The reaction to the now 10 undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood executives haggling the body parts of aborted babies has evoked numerous comparisons to modern history’s most dramatic atrocities. In many of these parallels, one exemplary figure stands out as a model of hope: abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759–1833).
It’s been said that now is “our Wilberforce moment,” a crucial time to protect the unborn. In light of the videos, many have revived Wilberforce’s powerful words at the end of his 1789 speech to the House of Commons as a slogan for the pro-life cause: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.”
But who was William Wilberforce, and what does his role in the abolitionist movement have to do with the pro-life movement today?
From Frivolous Comfort to Active Sacrifice
Born in 1759 to a wealthy family in Hull, England, Wilberforce would become one of the most influential members of British Parliament in his time. In his youth, he frittered his energy on luxury and partying with social elites. But when he was 25 he experienced what he called a “great change.” Through the witness of his friend Isaac Milner, Wilberforce became convicted for wasting his money and time on empty pursuits, embraced the gospel in faith, and committed his life to sacrificial service for Christ. And with a new love for God and neighbor, Wilberforce devoted himself to the abolition of the slave trade.
Wilberforce faced a tremendously difficult task, however. Although the slave trade appears so obviously evil in hindsight, those who supported it at the time—like those who perpetrated the Holocaust—used complex scientific arguments to dehumanize slaves along with a nuanced rhetoric of modernization to make their evil deeds appear right. Opponents also argued it would cripple England’s economy and international standing by limiting its commerce and allowing rival countries, like France, to gain dominance by picking up the slack.
Many today protest against Christians drawing comparisons between abortion and the slave trade or the Holocaust, dismissing it as manipulative rhetoric. Some claim it muddies the moral complexity of the abortion discussion by setting it side by side with clear and indisputable ethical issues. Although the analogy falls short in certain important ways, dismissing it altogether rests on an overly simplistic reading of history. The discussions over the morality of the slave trade and the extermination of Jews were anything but unequivocal at the time. Nevertheless, Wilberforce recognized the importance of declaring truth and righteousness with clarity in the face of deceptive evil. His most powerful argument against the slave trade was that these men and women are created in the image of God, and therefore they are no less equal—no matter what dirty financial profit slavery brings. With the courage of Wilberforce, we declare the same today on behalf of unborn children.
A Model of Christian Courage in the Face of Moral Evil
Wilberforce’s contribution to the abolition of slavery provides at least three important lessons for the pro-life cause today.
1. Faithfulness in our circumstances
At first, Wilberforce found it difficult to reconcile his faith with his role as a politician. He even wondered if he should be involved in public life at all. However, thanks to the encouragement of his friend John Newton—the slave-trader-turned-pastor who wrote the song “Amazing Grace”—Wilberforce found a new purpose in his political role. Newton urged him to stay put and serve God in the position he was in, and this advice made a world of difference.
Many of us also question whether our circumstances are best for achieving great things for the kingdom. We doubt whether we can really make a difference for the pro-life cause without any position of cultural influence. Like Wilberforce, we must embrace that God has placed us exactly where we are in order to serve him there. We too should take Newton’s advice, thinking carefully about how we can make a difference in the relationships, neighborhood, and calling God has already given us. And pastors today should imitate Newton by helping their people think through what discipleship to Christ looks like in their current station.
2. Tactical activism
Wilberforce recognized that activism without tact was ineffective and represented poor stewardship. Tactlessness wastes the talents God gives us to advance his kingdom. Thus Wilberforce not only learned the rules of savvy politics; he mastered them. He realized the importance of persuasive communication, not only through telling horrific accounts of the slave trade but also through showing them to the public. He joined forces with other gifted individuals to form the Clapham Sect in order to strengthen the cause. We ought to apply the same level of creativity and tact in advancing the pro-life cause today.
In “Pity for Poor Africans” (1788), William Cowper—a poet, hymn writer, and friend of Wilberforce—illustrates how one doesn’t have to be in politics to use his or her gifts with shrewdness for a cause:
I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves, And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves; What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, For how could we do without sugar and rum? Especially sugar, so needful we see? What? give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea!
Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes, Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains; If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will, And tortures and groans will be multiplied still.
With masterful rhythm and irony, Cowper exposes the shallow smokescreens behind ordinary thinking about slavery. Instead of attacking the slave trade issue directly, he goes after the hidden crutches of everyday experience that underlie it: its economic conveniences, material benefits, and the deceitful self-justification of a sensitive conscience.
Pro-lifers must learn to do the same. Rather than picketing and shouting at women, let’s channel that energy into more thoughtful techniques of communication that more effectively unmask the evil behind abortion. Let’s identify and address the deeper cultural roots, beliefs, and everyday experiences that inform how pro-choice proponents think about family, career, personhood, and the body.
Although the pro-life movement still has much room for growth, there are many who have employed astute tactfulness like Wilberforce. This is where Wilberforce’s model of perseverance is crucial. John Piper remarks that he was drawn to Wilberforce because of “his reputation as a man who simply would not give up when the cause was just” (47). Wilberforce lost friends and faced death threats, social vilification, and numerous political defeats. But he persisted. And in 1807—two decades after introducing legislation into Parliament—he achieved an overwhelming victory of 283 to 16 votes to end the slave trade. He didn’t stop there, though. In 1833, Parliament abolished slavery altogether, just three days before his death.
Hope for Pressing Forward
Last month a vote to defund Planned Parenthood was blocked in the Senate. Looking to Wilberforce’s example of perseverance, we know this defeat will not stop a just cause. Pro-lifers have hard work ahead of us, and Wilberforce’s model of moral courage, tact, endurance, and devotion to serving Christ gives us motivation and hope for pressing forward.