Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Homily for “Q & Pew” at St. John’s York Mills, Toronto

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce was born in Kingston upon Hull in England in 1759. He was the only son of a wealthy merchant and his wife. He wasn’t always in the best of health and was considered to be fairly sickly as a youth. As a young man at age 17, when his grandfather and an uncle died, he became independently wealthy.

He went up to Cambridge University but because of his wealth, he was little given to study nor apply himself except to the social pursuits of student life. He was seen as witty and generous among the other students with a wonderful speaking and singing voice. He was a popular figure and made many friends including the far more studious William Pitt who was to become the future Prime Minister of England. These two friends used to go to the House of Commons to watch the debates. At the time Pitt was already wanting to pursue a career in politics and convinced Wilberforce to do the same.

Wilberforce won a seat in his home borough of Kingston upon Hull at the age of 21 while still a student at university, in 1780. He sat as an independent, determined not to join either the Whigs or the Tories. but voted according to his conscience. This lead some to believe that he was wishy washy because he would not commit to one party or the other and kept voting with whichever party seemed to present legislation that came closest to his own values. The unifying thread was his conscience and later his strong Christian convictions.

In 1783 his friend Pitt became Prime Minister. Wilberforce was not offered a seat in cabinet by his friend – partly because of his determination to remain an independent, partly because his eyesight wasn’t all that great so he couldn’t read, and partly because he was often late; not prime material for a cabinet position.

In 1784 Wilberforce went on a tour of Europe which changed both his life and his future career in parliament. He began a spiritual journey while there – getting up early to read his bible and to keep a journal – two good solid spiritual practices. Reading the bible and then reflecting on you’ve read is a good way to grow in the spiritual life. Wilberforce had a real conversion experience in his life while in Europe. He resolved to commit his future life and work to the service of God in Jesus Christ. He returned to England and struggled to decide if he should remain in politics as he wasn’t sure that it was in keeping with his new convictions. He sought guidance from an Anglican clergyman, John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, who convinced Wilberforce that his gifts and talents could be best used by God in the public sector by remaining in politics. The 2006 movie titled Amazing Grace, told the story of Wilberforce’s fight for the emancipation of the slaves.

Wilberforce began meeting people who were concerned with the slave trade that England had become involved with during the 16th century. They had a triangular route, first taking British made good to Africa to sell and then purchase slaves. The second leg of the journey was to transport the slaves to the West Indies. They were sold for goods in the West Indies which had been produced by slave labour – tobacco, cotton, sugar – which were then transported back to England in the third leg of the journey. The conditions for slaves were horrific on the boats. Out of 11 million Africans transported into slavery, about 1.4 million died during that second leg of the voyage.

British anti-slavery movements started in England in the 1780's. Wilberforce was actively cultivated by a group called the Testonites, because they realized that they needed a voice in parliament. In 1787 he was formally asked by the group to bring forward the abolition of the slave trade in Parliament and Wilberforce agreed.

He was motivated to be involved in the abolition movement by his desire to put his Christian principles and faith into action and to serve God in his public life. It suited the abolitionists well because Wilberforce was a man of conviction who eloquently in the Parliament. Wilberforce began to introduce legislation into Parliament year by year for the abolition of the slave trade. It was thought that by abolishing the slave trade, that is, the transport of slaves, that slavery itself would gradually disappear. It was felt that this would be more palatable to the many British landowners in the West Indies who relied on slave labour for their profits.

Session after session, after more research, more testimonials from former slaves, from clergymen who had seen the conditions and reported, Wilberforce reintroduced his bill into Parliament and pleaded for its passage with persistence and eloquence, only to see it defeated time after time by the tactics of other parliamentarians who were being subsidized by wealthy British West Indian landowners. His persistence finally paid off when his bill was passed in Parliament in 1807 – twenty years after he had started his fight.

Slavery did not diminish with the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce now immersed himself in work towards the emancipation of slaves. Through the years of steady work towards emancipation his health began to decline and he withdrew from parliament in 1824. He still made speeches for the abolitionists. His final speech at a public meeting on anti-slavery was saluted by the House of Commons when they introduced a Bill for the Abolition of Slavery. Wilberforce died several days after the introduction of the bill. One month later the bill was passed in the House of Lords which formally abolished slavery in the British Empire as of August 1834.

Wilberforce had been married to Barbara Ann Spooner in 1797 and they had a wonderful happy life together with six children. His family life was very happy and proved to be a good balance for his hard work. Among other things, he was one of the founding members of the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty of Animals, the world’s first animal welfare organization! Upon his death, he was buried beside his friend William Pitt in Westminster Abbey.

Wilberforce followed his Christian convictions in his life and work. He lived congruently with the passage from Matthew we heard read.

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” (Matthew 25. 31-40)

We too are called to be people of faith like William Wilberforce to redeem the needy from oppression and to work to maintain the cause of those who have no helper. May we so live our lives congruently that what we profess with our lips we take action and persevere as we care for the least in our Lord’s family. Then we too will be welcomed into the kingdom of God.

Collect commemorating William Wilberforce

Let your continual mercy, O Lord,
kindle in your Church the never-failing gift of love,
that, following the example of your servant William Wilberforce,
we may have grace to defend the poor,
and maintain the cause of those who have no helper;
for the sake of him who gave his life for us,
your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for Saints' Days, Revised by Stephen Reynolds (Compiler) Item No: 9781551265025 Augsburg Fortress Press

Hochschild, Adam (2005), Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, London: Macmillan, ISBN 978-0330485814, OCLC 60458010

NRSV Bible (New Revised Standard Version) ISBN code: 9780888345646 

Wikipedia: William Wilberforce, and  John Newton

Homily given by Sr. Elizabeth Ann Eckert, SSJD for the “Q & Pew” at St. John’s York Mills, Toronto [ website »] , on Wednesday 29 July, 2009

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