February 26, 1791 – London, England: Methodist theologian John Wesley penned a letter to his good friend in the faith, William Wilberforce. In failing health at age 88, it was the last letter Wesley ever wrote. As a longtime outspoken opponent of the British slave trade, he wrote to encourage Wilberforce to continue his valiant fight in the English Parliament against slavery. Four days after writing the letter, Wesley died. The message read:
Unless the divine power has raised you up…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. Oh, be not weary in well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it. That He who has guided you from your youth, may continue to strengthen you in this and all things, is the prayer of,
Your affectionate servant,
William Wilberforce was born in Hull, England, in 1759, and at age 17 entered Cambridge University. In 1780, while still a student at Cambridge, he was elected a member of the House of Commons, representing Hull. Although slavery had been legal in the British Isles for more than a hundred years, Wilberforce became more attuned to the appalling practices of African slavery following his conversion to Christianity in 1785.
When Wilberforce received Wesley’s letter, he was once again facing a discouraging defeat in his attempt to abolish Britain’s slave trade. Wilberforce had delivered an impassioned four-hour speech against slavery to the House of Commons in Parliament, only to have his bill soundly defeated 163 to 88. Wesley’s letter not only encouraged him to continue the fight that spring of 1791, but it was an inspiration to him for the remainder of his life.
In May 1789, Wilberforce introduced 12 resolutions to Parliament condemning the “morally reprehensible” treatment of Africans, particularly on slave ships. British cargo ships carried goods from England to Africa and transported slaves – who were chained and often stacked like logs for shipping purposes – to the West Indies. Then the ships sailed to England with slave-grown products like sugar, tobacco and cotton.
With 80 percent of England’s foreign income based on the slave trade, Wilberforce frequently encountered violent opposition to his resolutions. Although vilified by his colleagues, Wilberforce introduced anti-slavery bills every year from 1792 until the end of the decade. In 1804, Wilberforce successfully had a law passed in the House of Commons, only to see it defeated in the House of Lords. Finally, on March 25, 1806, after 18 years of speeches and legislation on the part of William Wilberforce, Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act.
Although the Slave Trade Act was passed, slavery did not go away. The law was not strictly enforced, and many slave traders ignored it completely. Wilberforce continued his campaign. He gave his final anti-slavery speech in April 1833 and died three months later on July 29, 1833. Two days after his death, and 44 years after he had given his first anti-slavery speech, Parliament, in a salute to William Wilberforce, passed a law abolishing slavery forever in England, freeing 800,000 slaves.
Although he did not live to see the realization of his dream, no one was more responsible for the demise of slavery in the British Empire than William Wilberforce. On numerous occasions, Wilberforce almost gave up the fight. But every time he became discouraged, he read Wesley’s letter and Wesley’s words never failed to encourage and strengthen him to continue the fight.
“The power of words is immense. A well-chosen word has often sufficed to stop a flying army, to change defeat into victory, and to save an empire.” Emile De Girardin