William Wilberforce’s Text by Frank W. Boreham

William Wilberforce: August 24, 1759 – July 29, 1833

THE hand that struck the shackles from the galled limbs of our British slaves was the hand of a hunchback. One of the triumphs of statuary in Westminster Abbey is the seated figure that, whilst faithfully perpetuating the noble face and fine features of Wilberforce, skillfully conceals his frightful physical deformities. From infancy he was an elfish, misshapen little figure. At the Grammar School at Hull, the others boys would lift his tiny, twisted form on to the table and make him go through all his impish tricks. For, though so pitifully stunted and distorted, he was amazingly sprightly, resourceful and clever. A master of mimicry, a born actor, an accomplished singer and a perfect elocutionist, he was as agile, also, as a monkey and as full of mischief. Every day he enlivened his performance by the startling introduction of some fresh antics that convulsed alike his schoolfellows and his teachers. He is the most striking illustration that history can offer of a grotesque and insignificant form glorified by its consecration to a great and noble cause. Recognising the terrible handicap that Nature had imposed upon him, he set himself to counterbalance matters by acquiring a singular graciousness and charm of manner. He succeeded so perfectly that his courtliness and grace became proverbial. It was said of him that, if you saw him in conversation with a man, you would suppose that the man was his brother, or, if with a woman, that he was her lover. He made men forget his strange appearance. When he sprang to his feet to plead the cause of the slave, he seemed like a man inspired, and his disfigurement magically vanished. “I saw,” says Boswell, in his letter to Mr. Dundas, “I saw a shrimp mount the table; but, as I listened, he grew and grew until the shrimp became a whale!” When he rose to address the House of Commons, he looked like a dwarf that had jumped out of a fairy-tale; when he resumed his seat, he looked like the giant of the self-same story. His form, as the Times said, “was like the letter S; it resembled a stick that could not be straightened.” Yet his hearers declare that his face, when pleading for the slave, was like the face of an angel. The ugliness of his little frame seemed to disappear; and, under the magic of his passionate eloquence, his form became sublime. When, in 1833, he passed away, such a funeral procession made its way to Westminster Abbey as even London had rarely witnessed. He was borne to his last resting place by the Peers and Commoners of England with the Lord Chancellor at their head. In imperishable marble it was recorded of him that “he had removed from England the guilt of the slave-trade and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony in the Empire.” And it is said that, as the cortège made its somber way through the crowded streets, all London was in tears, and one person in every four was garbed in deepest black.

Among Sir James Stephen’s masterpieces of biological analysis, there is nothing finer than his essay on Wilberforce. But he confesses to a difficulty. There is, he says, something hidden. You cannot account for his stupendous influence by pointing to anything that lies upon the surface. “What that hidden life really was,” Sir James observes, “none but himself could know, and few indeed could even plausibly conjecture. But even they who are the least able to solve the enigma may acknowledge and feel that there was some secret spring of action on which his strength was altogether dependent.” Now, what was that hidden factor? What was the “secret spring of action” that explains this strangely-handicapped yet wonderfully-useful life? Can I lay my finger on the source of all these beneficent energies? Can I trace the hidden power that impelled and directed these fruitful and epoch-making activities? I think I can. Behind all that appears upon the surface there lies a great experience, a great thought, a great text. I find it at the beginning of his career; I find it again at the close.

As a youth, preparing himself to play some worthy part in life, Wilberforce travels. Thrice he tours Europe, once in the company of William Pitt, then a young fellow of exactly his own age, and twice in the company of Isaac Milner, the brilliant brother of his Hull schoolmaster. It was in the course of one of these tours that the crisis of his inner life overtook him. Milner and he made it a practice to carry with them a few books to read on rainy days. Among these oddly-assorted volumes they slipped into their luggage a copy of Dr. Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. It was a dangerous companion for young men who prized their peace of mind; no book of that period had provoked more serious thought. It certainly set Wilberforce thinking; and not all the festivities of his tour nor the laughter of his friends could dispel the feeling that now took sole possession of his mind. One over-powering emotion drove out all others. It haunted him sleeping and waking. “My sin!” he cried, “my sin, my sin, my sin!” – it was this thought of his condition that filled him with apprehension and despair.

“The deep guilt and black ingratitude of my past life,” he says, “forced itself upon me in the strongest colours; and I condemned myself for having wasted my precious time and talents. It was not so much the fear of punishment as a sense of my great sinfulness. Such was the effect which this thought produced that for months I was in a state of the deepest depression from strong conviction of my guilt!’

My deep guilt!
My great sinfulness!
My black ingratitude!

It was then, at the age of twenty-six, that his soul gathered itself up in one great and bitter cry.

“God be merciful to me a sinner!” he implored; and, on receiving an assurance that his prayer was heard – as all such prayers must be – he breaks out in a new strain. “What infinite love,” he says, “that Christ should die to save such a sinner!”

“My sin! My sin! My sin!”
“God be merciful to me a sinner!”
“That Christ should die to save such a sinner!”

This was in 1785. Wilberforce stood then at the dawn of his great day.

For the second scene we must pass over nearly half a century. His career is drawing to its close. The twisted little body is heavily swathed in wrappings and writhes in pain. Hearing of his serious sickness, his Quaker friend, Mr. Joseph Gurney, comes to see him.

“He received me with the warmest marks of affection,” Mr. Gurney says, “and seemed delighted at the unexpected arrival of an old friend. The illuminated expression of his furrowed countenance, with his clasped and uplifted hands, were indicative of profound devotion and holy joy. He unfolded his experience to me in a highly interesting manner.”

“With regard to myself,” said Mr. Wilberforce, before taking a last farewell of his friend, “with regard to myself, I have nothing whatever to urge but the poor publican’s plea, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’”

“These words,” adds Mr. Gurney, “were expressed with peculiar feeling and emphasis.”

“God be merciful to me a sinner!” – it was the cry of his heart in 1785, as his life lay all before him.

“God be merciful to me a sinner!” – it was still the cry of his heart in 1833, as his life lay all behind.

Here, then, is William Wilberforce’s text! It will do us good to listen to it as, once and again, it falls from his lips. In outlining the events that led Christiana to forsake the City of Destruction and to follow her husband on pilgrimage, Bunyan tells us that she had a dream, “And behold, in her dream, she saw as if a broad parchment was opened before her, in which was recorded the sum of her ways; and the times, as she thought, looked very black upon her. Then she cried out aloud in her sleep, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’ And the little children heard her.” It was well that she cried: it was well that the children heard; it led to their setting out together for the Cross, the Palace Beautiful and the City of Light. It will be well indeed for us if, listening to William Wilberforce as he offers the same agonizing petition, we, like Christiana’s children, become followers of his faith and sharers of his joy.

They are very few, I suppose, who would envy William Wilberforce the wretchedness that darkened his soul at Spa in the course of that third European tour, the wretchedness that led him to cry out for the everlasting mercy. He was then twenty-six; and if any young fellow of twenty-six entertains the slightest doubt as to the desirability of such a mournful experience, I should like to introduce that young fellow first to Robinson Crusoe and then to old William Cottee, of Theydon Bois. We all remember the scene in which Robinson Crusoe, soon after his shipwreck, searched the old chest for tobacco and found – a Bible! He began to read. “It was not long after I set seriously to this work,” he tells us, “that I found my heart more deeply and sincerely affected with the wickedness of my past life. The impression of my dream revived, and the words, ‘All these things have not brought thee to repentance,’ ran seriously in my thoughts. I was earnestly begging of God to give me repentance, when it happened providentially, that very day, that, reading the Scripture, I came to these words, ‘He is exalted a Prince and a Saviour to give repentance and to give remission.’ I threw down the book, and, with my heart as well as my hands lifted up to Heaven, in a kind of ecstasy of joy, I cried out aloud, ‘Jesus, Thou Son of David, Thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me repentance.’ This was the first time that I could say, in the true sense of the word, that I prayed in all my life!”

“Give me repentance!” – this was Robinson Crusoe’s first prayer. But, for William Wilberforce, bemoaning at Spa the list of his transgressions, the prayer is already answered. They may pity him who will: Robinson Crusoe will offer him nothing but congratulations.

So will old William Cottee. The old gentleman was well over ninety, and was bedridden, when, in my college days, I visited him. He has long since passed from his frailty to his felicity. I used occasionally to preach in the village sanctuary, and was more than once the guest of the household that he adorned. No such visit was complete without an invitation to go upstairs and have a talk with grandfather. As a rule, however, those talks with grandfather were a little embarrassing – to a mere student. For a ministerial student moves in an atmosphere in which his theological opinions are treated, to say the least, with respect. He is quite sure of them himself, and he likes other people to exhibit equal confidence. But poor old William Cottee had no respect at all for any theological opinions of mine. He was a sturdy old hyper-Calvinist, and, to him, the doctrines that I expounded with such assurance were mere milk and water, mostly water. One afternoon I found the old gentleman bewailing the exceeding sinfulness of his evil heart. This seemed to me, viewing the matter from the point of view of a theological student, a very primitive experience for so mature a saint. Perhaps I as good as said so: I forget. I only remember that, in response to my shallow observation, the old gentleman sat straight up in bed – a thing I had never seen him do before – stared at me with eyes so full of reproach that they seemed to pierce my very soul, and slowly recited a verse that I had never before heard and have never since forgotten:

What comfort can a Saviour bring
To those who never felt their woe?
A sinner is a sacred thing
The Holy Ghost hath made him so!

Ministers often learn from those they seem to teach; but it rarely happens that a profound and awful and searching truth rushes as startlingly upon a man as this one did that day upon me. It is a hard saying; who can hear it? But the wise will understand. Because of the lesson that he then taught me – to say nothing of the fact that one of his granddaughters has proved for many years the best wife any minister ever had – I have always thought kindly of old William Cottee. I never heard the old man refer to Robinson Crusoe in any way; but I am sure that he would join the redoubtable islander in congratulating William Wilberforce on the experience that overtook him in his twenty-sixth year. The sunlit passages in life are not always the most profitable: it is through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom.

“My sin! My sin! My sin!”
“God be merciful to me a sinner!”
“What infinite love that Christ should die to save such a sinner!”

Wilberforce felt that such infinite love demanded the fullest requital he could possibly offer. Those who have been greatly saved must greatly serve. I like to think of that memorable day on which the two friends – Wilberforce and Pitt – lay sprawling on the grass under a grand old oak tree in the beautiful park at Holwood, in Kent. A solid stone seat now stands beside the tree, bearing an inscription commemorative of the historic occasion. For it was then – and there – that Wilberforce solemnly devoted his life to the emancipation of the slaves. He had introduced the subject with some diffidence; was delighted at Pitt’s evident sympathy; and, springing to his feet, he declared that he would set to work at once to abolish the iniquitous traffic. Few of us realize the immense proportions that the British slave trade had then assumed. During the eighteenth century, nearly a million blacks were transported, with much less consideration than would have been shown to cattle, from Africa to Jamaica alone. From his earliest infancy, the horror of the traffic preyed upon the sensitive mind of William Wilberforce. When quite a boy he wrote to the papers, protesting against “this odious traffic in human flesh.” Now, a young fellow in the twenties, he made its extinction the purpose of his life. For fifty years he never rested. Through evil report and through good, he tirelessly pursued his ideal. At times the opposition seemed insuperable. But Pitt stood by him; the Quakers and a few others encouraged him to persist; John Wesley, only a few days before his death, wrote begging the reformer never to give up. After twenty years of incessant struggle, it was enacted that the exportation of slaves from Africa should cease; but no relief was offered to those already in bondage. A quarter of a century later, as Wilberforce lay dying, messengers from Westminster entered his room to tell him that at last, at last, the Emancipation Bill had been passed; the slaves were free! “Thank God!” exclaimed the dying man, “thank God that I have lived to see this day!” Like Wolfe at Quebec, like Nelson at Trafalgar, like Sir John Franklin in the North-West Passage, he died in the flush of triumph. He had resolved that, as an expression of his gratitude for his own deliverance, he would secure for the slaves their freedom; and he passed away rejoicing that their fetters were all broken and gone.

“God be merciful to me a sinner!” – this was his prayer in 1785, as his life lay all before him.

“God be merciful to me a sinner!” – this was his prayer in 1833, as he lay a-dying with his life-work done.

William Wilberforce reminds me of William MacLure. There were many saints in Drumtochty, but there was no greater saint than old Dr. MacLure. Rich and poor, young and old; the good doctor on his white pony had fought his way through the dark nights and the deep snowdrifts of the glen to help and heal them all. And now he is dying himself! Drumsheugh sits beside the bed. The doctor asks him to read a bit. Drumsheugh puts on his spectacles.

“Ma mither,” he says, “aye wanted this read tae her when she was sairly sick,” and he begins to read “In My Father’s house are many mansions ….” But the doctor stops him.

“It’s a bonnie word,” he says, “but it’s no for the likes o’ me!” And he makes him read the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican till he comes to the words, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”

“That micht hae been written for me, Drumsheugh, or any ither auld sinner that has feenished his life, an’ hes naething tae say for himself.”

Exactly so spake William Wilberforce. Mr. Gurney quoted many great and comfortable Scriptures, but the dying man shook his head.

“With regard to myself,” he said, “I have nothing whatever to urge but the poor publican’s plea, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”

In what better company than in the company of William MacLure and William Wilberforce can we enter the kingdom of God?

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