The Feast of William Wilberforce – a homily

Just and eternal God, we give you thanks for the stalwart faith and persistence of your servant William Wilberforce who, undeterred by opposition and failure, held fast to a vision of justice in which no child of yours might suffer in enforced servitude and misery. Grant that we, drawn by that same Gospel vision, may persevere in serving the common good and caring for those who have been cast down, that they may be raised up through Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It’s been a while since you’ve had the chance to hear me rail against the current book, approved for trial use, from which we Episcopalians draw our celebrations of the saints of our faith. We used to have a book called Lesser Feasts and Fasts, which, in 2009, was replaced by a dreadful text called Holy Women, Holy Men. I’ll save you the details of my complaints this afternoon because I’m actually going to pay the new book, which will hopefully be tossed in the dustbin of history next summer, a compliment. The prayer which I read at the beginning of this service in remembrance of William Wilberforce is from Holy Women, Holy Men and it is far superior to the one from Lesser Feasts and Fasts because it actually deals with why we remember William Wilberforce at all. William Wilberforce has a feast day in our church because his faithful commitment to Jesus Christ made him doggedly persistent in the pursuit of justice against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Wilberforce was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. In 1780, at the age of 21 and while still a university student, he was elected to Parliament where he served for 45 years. After four years of doing relatively little in office, other than building an erratic voting pattern, Wilberforce underwent an evangelical conversion and began to feel a call to leave politics to serve God more effectively. His friends thought his position was too powerful to give up and thankfully, convinced him to stay in Parliament and serve God there. While in his personal life, Wilberforce was keen to take on the evils of vice: gambling, drinking, card playing and the like, as a Member of Parliament, his area of deep interest was the slave trade.
By the late 18th century, between 35 and 50 thousand Africans were being shipped, every year, from the Gulf of Guinea to be sold into slavery. As much as 80% of Britain’s foreign income came via slave grown crops like cotton, sugar, and tobacco. The economics of slavery had become so entrenched that it was thought to be impossible to stop; only a handful of people even considered doing something about it, and they were mostly Quakers who had very little clout in 18th century England. At dinner one night in 1783, Wilberforce met the Rev. James Ramsay, a ship’s surgeon who later was ordained to serve in the Leeward Islands and earned his living as a medical supervisor on the plantations there. Wilberforce was horrified as Ramsay explained the conditions under which the slaves were treated on the ships and plantations, but it took him three years and that previously mentioned deep faith conversion to do anything about it. By 1787, Wilberforce had been convinced and so began “his persistent, uncompromising, and single-minded crusade for the abolition of the slave trade.”
Wilberforce and his friend Thomas Clarkson, proposed legislation to abolish the slave trade in 1789, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. Finally in 1807, Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce went to on work to ensure that these laws were enforced and eventually worked to make sure that slavery was abolished outright. On July 26th, 1833, three days before he died, Wilberforce received news that passage of emancipation for slaves was certain. Despite his wishes for a simple burial at a family plot next to his daughter and sister, William Wilberforce was buried as a national hero in the north transept of Westminster Abbey on August 3, 1833.
William Wilberforce was a man of stalwart faith. His commitment to the Gospel allowed him to persist over years of failure to change the slavery based economy of the British Empire. He, unlike many others who have fought for justice over the years, saw the fruit of his faithfulness. He died knowing two things for certain: that all men would be made free in the British Empire and that his home would be in the everlasting arms of his Savior Jesus Christ. This day, I give thanks for the stubbornness of William Wilberforce and ask God that he might make us just as determined in the pursuit of justice for all of his children: black and white; slave and free; male and female; straight and gay; documented and not: to the glory of his name. Amen.


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