Looking for Wilberforce

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William Wilberforce’s lifelong friend, William Pitt, stands guard over St. Stephen’s Hall. The House of Commons met here when they voted to abolish the slave trade on February 23, 1807.

Stop 1: The British Parliament

I finished rereading Amazing Grace, Eric Metaxas’ biography of William Wilberforce, shortly before landing at London’s Heathrow Airport late Tuesday night. It was in the final paragraph of his epilogue that I found the words that would become the title of this short travelogue and blog. Metaxas writes, “To all of us wandering together here now, looking for William Wilberforce…” That is it! To all of us in the Harding community who are taking part in Harding Read 2016, we know exactly what “looking for Wilberforce” feels like. We now sense a connection to him that we can’t quite explain. He is both friend and hero, both bigger than life and yet a strangely comfortable companion. Amazing Grace leaves us wanting to continue this relationship, and so we go “looking for William Wilberforce.”

For a few short days in England, Ann and I are planning to visit some of the places that will hopefully help us connect even more deeply with the man we have come to consider both friend and inspiration through reading Amazing Grace. We want to walk where he walked and touch some of the things he touched. In this way, we will spend the week “looking for William Wilberforce.”

Our journey began this morning with a tour of Parliament. Though most of the buildings have been rebuilt since the time of Wilberforce because of fires or World War II bombings, there is still a strong sense of heritage, politics and government process within the walls of these iconic structures. As we stood (but were told in no uncertain terms not to sit!) between the red bench seats in the House of Lords, we remembered that the final bill to abolish the slave trade was introduced by British Prime Minister William Grenville to this group first as Wilberforce was “watching from the gallery, and doubtless on pins and needles throughout” (Metaxas, p. 206).

We then walked the short distance to the House of Commons, the room filled with the familiar green bench seats that we sometimes see featured in Parliamentary debates on CSPAN. There we imagined Wilberforce rising to his feet, year after painfully frustrating year, to introduce yet another bill to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. And I thought of how thankful I was that John Newton had counseled the terribly confused and deeply distressed Wilberforce that he did not need to leave politics to serve God. Instead, according to Metaxas, “Newton encouraged Wilberforce to stay where he was, saying that God could use him there” (Metaxas, p. 59). “There” meant the place where we were standing: the British House of Commons.

All of this led up to the highlight of the morning, and I have to confess that I almost missed it. Our last stop with our guide was in St. Stephen’s Hall. Today, it is a beautifully ornate room that seems more of a passageway than a historic chamber. On either side of the room, there are the familiar green benches that we had earlier seen in the modern-day House of Commons. Then our guide told us in a somewhat offhanded way that St. Stephen’s Hall (now a chapel) was where the House of Commons met from 1547 to 1834. Then, as the British sometimes say, “The penny dropped.” I asked our guide, “So this is the place where the final decision was made to abolish slavery?” He said yes, and we headed to the next stop on the tour. But Ann and I realized that we were in the hallowed place where the deeply moving scene described by Metaxas on pages 210 and 211 took place. Because of Harding Read 2016, we had been here before! We were sitting where Wilberforce, realizing that the moment had finally come, after 20 years of frustration, and the slave trade was about to be voted out of business in the British Empire. We were sitting where Wilberforce was “overcome, and taking his head in his hands, he wept” (Metaxas, p. 210).

We came here “looking for Wilberforce” and in a small way this morning, we found him in Parliament. Stop 2 will be Westminster Abbey.

Bruce McLarty
London, England
August 3, 2016

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