London’s "smart society," John Newton was also an evangelical, but the "worst" kind: a fanatic who denounced all the pleasures and self-indulgences that society loved the most. To William Wilberforce, John Newton was a man who’d been a mentor after Wilberforce’s father had died. They had drifted apart as Wilberforce went off to school and eventually became a success in politics. In the intervening years, Wilberforce had little time for Newton’s Christianity—until now.
At the risk of being mocked and becoming fodder for gossip, Wilberforce dared to enter Newton’s house. His former mentor was gracious and empathetic. He understood Wilberforce’s dilemma.
Surprisingly for an evangelical, Newton calmly suggested that Wilberforce should remain in politics while nurturing his Christian faith. Newton promised to help and once again became a mentor to the young man.
Campaign of friends
Had the story ended there, then history—and the lives of millions —would have been significantly altered. But Wilberforce’s closest friends saw in his newfound faith a powerful opportunity. In separate conversations, letters, even at dinner parties, they encouraged Wilberforce to use his political and personal influence to stop the slave trade in the British Empire.
Wilberforce was reticent. He wasn’t convinced he was the right person to champion that cause. His friends didn’t agree. They worked to persuade him that he was exactly the right person in the right place at the right time. John Newton went so far as to suggest that perhaps God had raised Wilberforce up "for the good of His Church and for the good of the nation."
Wilberforce finally conceded. Writing in October 1787, he declared, "God Almighty had set before him . . . the suppression of the Slave Trade."
Optimists at the time believed Wilberforce would accomplish his goal quickly. No one could have known that the battle would cost him the next 20 years of his life. But he kept fighting—year after year, campaign after campaign.
His enemies mocked him, insulted him, called him a traitor and lied about him in the most public ways. His health, never good at the best of times, failed him repeatedly. Yet he pressed on, navigating the political system in London while his friends rallied other anti-slavery groups in cities and villages throughout Britain.
Their combined efforts created what would become the model for all future activist campaigns: mass mailings, wall posters, lapel pins, slogans, networks of local groups, and boycotts that struck to the very heart of slave commerce. On Feb. 23, 1807, the Bill for the Abolition of Slave Trade was voted on by Parliament—with 283 "ayes" and 16 "noes." Twenty years of effort had paid off.
As the notes of congratulations poured in, lavishing praise on Wilberforce alone for his work, he was quick to reply, "You do me far more honour than I deserve. I am only one among many fellow-labourers." Those fellow labourers were the friends who stood by his side every step of the way and without whom success may not have come.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox