After our visit to Parliament, we walked across the street to Westminster Abbey. This beautiful and ancient church has been the site of coronations and royal weddings for a thousand years. It also is the place where England has bestowed special honor on kings, queens, politicians, poets, missionaries and others by providing a place for them to be buried. Westminster Abbey feels like a cemetery primarily because it is a cemetery, albeit inside one of the most beautiful church buildings in the world. We went there on our “looking for Wilberforce” tour because on Aug. 3, 1833, William Wilberforce was buried in the Abbey.
Everyone who loves Wilberforce is thankful that he lived to see the day when Parliament voted to end not only the slave trade but also the institution of slavery itself. He received the news of this long-awaited event on Friday evening, July 26, 1833, more than 45 years after he had introduced his first bill in the House of Commons to abolish the slave trade. Finally, finally, the day had arrived. Wilberforce is reported to have exclaimed, “Thank God that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery” (Metaxas, p. 274). Only three days later, Wilberforce breathed his last.
Amazing Grace, thankfully, contains the text of a letter that was delivered to the sons of Wilberforce a few hours later on the day he died.
We, the undersigned members of both Houses of Parliament, being anxious upon public grounds to show our respect for the memory of the late William Wilberforce and being also satisfied that public honors can never be more fitly bestowed than upon such benefactors of mankind, earnestly request that he may be buried in Westminster Abbey; and that we, and others who may agree with us in these sentiments, may have permission to attend his funeral. (Metaxas, p. 275).
So, William Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey among kings and poets. Today, 183 years later, most tourists don’t even notice his name inscribed on the floor between the window where you buy your ticket and the stand where you pick up your audio tour. I have to confess that I overlooked it and had to be helped to find it later by a very kind red-robed Abbey marshal. At another location within the Abbey, there is a statue of Wilberforce, seated in a chair and with his head tilted in his very distinct and characteristic way. He looks pleasant, almost amused, as he stares back at the tourists listening to their headsets. I wondered how many people knew anything about this remarkable social reformer. And I wondered if there were others there in the Abbey at that moment who had come, as we did, just for Wilberforce — not for kings and queens and generals but for a tiny, sickly member of Parliament with a deep faith, a tender conscience, and an indomitable spirit who refused to allow the world to ignore the horrible plight of slaves.
We visit cemeteries because they somehow help us feel closer to the people whose names are engraved on the stone markers. There it is easier to remember and reflect on the difference the person made in our life and on the world. And in those moments, it is almost as inevitable as breathing for us to give thanks to God for the person whose life we remember. That is how I felt in Westminster Abbey when I went there “looking for Wilberforce.” The next stop on this journey will be the National Portrait Gallery.
August 3, 2016