“We are too young to realise that certain things are impossible,” said William Wilberforce, “So we will do them anyway”. There are perhaps no better words to introduce the life of a man who undertook the improbable, to achieve what seemed impossible, and lived to see his dream realised.
We are too young to realise that certain things are impossible, so we will do them anyway.
William Wilberforce had a dream, like so many great dreamers, of freedom. It seems that oppression, prejudice and captivity are the breeding ground of hope and dreams; what makes Wilberforce special was that he himself did not experience those things, his dreams were driven by compassion for the captivity of others.
Wilberforce led a privileged life growing up in Kingston upon Hull and London before progressing to St. John’s College, Cambridge. Studying was not high on the agenda; his social life would be the envy of many and he made some key friendships, including that of William Pitt. He moved from college to Parliament and became and independent MP but once again it was camaraderie and hi-jinks that he was known for.
The key moment in the life of Wilberforce, and a moment that would become crucial for millions of other people around the world, occurred in the winter of 1784-1785 when he began to dedicate himself to studying the bible and praying daily. He repented from his past ways of living and converted to evangelical Christianity.
Changed by his religious experiences, he was alerted to the peril of slaves who were transported across the Atlantic. While slavery was illegal in the UK the slave trade was a booming business with brutal consequences. Wilberforce met with a group of believers called the Testonites, including reformist Thomas Clarkson, and the dream was birthed that in his lifetime the trade in human lives could be abolished.
A dream, however, is nothing without the action that takes it from the misty haze of fantasy to the often harsh realities of the world. As T.E Lawrence once wrote:
“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”
It was this way for Wilberforce, whose dream was not caprice or vanity but a vision that would drive him forwards.
The group of abolitionists he was part of collected evidence on slavery, and he grew more and more appalled at what he saw, yet when formally asked to front the parliamentary campaign he dithered.It was not until his good friend William Pitt the Younger, then Prime minister, challenged him to do it that he resolved on that course of action.
It was April 1791 when William Wilberforce, after much parliamentary debate and presentation of evidence, tabled the first bill for the abolition of the slave trade.
With the revolution boiling over in France, the bill was seen as dangerously reformist and defeated but Wilberforce was not discouraged and gave a speech outlining his intent to keep going until the trade was abolished. He was a skilled orator and did justice to the cause.
“Let us not despair; it is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied. This is the first fruits of our efforts; let us persevere and our triumph will be complete. Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic…”
William Wilberforce, 18 April 1791
Wilberforce would not look back, and his bill for the abolition of the slave trade became an annual feature of Parliament.
It was anything but a solo effort, however, and we must not neglect the fact that Wilberforce was the Parliamentary figure head of a campaign that included many amazing men and women who shared his dream. They were members of a small group of believers commonly referred to as ‘The Clapham Sect’, who met regularly in their homes.
This was what many churches would now call a connect group but driven by the dream of freedom they would change the world.
Wilberforce’s dream allowed him to keep tabling his motion in spite of all odds. While many would have taken advantage of a close friendship with the Prime Minister to further their own career, Wilberforce was a man of principle. Not only did he refuse to abuse his position, but he was willing to speak up and challenge Pitt when his behaviour was not fitting.
The dream of freedom was more important than career or status.
“God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”
After many years of tabling the motion, in 1807 the bill was finally passed. There are few politicians today who will campaign ceaselessly on an issue for several years, let alone two decades. What made Wilberforce different was that God gave him a dream that he was willing to dedicate his life to seeing fulfilled.
He valued the cause God had placed upon his heart as higher than his own comfort or career.
The story, however, does not end there. Two centuries later the slave trade once again rages in the form of Human Trafficking. Wilberforce’s dream of a world free from slavery is now the dream of abolitionists the world over, a dream that lives on in the work of organisations like the A21 Campaign and Hope for Justice.
If we can learn anything from William Wilberforce it is that determination, perseverance, and courage can see dreams become reality; to return to the quote we started with, our generation are young enough not to realise that things are impossible and we will do them anyway.
A version of this article originally appeared on Audacious website in 2013.