I’m currently doing the research for a new biography on William Wilberforce, covering how he lived as a missional leader, and seeing what lessons can be learned from him. It’s been a fascinating journey so far, and one that’s already taught me a number of things.
I had previously assumed that his fight against the slave trade was a simple matter of Wilberforce the great, moral, Christian politician standing up for African rights against the nasty, evil, morally bankrupt members of parliament who were opposing him. But I’ve learned that it wasn’t that simple.
Wilberforce was not opposed by parliament per se, but by the MPs who represented constituencies like Bristol, Liverpool, London and Glasgow, port cities that had grown rich through the slave trade. Whilst many of the MPs could see that the trade was immoral, they feared that those British cities, and all the British interests in the Caribbean, would lose money as soon as the trade was outlawed, and that Britain could even go bankrupt as a result.
So Wilberforce’s fight was not especially against parliament. Rather, parliament was the battle ground where the great fight took place. The real fight was against the business community – against the commercial interests that were allied against him, against the people who were making money from the trade. Here we see the truth of Jesus’ words, “You cannot serve both God and money.”
For us today, where there are injustice issues we want to fight against, like human trafficking, or the arms industry, our battle is not so much against politicians, but against the people who are making money from these practices.
And so how did Wilberforce overcome this section of the business community? He fought a prolonged, 18 year campaign in parliament. But he also mobilised a popular movement in the country to support him. He used the media and the arts to create a campaign that would grab the public imagination, force the business community to back down, and so bring about the change he wanted. Societies distributed pamphlets and newsletters across the nation, and Josiah Wedgewood designed a logo for the campaign that became stamped on mugs, books, letters and anything else that could draw attention to the plight of the slaves.
Here to me is an incredible lesson on how the different spheres within London relate to each other, and also how we can use them to lobby for change. Wilberforce wanted a change in the Law regarding the slave trade. Politics was the battle ground, where he had to fight against the interests of Business. To overcome, he harnessed the power of the Media, the Arts and the Church, creating a mass movement that changed the mood in the country, and enabled parliament to finally push through the change he wanted.
So with this in mind, what should our prayers be for the business community, or the political community?
Mark Williamson is a founding director of One Rock International, a training organisation resourcing missionary leaders across the globe. He’s also passionate about praying for London, getting into deep conversations, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna.