However long it takes, whatever the costs involved, however hard the task, and whatever the risks, principled leaders finish what they start. They fulfill their responsibilities. They are in it for the long haul. This is one of the hallmarks of maturity.
Examples of this kind of determination to work faithfully with the end in mind abound throughout history. But perhaps no man in all of history modeled this virtue any better than William Wilberforce.
A member of the British Parliament, he introduced anti-slavery measures year after year for almost 50 years. In 1833, as he lay dying, he received word that his bill to outlaw slavery everywhere in the British Empire had finally been passed. The dream for which he had struggled day in and day out, year after year, decade after decade for nearly half a century had finally been realized.
As a youth Wilberforce was a witty, somewhat dissipated man about town who had misspent his time at Cambridge and squandered his considerable talents on silly amusements. He was a member of the high society elite and he reveled in it. Though he was brilliant, energetic, and ambitious, he appeared to be little more than another in a long line of lordly dilettantes.
Despite this, he seemed assured of a bright political future simply because of his social connections. He was close to William Pitt—who later became Prime Minister. He was a confidante of many of the most influential people in Parliament, the Foreign Service, industry, commerce, the military, and the landed gentry. He even had close ties to the royal family.
In 1784, after winning his election in Yorkshire, he decided to accompany his mother and sister for an extended holiday at the French the Riviera. As an afterthought, Wilberforce invited Isaac Milner, a university tutor from Cambridge and an old friend, to join them.
To pass the time on the long journey south, Wilberforce and his friend read and discussed Phillip Doddridge’s classic devotional work The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul as well as large portions of the New Testament.
Milner had become a deeply pious evangelical Christian while at the old Puritan bastion of Queen's College Cambridge. As they read and discussed, he began to share his testimony with the vacationers—particularly urging Wilberforce to commit his life wholeheartedly to Christ and to the work of the Gospel in the world. Like most aristocratic Englishmen of the day, Wilberforce had always thought of himself as a good Christian. But he encountered in Milner a faith far deeper than anything he had ever known before. He struggled under the weight of conviction and anguish for several months. Finally, he relented. And his life was forever after changed.
After he returned to his home in Westminster, he began to struggle mightily with his calling and vocation. “What was God’s purpose for him?” he wondered. “Was it possible to be both an effective politician and a devout Christian? Was it possible to maintain worldly power and humble piety simultaneously?” He confided his dilemma in Pitt. The ever-ambitious politician, wanting Wilberforce as an ally, urged him to remain in the political arena. But still unsettled in his conscience, Wilberforce spoke to his pastor, John Newton. Best remembered as the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, Newton had been converted while he was a blasphemous sea captain and a notorious slave trader. He counseled Wilberforce to remain in politics as the champion of good causes—and in particular the cause of abolishing the vile trade in human flesh. Wilberforce resolved to heed the counsel and take up the cause.
Sometime afterward, he recorded in his diary the conviction that God had called him to remain in politics for the purpose of “two great objects.” They were “the suppression of the slave trade” and “the reformation of manners.”
With all the zeal of a reformer, Wilberforce took up the slavery issue. He even had the encouragement of his old friend Pitt. So he entered into the fray full of confidence in the self-evident righteousness of his cause. He expected a quick victory. He was sorely mistaken, however. “The path to abolition was fraught with difficulty,” wrote biographer David Vaughan. “Vested interest, parliamentary filibustering, entrenched bigotry, international politics, slave unrest, personal sickness, and political fear—all combined to frustrate the movement.”
In 1787, Wilberforce first proposed emancipation legislation. He fell ill shortly afterward and had to postpone his efforts for more than a year. In 1789, he made his maiden anti-slavery speech in Parliament. He gained support from political stalwarts in each of the major parties: Edmund Burke from the Whigs and William Pitt from the Tories. But the bloody Revolution in France was claiming most of the attention of Parliament so the resolution was referred to committee. Despite effective lobbying, the issue was defeated on the floor of the House of Commons the next year.
Wilberforce was persistent. He was determined to finish what he had started. He introduced his bill again in 1792. Again, he was defeated. In 1793, he reintroduced the bill. And yet again, he was defeated. Later that year, war broke out with the Jacobin government of Revolutionary France. The abolition of slavery suddenly seemed to be a very minor issue to most politicians.
He was not to be deterred however. He rewrote the bill in 1794 and was defeated by a mere two votes. Still, he remained undaunted. Every year for the next fourteen years he reintroduced some version of his emancipation legislation. Again and again and again he came up short. In 1804, he actually won the vote in the House of Commons only to have his bill overturned by the House of Lords.
Still, Wilberforce refused to give up. He remained confident that his cause would one day prevail. And so he soldiered on. Through the difficult years of the Napoleonic Wars, the reigns of four monarchs, and the great parliamentary reforms. During all that time he not only fought against slavery but also against every other sort of modern vice and for all manner of social reform. He worked on everything from education for the poor masses, support of Bible societies, and private relief organizations to protection of day laborers, creation of Sunday Schools, and establishment of domestic and overseas orphanages.
Even so, it was the abolition of slavery that remained at the forefront of his concerns at all times and in all circumstances. He wrote, “In the case of every question of political expediency there appears to me room for consideration of times and seasons. But in the present instance where the actual commission of guilt is in question, a man who fears God is not at liberty. If I thought that the immediate Abolition of the Slave Trade would cause an insurrection in our islands, I should not for an instant remit my most serious endeavors. Be persuaded then, I shall still even less make this grand cause the sport of caprice, or sacrifice it to the motives of political or personal feeling.”
After yet another defeat in 1805, the Clerk of the House of Commons suggested that he just give up. His was a lost cause. He had little hope of every prevailing. Yet Wilberforce would have none of it. He rebuked the man, “I expect to carry it. And what is more, I feel assured that I shall carry it speedily
The following year, he was able to persuade Parliament to pass a restrictive measure, banning the slave traders from importing new slaves into British colonial possessions. The next year, the entire apparatus of the trade was banned from British dominions, domestic and colonial. When the final vote was taken, every man in the House of Commons rose to his feet to laud the great man’s perseverance and longsuffering. Wilberforce was overcome with emotion and collapsed with his head in his hands. He wept for joy.
But he was still not entirely satisfied. While slave trading—man-stealing, flesh-trading, buying and selling—was now illegal, slavery itself was not. There were still men in chains. The chattel property system still existed. So, Wilberforce carried on his fight for the total abolition of every last vestige of slavery.
He would have to persevere for another twenty-six years. He would suffer threats on his life, slander, attacks on his character, the prejudice of his colleagues, and the abandonment of his friends, peers, and party leaders. Yet, he remained resolute. He would finish what he had started. He would complete the task. He would fulfill his destiny. He would uphold his calling. He would bring it in for a landing.
And so he did, though ultimately had to retire from his parliamentary seat, He continued to fight the good fight into old age and infirmity. Finally, on July 26, 1833, word came to his sick bed that Parliament had passed the Emancipation Bill. His life’s work was done. He could finally rest from his labors. The great task was finally complete. He died less than sixty hours later.