In the annals of social reform movements, there is one that the pro-life movement has identified with most strongly: the abolitionist movement of William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The names of many of these courageous and sacrificial men and women have been forgotten by a modern culture that cannot understand their devotion to God and to their afflicted neighbors, but what they achieved was summed up beautifully by the nineteenth-century historian W.E.H. Lecky: “The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.”
Slavery is now considered to be so anathema, so foreign, that the modern Westerner can be forgiven for struggling to comprehend just how magnificently unusual the accomplishment of the abolitionists was. Adam Hochschild, the author of Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, put it this way:
To fully grasp how momentous was what began at 2 George Yard, picture the world as it existed in 1787. Well over three-quarters of the people on earth are in bondage of one land or another. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumber free people. African slaves are also scattered widely through much of the Islamic world. Slavery is routine in most of Africa itself. In India and other parts of Asia, some people are outright slaves, others in debt bondage that ties them to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave to a Southern plantation owner. In Russia the majority of the population are serfs. Nowhere is slavery more firmly rooted than in Britain's overseas empire, where some half-million slaves are being systematically worked to an early death growing West Indian sugar. Caribbean slave-plantation fortunes underlie many a powerful dynasty, from the ancestors of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the family of the fabulously wealthy William Beckford, lord mayor of London, who hired Mozart to give his son piano lessons. One of the most prosperous sugar plantations on Barbados is owned by the Church of England. Furthermore, Britain's ships dominate the slave trade, delivering tens of thousands of chained captives each year to French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies as well as to its own.
If you had proposed, in the London of early 1787, to change all of this, nine out of ten people would have laughed you off as a crackpot. The 10th might have admitted that slavery was unpleasant but said that to end it would wreck the British Empire's economy. It would be as if, today, you maintained that the automobile must go. One in ten listeners might agree that the world would be better off if we traveled instead by foot, bicycle, electric train, or trolley, but are you suggesting a political movement to ban cars? Come on, be serious! Looking back, however, what is even more surprising than slavery's scope is how swiftly it died. By the end of the 19th century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad and the Emancipation Proclamation. But our self-centered textbooks often skip over the fact that in the superpower of the time slavery ended a full quarter-century earlier. For more than two decades before the Civil War, the holiday celebrated most fervently by free blacks in the American North was not July 4 (when they were at risk of attack from drunken white mobs) but August 1, Emancipation Day in the British Empire.
Even Hochschild’s view is an indication that our modern culture does not fully understand that the British abolitionists were engaged in what they saw as a fulfillment of their duty to their Creator and to humanity. When I interviewed Hochschild several years ago, he informed me that many activists fighting illusory battles against climate change saw themselves as the modern manifestations of Wilberforce and his abolitionists. A rather cruel irony, considering the fact that the modern environmentalist movement tends to see human beings as a large part of the problem, and frequently suggests the cruel and barbaric solution of abortion to solve the “problem” as they see it. The difference between pro-life activists seeking to ensure all human beings are safe and protected and the windmill-tilting of radical anti-human environmentalists could not be starker. It is safe to say that they simply have not read what William Wilberforce and his allies wrote about their mission all those years ago.
Eric Metaxas, author of the beautiful biography Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, sees it differently. To Metaxas, there is an obvious and unavoidable connection between a movement dedicated to ending the cruel oppression of a class of people based on skin color through slavery and the systematic and violent destruction of a class of people based on age through abortion. When he spoke at Canada’s National March for Life last year and made this point to thousands of activists gathered in front of the Parliament buildings to rousing cheers, I had the chance to meet him and tell him that we use his book to train dozens of interns every year on the fundamental principles of social reform. He was thrilled to hear it—he’d prayed that his book would be put to such uses, he said.
William Wilberforce’s great-great grandson, the Rev. Gerard Wilberforce, agrees with Metaxas. He has stated publicly that if his famous ancestor were still alive, he would be fighting abortion. I called him at his home in Britain to chat with him.
“I use the idea of abortion because in many ways there are amazing parallels,” Rev. Wilberforce told me. “One would be that the unborn child is considered not to be a person. The same [was] also [true] of the slave – the slave, because he was black, was not considered to be a real person. And they didn’t see the slave. The slave was somebody on the plantations or the transatlantic slave routes. The ordinary person, certainly in Britain and later on in the States, hadn’t really ever seen anybody who they could identify with. They didn’t really consider that a black person could speak proper English or learn other languages as well. They didn’t consider him to be a person. Because we don’t see the fetus, because the fetus is in the mother’s womb, we still consider that that’s not a real person. The charge of infanticide only happens when the child’s born. So for many people, they say, ‘I’m just getting rid of something unwanted, something that’s a nuisance, an encumbrance and is going to make demands upon me.’ There are all sorts of parallels. When I was looking at this I was amazed at the amount of parallels between the unborn child and the slave. One could well say that in today’s society so many people are aborted and so many slaves were killed too, there’s a great parallel.”
It is those parallels that drive pro-life activists to read Wilberforce’s work, to research the abolitionist movement, and to take inspiration from their extraordinary actions. Across the centuries, their lives of service stand as bright beacons to those who seek to emulate them and to set themselves, again, to attempting what society says is impossible. Injustice still exists, and as Rev. Wilberforce noted, people who regard William Wilberforce’s work with admiration should follow his example, “to stand up and do something about [injustice] instead of sitting around and waiting for someone else to do it.”