William Wilberforce, whose commemoration day is on 30th July, was an English politician
who became the voice of the abolition movement in Parliament.
William was not alone, the movement to abolish slavery was happening in other countries.
It was a fundamental challenge to the assumption that ‘unenlightened’ non-European
peoples were subordinate and inferior and could be ruthlessly exploited. When Wilberforce
wrote a last petition it was unclear how the result would go. The Parliamentary debate
lasted three months. On the 26th July, 1833, the Abolition of Slavery bill passed
its third reading in the House of Commons. Wilberforce had resigned as an MP due
to ill health so a messenger was despatched to his house, telling him that at last
slavery in British colonies would finally be abolished. William died on 29 July 1833
just two days after hearing that news, a fitting conclusion to the work he had begun
nearly half a century before.
The shame of it though is that slavery did not end with abolition in the 19th century.
It still continues today in one form or another in every country in the world including
the UK. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) around 21 million
men, women and children around the world are in a form of slavery. In 2013 the UK’s
victim identification and support process, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM),
received over 1,746 referrals of potential victims of trafficking. What should we
do about it? As we have been redeemed from the slavery of sin, we should be the
foremost champions of ending human slavery in the world today.
The ancient world described in the Bible has more than its share of barbarism. When
the Israelites were slaves in Egypt they were given ever more difficult tasks and
were ill-treated (Exodus 1:11-14). The Bible reports and accepts that slavery was
present in those times, but does not appear to have the same connotations of cruelty
and inhuman treatment given to those William Wilberforce fought to save.
Jewish law provided slaves with limited rights, although they were still expected
to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). Ephesians goes on to tell those masters in
6:9 however to give up threatening their slaves “knowing that your own Master also
is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him”. The same instruction is given
in Colossians 4:1 “Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing
that you also have a Master in heaven” Scripture required Jewish people to grant
their Hebrew slaves freedom in the seventh year and a special year of celebration
known as the Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15:12).
The existence of any rights makes the slavery reported in biblical times very different
from the slavery that was practiced in the past few centuries in many parts of the
world. It was not based exclusively on race. People were not enslaved because of
their nationality or the colour of their skin. Certainly the slavery undertaken
in the 19th century was often based exclusively on skin colour. Africans were captured
up by slave-hunters, who sold them to slave-traders, who brought them to the New
World to work on plantations and farms. Many were considered slaves because of their
nationality and skin colour and many slave owners truly believed black people to
be inferior human beings.
Here the Bible is clear condemning any form of race-based slavery telling us in in
Genesis 1:27 that all men are created by God and made in His image. Both the Old
and New Testaments condemn the practice of “man-stealing.” The penalty for such
a crime was death: (Exodus 21:16). “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells
him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” Similarly, in the New
Testament, slave-traders are listed among those who are “ungodly and sinful” and
are in the same category as those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, adulterers
and perverts, and liars and perjurers (1 Timothy 1:8–10).
It is these examples we should obey. Slavery in any form is against all decency
and should be fought with all our strength.