William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833), is well-known in Ohio by the town and Historically Black University named after him. Although he is known for his humanitarian efforts as an abolitionist, seeking to end slavery in both England and America, outside of this Ohio town, few in America know about his great work. Both John Wesley and William Wilberforce were known for their philanthropy and anti-slavery efforts as the fruits of Evangelical humanitarianism in the late 1700s through the early 1800s (Bebbington 2002, p. 69-71). However in both England and the American South, there were many Evangelicals that supported and defended the institution of slavery. Wilberforce and other Evangelicals were dedicated to the eradication of slavery and found that the prejudices concerning the Negros served as the moral and intellectual bulwark of the system of slavery (Baker 1970, p. 433).
William Wilberforce saw at the crux of the justification of the slavery issue was the belief in the inferiority of the Negro. The English believed that the Negro’s black skin was the result of the fable of Noah’s curse on Ham (Baker 1970, p. 433). The English also believed the behavior of the Negro, which was characterized as thieves and liars, was proof of their corrupt character thereby making them worthy of enslavement. Wilberforce sought to show any deficiencies of character was the result of suffering the extremes of the middle passage and enslavement (Baker 1970, p. 434-435).
Wilberforce went through great lengths to intellectually dispel the belief of the inferiority of the Negro. Wilberforce first believed that the transplanted Africans were fully human and were victims of abusive circumstances (Baker 1970, p. 435). He showed that the Africans were no different than natives of any other country by examining the history of the people of Benin and West Africa, studying the customs and handiwork of the pre-enslaved people, finding a civilized and intelligent people (Baker 1970, p. 437). Wilberforce also examined the behavior of Whites enslaved by Arabs, and found that they also exhibited the same behavior as the enslaved Negro, living in conditions without hope. Finally, Wilberforce proved that the behavior of the enslaved Africans was a result of the immoral treatment by their captors, and not the result of a curse by the Almighty (Baker 1970, p. 438-439).
Today there are many who believe that people from other countries, such as Guatemala and Mexico, are inhuman and have reprehensible behavior. They have been labeled as murderers, rapist, and drug dealers. Unfortunately, in America, there are many Evangelicals who support the inhumane treatment of people of different races and backgrounds. The solution that is presented is to build a wall to keep out the undesirables from this country. Unfortunately, Evangelicals are seen as anything but humanitarians. If William Wilberforce is an example of a humanitarian, the Evangelicals of today would do well to follow his example.
I know today, just as in Wilberforce’s day, there are many Evangelicals who do not believe in the prejudices that support the inhumane treatment of any people. I believe what is needed today are women and men dedicated to the same moral beliefs based on clear Biblical teachings, supported by the intellectual study of the problem of immigration and racial prejudices. Evangelicals are needed to present Biblical evidence for the humane treatment of all of God’s people, seeking to ask questions about the plight of those fleeing their homelands. Perhaps if we as Evangelicals work as diligently as William Wilberforce did in his day, an Evangelical would also be known as a humanitarian.
Baker, William. “William Wilberforce on the Idea of Negro Inferiority.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 31, No. 3, 1970: 433-440.
Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. New York: Routledge, 2002.