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WHERE THERE'S A WILL

20-02-2007

The Stirrer's new columnist Dr David Nicholl on one of the great inspirational characters in history...ad why he should still be feted in 2007.

Every December, ‘Time' magazine announces its Person of the Year, the person who has been most influentially globally in the preceding 12 months. I realise that 2007 has barely started, but I would like to nominate William Wilberforce. So why would I suggest a long dead politician from Hull - and what relevance does he have to us in the West Midlands today?

William Wilberforce was born into a wealthy family but when his father died at the age of 8, he was sent to his staunch Methodist aunt in Wimbledon. His mother feared that William might be influenced by "religious enthusiasm," removed him from his aunt's home and sent him to a private school.

He gradually forgot the spiritual influence of his aunt and was caught up in the social whirl of his mother's lifestyle. He attended St John's College at Cambridge, but largely wasted his time while there.

A turning point in his religious life was a tour of Europe. In the luggage of a travelling companion he saw a copy of William Law's book, A Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life. He asked his friend, "What is this?" and received the answer, "One of the best books ever written."

The two of them agreed to read it together on the journey, and as a result he experienced a spiritual rebirth. He seriously considered giving up politics and entering the clergy, and was persuaded by Christian friends that his calling was to serve God through politics.

He began to see his life's purpose: "My walk is a public one," he wrote in his diary. "My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me."

Although Wilberforce is best known for his unremitting work to abolish slavery, it is worth remembering that he was not a ‘single issue' man- far from it. At one point, he was active in the support of no less than 69 philanthropic causes from chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents.

He helped found parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Antislavery Society. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor.

In many ways, one can see how Wilberforce's action on slavery was the fore-runner to all subsequent human rights movements- from the Suffragettes and Rev Martin Luther-King and the US civil rights movement and Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid movement.

But surely in 2007, slavery is long since dead - isn't it? I'm not so sure. But I have no doubt, that based on his track record, Wilberforce would have very strong views on everything from the developing world, global warming, child labour, sex trafficking, Fair Trade, HIV/AIDS, the War on Terror and human rights. His legacy to all of us is this- are we truly prepared to take risks in spite of opposition to all of those around us?

Wilberforce was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and could have chosen an easy life as a politician and picked populist causes. Instead, he followed his beliefs and stood up for what he believed, in spite of opposition from huge vested interests, multinational business, racism and personal ill health.

Although 2007 marks the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery, it was not until 1833 that all slaves were made free, a matter of weeks before Wilberforce's death, so he did have patience!

As Wilberforce put it, “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large, I am one the most incurable fanatics ever to permitted to be at large”.

I too am a Wilberforce fanatic, in 2007 I hope you join the club!

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