The Feast of William Wilberforce, 1833
Leviticus 26:12-13 (KJV), Psalm 146:5-10 (NRSV), Jeremiah 22:13 (KJV), Micah 3:5-12 (KJV), Matthew 25:31-40 (KJV), Galatians 3:23-29 (KJV), James 5:4, 1 Nephi 17:24-26, Mosiah 29:40, Doctrine & Covenants 101:79
The Collect: O Father, Thou who hast raised up Moses to lead Thy Children out of bondage, let us take inspiration from Thy servant, William Wilberforce, a latter-day Moses, to devote our lives in Thy Church to Thy righteousness in accordance with the universal moral law, becoming instruments in Thy hands to advocate the cause of those who are in bondage and learning that we must never become an obstacle to others’ inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; for the sake of Him who gave His life for us, Thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with Thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Royal Scots Dragoon Guard, “Amazing Grace,” The Spirit of the Glen (2007), by John Henry Newton (1779).
* * *Nearly four months after Parliament passed its Slavery Abolition Act in August, 1833 abolishing slavery in the British Empire, thanks primarily to the decades-long political campaign of the evangelical Christian Member of Parliament William Wilberforce, Joseph Smith recorded in a revelation on December 16, 1833 in Kirtland, Ohio, that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another” (Doctrine & Covenants 101:79). The Lord seems to have eagerly ratified Wilberforce’s lifelong fight against what any honest, informed observer must agree constitutes one of the greatest moral blights on humanity in the modern age: the African chattel slavery perpetrated by white Europeans and their American trading partners under the ostensible blessing of religious doctrines proclaiming the inherent inferiority of the African races and God’s supposed acquiescence in their bondage, servitude, and unspeakable abuse. Nothing condemned the professed Christianity of the day and European society more than this insidious and evil practice, built on such false religious justifications and the darkest commercial greed in the hearts of conspiring men.
Had not Jeremiah long ago lamented, “Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work” (Jeremiah 22:13)? King Mosiah in The Book of Mormon embodied righteous governance; he had “established peace in the land, and he had granted unto his people that they should be delivered from all manner of bondage” (Mosiah 29:40). But for generations before August 26, 1833 in the British Empire, and for continuing generations after this date in the United States of America and a number of countries in Central and South America, it had to be said that the “wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). Slavery defrauds the moral law and bankrupts the soul.
The United States, in particular, was fundamentally morally compromised because of slavery and especially the long-standing attempt to use religious doctrine to justify the underlying racism. Despite soaring prose about inalienable rights and freedom from tyranny in the Declaration of Independence, Americans including those who had drafted and signed that document deliberately and systematically denied such God-given natural rights not only to African slaves but also Native Americans, utterly repressing any semblance of freedom or comfort for the slaves and denying life, liberty, and property in any meaningful sense to Native Americans at every opportunity, both under the wicked justification that these abuses were within God’s own righteousness because of the supposed inherent inferiority of these peoples simply based on their skin color. White Americans denied both groups any chance for joy or rejoicing in their posterity or the ability to fulfill the measure of their creation for hundreds of years.
Whether religious or agnostic, the American “Founding Fathers” generally thought of America as a Zion, a city built upon a hill that cannot be hid; yet the perpetuation of African slavery and genocides against Native Americans revealed it to be a Zion led by “prophets that make my people err, that bite with their teeth, and cry, Peace” (Micah 3:5), of whom Micah had prophesied, “They build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity” (Micah 3:10). For ages to come, in the contours of precisely this history “shall [our] seers be ashamed, and the diviners confounded: yea, they shall all cover their lips; for there is no answer of God” (Micah 3:7) to the pressing question of how an ostensibly pious people could have engaged in such atrocities, righteously excusing their actions precisely by their faith and the invented doctrines justifying them in perpetrating these abuses. This history now fades into the background like a nightmare but seems incredible when examined with the moral clarity that has come with time, knowledge, blessed pluralism, and the global familiarity of peoples.
In 1791, still at the beginning of his political career, Wilberforce was becoming more vocal about the moral clarity that his own recently acquired sincere religious faith was revealing to him about the plight of African slaves. In a now famous speech during a debate on the Slave Trade in the House of Commons on April 18, 1791, Wilberforce expressed gratitude for meager progress in the way abolitionists were beginning to view Africans: “we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied.” But he also acknowledged the difficult road ahead in the struggle to abolish first the slave trade and then slavery itself: “This is the first fruits of our efforts; let us persevere and our triumph will be complete. Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country.”
Just four months earlier, in January 1791, the United States had concluded the process of ratifying their Constitution, which, despite its ingenious synthesis of the loftiest ideals of the English and Scottish Enlightenments and the legacy of strong political institutions and commitment to the rule of law inherited from England in a single philosophy and framework of government, nevertheless specifically provided for the perpetuation of African chattel slavery, explicitly denying the humanity of the slaves by counting each as only three fifths of a person.
16 years later and after numerous political defeats of his efforts, the bill to abolish the slave trade that Wilberforce had backed was finally passed on March 25, 1807. The United States also technically abolished the slave trade in 1808, though the abominable practice of African chattel slavery continued in the United States until December 6, 1865, when the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was complete, outlawing African chattel slavery.
But though it took still another 26 years of Wilberforce’s untiring — prophetic — work, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 occurred much earlier and without a devastating Civil War. In 1823, Wilberforce published his arguments in support of entirely abolishing slavery in the British Empire. He prefaced the 56 page tract with the following moral appeal:
“I call upon [all the inhabitants of the British Empire], as they shall hereafter answer, in the great day of account, for the use they shall have made of any power or influence with which Providence may have entrusted them, to employ their best endeavours, by all lawful and constitutional means, to mitigate, and, as soon as it may be safely done, to terminate the Negro Slavery of the British Colonies; a system of the grossest injustice, of the most heathenish irreligion and immorality, of the most unprecedented degradation, and unrelenting cruelty.”
When the Act went into effect in August 1834, almost one million enslaved Africans became free in the British Empire, primarily in the Caribbean. With the children of Israel they heard the voice of the Lord saying “I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright” (Leviticus 26:13). On this issue, Wilberforce had been plugged in to an objective, universally valid morality; his lifetime commitment to this cause made him a Moses to the Empire’s slaves — “do ye suppose that they would have been led out of bondage, if the Lord had not commanded Moses that he should lead them out of bondage” (1 Nephi 17:24)? No. “Now ye know that the children of [Africa] were in bondage; and ye know that they were laden with tasks, which were grievous to be borne; wherefore, ye know that it must needs be a good thing for them, that they should be brought out of bondage” (1 Nephi 17:25). Indeed, “now ye know that [William Wilberforce] was commanded of the Lord to do that great work” (1 Nephi 17:26), a true latter-day prophet. From him we learn, at the very least, that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
Though many obstacles remain in the path of establishing Zion, slavery was a wickedness that absolutely blocked any possibility of the existence of Zion in its presence. Without it, “The Lord will reign for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146:10). Let us each seek the Lord’s guidance in accessing and abiding by the universal moral law, ignoring wicked traditions, teachings, doctrines, or practices that deviate from it, no matter how they are packaged. May William Wilberforce’s decades-long fight to abolish slavery inspire us to moral advocacy of that which is right, to stand up for the oppressed and abused, even if it requires us to go against the grain of local cultural practices or apparently received wisdom. Only in so doing can we truly learn that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
 William Wilberforce, An Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies, London: J. Hatchard & Son, Piccadilly (1823), p. 2.