We have a craving for eternity, a longing for something that transcends this mortal coil. We know our time on this planet is limited and we want to be remembered. Those seeking to leave a legacy for future generations frequently fail to achieve their goals, perhaps because they try too hard or fail to understand what is really important, caught up by flashy ephemera.
It was a simple plaque on the wall of Yorkminster Cathedral that got me thinking about the legacies people leave. “Remember William Wilberforce, 1759-1833, Member of Parliament for Hull – then Yorkshire, who worked for the abolition of slavery.”
I had forgotten Wilberforce was from Yorkshire. I mentally place him in London, where he fought great battles in the House of Commons; and in Clapham, the London area where he met with like-minded Christian reformers to pray and plan. I am sure I saw his grave when I visited Westminster Abbey in 2001.
Yorkshire though is where he got his start, so it is fitting that there is mention of him in York’s most prominent Christian edifice. It was his Christian faith that inspired him, that drove him, that guided him in the service of others. He fought against corruption in Parliament, and was a founding member of both the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Church Missionary Society; however it is his decades-long battle for the abolition of slavery that he is most often remembered today.
He knew his cause was just, he knew the odds of success were long, and he persevered. Principalities and powers were aligned against him; his opponents claimed that if he was successful it would mean the economic ruination of the British Empire, but Wilberforce pressed on, determined to be true to his faith and do what was right. Eventually his voice and his moral suasion carried the day and slavery was abolished throughout the Empire (and without the predicted economic ruination).
There is still slavery in the world today, but it is universally recognized as being wrong, which was not the case in the early nineteenth century when Wilberforce was fighting his parliamentary battles. His spiritual heirs today continue the battle against human trafficking. Like William Wilberforce they know there will not be a quick and easy victory, but they know their cause is just and right; they too are driven to do what they do.
I am sure Wilberforce was aware that if he achieved his goals he would have a place in history, but that legacy was not what inspired him. He wanted to be God’s obedient servant, to do what was right; he would not let those who did what was wrong cause him to waver in the struggle.
Such simple words. “Remember William Wilberforce.” I hope we never forget.