The “smell of death,” the shock of recognition, and the legacy of William Wilberforce

By Dave Andrusko

“God sometimes does His work with gentle drizzle, not storms. Drip. Drip. Drip.” — John Newton, from the film, “Amazing Grace.” Newton, at one time a slave trader, penned that great hymn following his conversion.

William Wilberforce was born in 1759 in Yorkshire, England. Unfortunately, Wilberforce is not known today nearly as well as he should be. In a small but powerful way, in 2006 the film Amazing Grace helped fill that historical void. What that has to do with us on June 14, 2022, I will explain in a minute.

As some of our readers know, that film was a powerfully inspirational story of the British abolitionist who led what seemed to be an utterly quixotic campaign to end the British slave trade in the waning years of the 18th century.

The scene in Amazing Grace I will absolutely never forget was how Wilberforce ingeniously conveyed to a small assembly of MPs and their wives–permanently and provocatively– the misery, brutality, and sheer inhumanity of slavery.

The elite of the elite, they are out on a ship, eating the finest foods and pastries, serenaded by a four-piece string quartet, thinking this is an expression of gratitude by the MP who arranged for this prim and proper “tour of the estuary.”

Without their having noticed, the ship is steered near a docked ship. Wilberforce suddenly appears on the deck and tells them that the Madagascar is a slave ship.

He explains to them how hundreds of slaves had set out from the Caribbean but how half to two-thirds died during the passage. As he speaks the assembled members of the aristocracy begins to put handkerchiefs to their noses.

Wilberforce tells them the awful smell is the smell of death, “slow, painful death.” He insists that they take their handkerchiefs away from their faces.

“Remember that smell. Remember the Madagascar. Remember that God made men equal.”

What does that have to do with us today? Those men and wives of privilege knew no more about the brutality of slavery, the “smell of death,” than most women (or men) know about the humanity of their unborn children.

But almost all of them, then, and us, now, recognize the humanity of a born child, even if her survival was miraculous—she survived an abortion! Regardless of our position on abortion, the undeniable truth is she is one of us, deserving of the same medical care—no more, but no less—than a “wanted” child born prematurely at the same gestational age.

William Wilberforce confronted the elite of the elite of the British Parliament with the ugliness of slavery. They could turn their eyes away from the slave ship. They could not avoid the overpowering smell of death.

We can hope and pray that the stench of abortion on demand and acceptance of infanticide on the sly will soften the hearts of anti-life Democrats. Granted, there is only a slim chance that their hearts will be softened.

But for the rest of America–all those who are not invested in annually killing nearly 900,000 unborn babies and allowing abortion survivors to perish off in a corner–we have much more hope and reason for optimism.

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