It's hard to imagine that a man with a gentle grin and a small, crippled body could turn the world upside down. Yet William Wilberforce, once described as "a shrimp," did, but not by might.
With a natural wit and eloquence, he charmed his way through school and into Parliament in the late eighteenth century. But he was aimless. "The first years I was in Parliament," he later wrote, "I did nothing, nothing, that is, to any purpose." He frequented social clubs and acquired a reputation as a songster.
Then he began reading Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. He soon realized wealth's emptiness and Christianity's truth. Outwardly he appeared confident, but inwardly he suffered: "I was filled with sorrow," he wrote. "I am sure that no human creature could suffer more than I did."
Wilberforce's gloom lifted on Easter 1786. His new life in Christ had begun, and a new sense of vocation grew within: "My walk is a public one," he wrote in his diary. "My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men."
He gradually came to understand his "business" had something to do with slavery.
The slave trade in the late 1700s involved thousands of Africans, hundreds of ships, and millions of pounds; upon it depended the economies of Britain and much of Europe. Few were aware of the horrors of the so-called "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic, where an estimated one out of four Africans died.1