IN THE FIERCE struggles of the 19th century to abolish slavery, Abraham Lincoln remains the mythic American champion. In Britain, however, that honor belongs to William Wilberforce, the Christian activist and member of Parliament who thundered against the slave trade for 20 years. Friday marks the 200th anniversary of his legislative triumph -- a campaign rich with lessons for modern-day reformers.
When Wilberforce first raised his voice in the House of Commons for the cause of abolition in May 1789, he spoke for 3 1/2 hours. Yet the absence of partisanship must have taken his colleagues by surprise. "I mean not to accuse anyone," he insisted, "but take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority."
Wilberforce built a human rights coalition that cut across political and ideological lines, uniting Whigs with establishment Tories and Anglicans with evangelicals and Quakers. His success, it seems, owed much to his genuine devotion to the plight of African slaves, regardless of the political costs.
British traders who raided the West African coast captured 35,000 to 50,000 Africans a year, but the wretched conditions of slave ships bound for the Americas, France, Portugal and Spain were not widely known. Thousands perished from disease or starvation. "So much misery condensed in so little room," Wilberforce said, "is more than the human imagination has ever before conceived."
The lure of profits and cheap supplies of sugar and tobacco kept the chattel machine running. Historians estimate that in Liverpool alone, a commercial hub for the trade, about 17 million pounds changed hands in a single year. Wilberforce, himself a man of privilege, understood the entrenched economic interests involved yet somehow managed to win many of them over.
A convert to evangelical Christianity, Wilberforce is greatly admired in religious circles today, if not always imitated. Early in his parliamentary career, he made a vow to avoid the corruptions of political influence -- and kept it. He was known for his intellectual seriousness and personal charm. French author Madame de Stael confessed her surprise after dining with him: "I have always heard that he was the most religious, but I now find that he is the wittiest man in England."
Wilberforce sought to change hearts and minds, not just laws. So he organized boycotts and petitions, staged demonstrations and commissioned artwork to mobilize public opinion on a national scale. Wilberforce suffered many setbacks -- his abolition bills were repeatedly killed in committee or defeated in the House of Commons -- but he kept on.
Most important, he was unafraid to invoke the moral obligations of the Gospel to challenge the consciences of slavers and their supporters in Parliament. In his "Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade," published in January 1807, Wilberforce placed the brutish facts of human trafficking against the backdrop of Christian compassion and divine justice. "We must believe," he warned, "that a continued course of wickedness, oppression and cruelty, obstinately maintained in spite of the fullest knowledge and the loudest warnings, must infallibly bring down upon us the heaviest judgments of the Almighty." A month later, on Feb. 23, the House of Commons voted 283 to 16 to abolish the slave trade.
In our post-9/11 era, there's suspicion and antagonism toward religious belief, especially when it mixes with politics. Secularists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris describe the beliefs of the faithful as a "delusion" and akin to "insanity." Wilberforce endured similar scorn. He was lampooned for his "damnable doctrine" and dismissed as a "treacherous fanatic."
Modern skeptics should remember that the great campaign against the international slave trade was not led by atheists. It was fought by people with deep Christian convictions about the dignity and freedom of every person made in the image of God.
This year, Britain is honoring Wilberforce's legacy with lectures and conferences. In the United States, the biographical film "Amazing Grace" opens in theaters Friday. Some will chafe at all the attention. Yet we face our own assaults on human rights -- including the sexual trafficking of women and girls, genocidal violence in Sudan and the prison camps of North Korea.
Surely we need more of Wilberforce's brand of faith today, not less.