Teaching a course in world civilization is interesting, and refreshing, as even I, every semester, see the movable parts which have become our planet. And I cannot even refer to every story, for a survey course is hard enough to teach in its own way.
But, we do discuss rather powerful things, and that just cannot be helped. One of the most powerful is the story of William Wilberforce, and his career to abolish the slave trade in Britain.
His influences, too, seem to be a bit providential. John Newton, former slavetrader, and author of the song Amazing Grace, influenced Wilberforce’s decision to remain in politics, and forego a career as a clergyman. And John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement in England, had close correspondence with Wilberforce.
Wesley actually wrote a letter to Wilberforce — the last letter ever written by Wesley. Wilberforce, a member of the English Parliament, and subsequently opposed for the better part of twenty years, in his efforts to end slavery, was, at several moments, discouraged, oppossed, and mocked. Slavery, as an institution, was valuable to the British economy, and to completely end it was to, supposedly, severly cripple English financial institutions. Wilberforce fought against what many thought was an impossible action. Slavery would never end, or at least most thought.
It is in this context, then, in 1791, that you should read the following letter:
Balam, February 24, 1791
Unless the divine power has raised you us to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not howyou can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. 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 be fore you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! 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.
Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a “law” in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?
That he who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things, is the prayer of, dear sir,
Your affectionate servant,
What a powerful letter. Wilberforce’s struggle continued for another sixteen years, but I have no doubt that he treasured these moments of encouragement, from a man of faith, who believed not only that Wilberforce could end the slave trade in England, but also, to end slavery in America, a colony just recently lost by Britain.
Colonies, power struggles, and the economy means very little to God in the greater struggles for morality. These sorts of letters, and intimate conversations between two great men, should forever be treasured, and should inspire even us. We can do greater things than we can even believe, for if God is for us, then who can be against us?
Wilberforce succeeded in 1807. And his achievement is, today, hailed as one of the catalysts of the demise of global slavery. One man, with an idea, can be credited with such a fantastic feat, because he believed that, with God as his defense, great things can actually happen. Even impossible things.