The Consequence of a Good Idea: William Wilberforce’s Opposition to Slave Trade

Written by Dr. Everett Piper

Over the past couple of years, as I have been writing for The Washington Times, I have repeatedly argued that ideas have consequences. I have stated over and over again that what we believe always influences how we behave and that you can’t separate the head from the heart, fact from faith or attitudes from actions.

For good or for ill, ideas matter. As sentient creatures, we are unavoidably blessed or cursed by our guiding principles and the import of our ideas. In many ways, we inevitably do practice what we preach. “[That] thing a man does practically believe … the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain … is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest.” (Carlyle).

In my columns, I often lean toward the negative and warn of bad ideas and the bondage and the dysfunction they bring. I have challenged the intellectual vacuity of LGBTQ. I have bemoaned the blatant racism of Black Lives Matter and critical race theory. I have cited socialism’s death toll, and I have cautioned against hedonism’s track record of deception. Week after week, I have attempted to craft a story that at least hints a bit at the destructive consequences of what M. Scott Peck calls “the diabolical human mind” and of history’s tendency toward insanity and seduction.

Today, however, rather than talk more of the bad ideas, I’d like to focus on one that is good, one that bore its fruit some 215 years ago this week on the streets of London.

This idea was simple, timeless and profound. Its promoter was a young British parliamentarian named William Wilberforce. And here was his idea: God is God, and we are not.

You see, Wilberforce believed that all men and women were created equal and that any time one man elevated himself by enslaving another that he was implicitly claiming to be God. Wilberforce believed no one had the right to lord himself over another human being, for God alone is Lord.

Wilberforce fought tirelessly in the British Parliament for his idea for two decades. He was beaten back time and again. He was ridiculed. He was accused of economic treason. He was insulted. He was ostracized. His political career suffered and was all but lost. His influence waned, and his voice was muffled. But he held fast to his idea. He believed in its power and boldly declared that he would not be silenced. He confronted the “corruption … of human nature” and called “vice and wickedness” by their true names. He refused to accept the politically correct definitions of sin and contrasted the self-justifying talk of “occasional failings, and accidental incidents” with what he called the “humiliating language of true Christianity” and its call for personal repentance and moral responsibility.

Wilberforce believed passionately in a biblical worldview. He was confident it was the only solution to the corruption of his culture and the evils of his day. He, however, did not advocate imposing his views with force. Wilberforce believed in the power of persuasion and the example of personal integrity. He made it clear that his ideas would only prevail if they were grounded in and proven by the lives of those who espoused them.

“The national difficulties we face,” he said, “result from the decline of religion and morality among us. My own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies … as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ. I believe that their prayers may yet prevail.”

On Feb. 23, 1807, after arguing for more than 20 years on the floor of Parliament, William Wilberforce celebrated victory, and the British slave trade was abolished. It was the victory of an idea, not one of political or military conquest (of “navies and armies”), but that of a good idea over a bad one. It was a victory of truth over lies, freedom over slavery, and sanctification over sin.

Ideas do indeed matter, and in the case of William Wilberforce, we see that the power of an idea lived out in humility, balanced with integrity, and measured with grace can indeed change the world. In his example, Wilberforce leaves us with the hope and promise that “the prayers of many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ … may yet prevail.”

Dr. Everett Piper (, @dreverettpiper), is a former university president and radio host. He is the author of “Not a Daycare: The Devastating Consequences of Abandoning Truth” and Grow Up! Life Isn’t Safe But It’s Good, both published by Regnery. This article was originally published by The Washington Times.

Dr. Piper has been a featured speaker in dozens of venues including the Values Voter Summit, the Council for National Policy, the Young American Foundation, the National Congress for Families, and the inaugural ceremony for the United States Department of Health and Human Service’s and Office of Civil Rights creation of a new division for religious freedom. Go here to listen and watch these and/or for more info.