William Wilberforce - How His Conscience Helped To Abolish Slavery

By Kris Deichler, Associate Partner & Mentorship Coach, Lighthouse International

We all have dreams, goals and ambitions, but have you ever asked yourself what you really want your life to be about? If money was no object, what would be the most valuable, fulfilling and worthwhile use of your time here? The next question then, is perhaps much harder to answer - how much are you willing to commit and sacrifice in order to make that happen, and what will the outcome be if you don't? Some of the biggest changes in the world have happened because of someone refusing to compromise and settle for an ordinary life.

William Wilberforce; Youthful Frivolity To Great Reformer:

Perhaps you have heard the story of William Wilberforce. He was born in 1759 and troubled by frail health throughout his life. The son of a wealthy merchant, he later became an English politician and friend of the youngest ever (age 24) British Prime Minister in history, William Pitt the Younger. Wilberforce admitted that his first years in government were composed of hardly any purpose or achievement. In 1785 however, after a long, frivolous and disillusioned family tour of Europe, his life began to take a big change of direction. He began to question and reconsider his values, beliefs and overall purpose in life. Something was niggling at him that he just couldn't shake off or ignore anymore.

It was following a visit to an old family friend; the former slave trader and then clergyman, John Newton (author of the well-known song - Amazing Grace), that his life changed for good. Mr. Newton, a reformed man himself, influenced and inspired William to become a champion and campaigner for the abolishment of the slave trade in Great Britain. The trade was a very powerful and wealthy industry that was feeding the British Empire at the time - however, there was also a growing group of abolitionists who would support Mr. Wilberforce, including his friend the Prime Minister.

Champion For a Moral Cause:

In 1791, Mr. Wilberforce presented the first motion to Parliament for the abolition of the slave trade on the basis of its inhumanity. Over several hours he made a passionate plea that outlined many of the slave trade’s grim practices and brutal realities, closing with words that have since become timeless:

'You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.'

Unfortunately, his presentation was not enough to turn the politicians away from the influence and power such a wealthy industry had and the motion was easily defeated. So began the beginning of a campaign that lasted another 16 difficult years in the struggle to change public and influential opinion. Victory eventually came in 1807, with the passing of the Slave Trade Act; abolishing the buying and selling of slaves across the British Empire. It would take another 26 years of campaigning however for the final victory when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833. An act of parliament for the staged release of existing slaves from their servitude throughout the British Empire. A then frail and very ill William Wilberforce succumbed to influenza and died at home just 3 days after hearing the news of the Slavery Abolition Act's passing, aged 73.

As a humanitarian, he had chosen to tirelessly devote his life to the abolition of slavery, despite many periods of ill health, continuous resistance, and criticism of his cause. It is said that, when the Slave Trade Act was finally passed in 1807 and on witnessing a victory of 283 votes to 16, William Wilberforce sat in the House of Commons with tears streaming down his cheeks! The world could have been a very different place today without him and all those he worked with.

What If He'd Chosen Differently?

When we look at the greats, the people who have had a profound impact on the way we live our lives today, what would have happened and where would we be if they’d chosen a different path in life. What if William Wilberforce had continued to live out a life of frivolous privilege. What if Martin Luther King Jr. became an insurance salesman or something instead? What if Mr. Gandhi or Nelson Mandela had simply continued their lives as lawyers, rather than taking a stand against racial oppression. You could ask this of any legend and see there was something that drove them to do extraordinary things. However what was that 'something'? How can we use our own 'something' to further our lives, and in turn serve others?

"Accustom yourself to look first to the dreadful consequences of failure; then fix your eye on the glorious prize which is before you; and when your strength begins to fail, and your spirits are well-nigh exhausted, let the animating view rekindle your resolution, and call forth in renewed vigour the fainting energies of your soul."

~ William Wilberforce

Follow Your Conscience:

Let’s be honest, there are many times in life when we have a feeling we should make a particular choice, but for some reason we don’t. Situations where we choose to go with what’s logical, safe and makes the most ‘sense,’ rather than trust our instinctual feelings. We may choose a career because it offers a good income and prospects for progression, however deep down we know it isn’t something we would love doing every day, for the rest of our lives. How often do we make these kinds of choices, the ones that appear to tick all the right boxes, but which ultimately won’t enrich and fulfil us?

That inner voice, gut feeling, instinct,whatever you want to call it; I call it conscience, the whisper that hindsight so often teaches us was the right and best choice in the end. When we ignore it, we do so to avoid the risk and uncertainty that seems to come with it. Following our instincts or conscience often means making the harder choice; the one that will involve fewer immediate returns, less significance, more work, more challenge and potentially more pain. However, when you look at the greats; people who have done amazing things in this world because they followed that feeling -  isn’t all they went through worth it in the end? Who knows where listening to your instinct or conscience could take you. Isn’t our world all the poorer for each person who compromises that? Aren't our own lives all the poorer too?!

If you enjoyed this story, I’d highly recommend you read this article too: Steven Spielberg on Why We Don’t Find Purpose.

    Going back to the question at the beginning of this article;

    If money was no object, what would be the most valuable, fulfilling and worthwhile use of your time here? Listen to your gut and go with the first thing you imagine, no matter how crazy it might seem! Write it down here and get it out...

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