Never, never will we desist till we … extinguish every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonor to this country.
— William Wilberforce, The British Parliamentarian on describing his battle for the freedom of Africans from slavery
There is a battle among modern day sanctity of life advocates to claim the spirit of William Wilberforce. On one side, natural law incrementalists want to chip away at Roe v. Wade prior to engaging in a state-by-state campaign to regulate abortion and gradually abolish it. They see in Wilberforce a man of principle willing to bend within the political system to “prudent compromise” for the “greatest good.” On the other side, advocates of God’s moral law call for immediate repentance for the national sin of abortion. They see in Wilberforce a man who stated in no uncertain terms that the arguments in favor of the gradual abolition of slavery were “sophistry.”
Clarke Forsythe, M.A. in Bioethics from Trinity International University and Senior Counsel for Americans United for Life, has held forth the argument that Wilberforce was both a moral immediatist and a strategic incrementalist.
Although Wilberforce sponsored a motion for general and immediate abolition annually for several years, abolition came not immediately and totally, but intent and in effect, incrementally. The slave trade was incrementally reduced by regulations and partial prohibitions, and those incremental reductions were tied, in public debate, to issues of national interest rather than strong arguments of morality – “justice” and “humanity” – which were reserved until the final stroke. The incremental reductions served to eliminate the fears raised by the claims of the slave traders. Though Wilberforce and his allies had the strongest moral motivations, they exhibited strategic, tactical and rhetorical flexibility in their actions and arguments in large part because they stayed focused on the end result and did not confuse the goal with their motivations (Forsythe, Politics for the Greatest Good).
T. Russell Hunter, M.A. in History of Science from University of Oklahoma and founder of the Abolish Human Abortion movement, disagrees.
The kind of incrementalism that pro-lifers are trying to defend today, such as a fetal pain ban, is not the type of incrementalism that William Wilberforce was even close to advocating (Did William Wilberforce use incrementalism to abolish slavery? Video interview).
In July 2014, I spent a week in a timeshare in the French Quarter of New Orleans while attending Operation Save America’s (OSA) National Event. My roommates for the week were Abolish Human Abortion founders T. Russell Hunter and Toby Harmon. At least a dozen other leaders of Abortion Abolitionist Societies throughout America linked up with OSA for a week-long evangelistic outreach to the city of New Orleans. I had heard a lot about Toby and Russell and the growing AHA movement, so it was great to spend a week in a tiny apartment and driving around the city in Toby’s van getting to know them. This video interview was shot on an outreach to the University of Louisiana campus in Baton Rouge. Russell describes how his study of William Wilberforce as a Ph.D. candidate led him to become a full-time Abortion Abolitionist.
In Politics for the Greatest Good, Clarke Forsythe, who opposes Personhood amendments on the basis that they are not incremental, mentions several amelioration efforts that are not covered in our video. On further research, I found that Wilberforce did support three versions of “amelioration measures.” I asked T. Russell Hunter to respond to these as a follow-up interview.
1. Banning the slave trade in certain parts of Africa and to certain parts of the colonies. This appears to be an incremental measure. How would you answer that?
Hunter: It’s not the same thing as a pain capability act. It’s similar to state-by-state abolition or state-by-state Personhood amendments. And that would be immediatism today and yesterday. The American slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison thought a state-by-state approach could be done without compromise. I think it can be done with abolishing abortion.
2. Limiting the number of slaves that can be shipped. This was specifically introduced in the context of advocating for humane conditions on the slave ships. Were there other slave trade limitation/amelioration laws that were supported by Wilberforce?
Hunter: That was the measure that Equiano and others suggested that William Wilberforce support, and on which he capitulated, but was not huge on promoting. Wilberforce wasn’t perfect as I said in the video.
3. Amelioration bills for better conditions for slaves. Shouldn’t we want to treat human beings well regardless of whether they are slaves? It is not any more immoral to write a law saying you can’t mistreat a slave anymore than to write that you shouldn’t be able to mistreat a free person. Agree or disagree?
Hunter: Agreed. But there is no possible analogy to abortion there. One successful abortion cannot be done in a better condition than another. In every successful abortion, an image bearer of God is murdered.
In creating this video, my interest in Wilberforce was reignited. I wanted to write a longer article exploring the points made by T. Russell Hunter more in depth. What follows is the result of further research.
A Brief Biosketch: William Wilberforce
Born in 1759 in Yorkshire, England, Wilberforce began his political career in 1780 at age 21 as Member of Parliament for Kingston upon Hull. He eventually became the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire from 1784 to 1812. Then he served as MP for Bramber from 1812 to 1825.
Wilberforce was barely five feet tall and was sickly his whole life. Historian James Boswell, witnessing the young Wilberforce’s eloquent oratory in the House of Commons, described the young statesman, “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.”
In 1785, he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian, which resulted in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform.
In 1787, he came into contact with Thomas Clarkson and a group of anti-slave-trade activists, including Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton, who persuaded Wilberforce to take on the cause of abolition. He soon became one of the leading English abolitionists.
Wilberforce got his inspiration by luminaries of the Great Awakening, such as the world famous preacher George Whitefield and former slave trader and author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” John Newton. While many would describe Wilberforce as a Neo-Puritan Calvinist, Wilberforce was probably most influenced by John Wesley – at least in his practical Christian life – if not in his theology.
Wesley had spoken out forcefully against slavery for many years. In 1774, he had written the influential, Thoughts Upon Slavery. On February 24, 1791, at age 88, six days before his death, Wesley’s last letter was addressed to William Wilberforce.
The text of the letter is given below. The “tract” to which Wesley refers was written by a former slave, Gustavus Vassa, otherwise known as “Olaudah Equiano,” who was born in 1745 in Africa, kidnapped and sold as a slave in Barbados. In 1757, he was sent to England and was converted to Christianity.
Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as “Athanasius against the world,” I see not how you 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 for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God 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 the circumstance, that a man who has 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 man 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,
Right: William Wilberforce and John Wesley
Wilberforce was active throughout the 1790s in annual unsuccessful attempts to pass bills for the abolition of the slave trade. Debate continued for years, finally stalling amid the public’s fears of radical change that were exacerbated by the French Revolution.
It took until 1807 for the abolition of the slave trade to be effected throughout the British Empire.
Contrary to widely held misconception, only trading slaves became illegal at this time. In some cases, merely abolishing the slave trade led to greater abuses, such as illegally transporting slaves and then throwing them overboard when slave ships were boarded by British Navy. Slavery was not abolished in England until 1833 and took many decades enforce.
On July 26th, 1833, Wilberforce heard of the passing of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery. The following day he grew much weaker, the result of a lengthy illness, and he died early on the morning of July 29th in London.
In America, the shortage of slaves encouraged the practice of slave breeding and separating slave families. American slavery continued until 1865 with the passage of 13th Amendment.
Was Wilberforce an incrementalist?
There is no question that the abolition of slave trade was a long and gradual process. Those wanting to end abortion often ask, “Does this mean Wilberforce was an anti-slavery incrementalist rather than an abolitionist? Could it be that he was both?” To answer this question, we have to look at Wilberforce’s strategy during three separate periods.
First, Wilberforce supported the Dolben Act in 1788 on the advice of Olaudah Equiano, who had written a narrative chronicling the abuses he suffered as an African slave. The Dolben Act tackled the inhumane conditions on slave ships. The advocates of this bill did not argue that the number of slave ships or slaves should be lessened – but they were concerned with the fact that huge numbers of slaves were dying on the “Middle Passage” from Africa to the West Indies.
The Dolben Act cut the number of slaves that a ship could carry based on the ship’s tonnage by about 40 percent. However, many abolitionists feared that the Act would not establish the idea that slavery was immoral, but only needed to be regulated. Although Wilberforce lent his support to the Bill, it was debated and passed by peripheral abolitionists in Parliament during his absence due to a serious illness.
Second, Wilberforce annually advanced bills from 1791 to 1799 for the total and immediate abolition of the slave trade. His opposition, led by Lord Henry Dundace, appeared to compromise by inserting the word “gradual” into the proposal in 1792. However, Wilberforce and the other abolitionists in Parliament soon realized that the “gradualist” timeline was used as a ruse to block attempts to abolish the slave trade immediately. Still Wilberforce continued to advance Slave Trade abolition bills each year. Even though his bills were not passed, they gained support coming as close as four votes in 1796.
By the mid-1790s, the bloody French Revolution had run its course across the English Channel. The specter of the atrocities and wars committed in nearby Europe were used by slavery advocates to paint abolitionists as dangerous radicals. The motto of the French Revolutionaries was “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.” To many Englishmen, the abolitionists were too much like the lawless fanatics who had cut off the head of a king and performed systematic executions during the “Reign of Terror.” They imagined that freed slaves would lead a similar rebellion in the colonies.
Third, the abolitionist movement was revived in 1804 gaining popular support. Seizing on this new momentum, Wilberforce wrote A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the months prior to the Slave Trade Act of 1807. This treatise contains a direct answer to the question of whether Wilberforce advocated gradual means to end the slave trade.
How amazing it is that much the same argument is used today by opponents of Personhood who claim that the timing is wrong for such measures! The incrementalists of today say William Wilberforce was both an immediatist and an incrementalist. They admire his supposed “incrementalist” strategy, but want nothing do with his yearly bills for immediate abolition! Like Wilberforce’s gradualist opponents, they will vigorously oppose measures, such as the Personhood Amendments, that call for an immediate recognition of the right to life of all human beings.
What is even more amazing is that in April 1791, when Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill to totally and immediately abolish the slave trade, it was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. Yet Wilberforce continued to move bills throughout his career until on February 23, 1807, the Slave Trade Act was carried by 283 votes to 16.
We can expect to see much the same turning of the tide in the effort to defend human life if we will only remain faithful and settle for nothing less than a total recognition of the Personhood of all human beings without exception or apology.