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William Wilberforce



William Wilberforce and the Abolition of the Slave Trade: Recommended Resources

HISTORY, like everything else, has become multimedia. When it comes to learning about the past, books are still the main course, but increasingly there are a variety of dishes upon which history is served. Beginning with this issue, we’re going to make an even greater effort to make readers aware of the best books, movies, recordings, CDs, and Web sites related to the topic. Here’s what we've come up with on Wilberforce and British social reform.

On and by Wilberforce

You’d expect a man as great as William Wilberforce to generate some fine biographies, and he has. Immediately after his death, two of his sons, Robert Isaac and Samuel, penned The Life of William Wilberforce (1839), which is the source of a great deal of material found in later biographies.

For modern treatments, see John Pollock’s Wilberforce (Lion, 1977) for a full account, or Garth Lean’s God’s Politician (Helmers & Howard, 1987) for a quick read. In editing the issue, we found Sir Reginald Coupland’s Wilberforce (Collins, 1945) a nice balance of engaging prose and good scholarship.

Wilberforce’s best seller is a long book with a long title. The SCM 1958 version retained the title—A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity—but has given us only the best of the wordy Wilberforce.

On slavery

Local libraries carry a fair share of books on slavery. One we found particularly helpful, especially for the gripping images it contains, is Susanne Everett’s The Slaves: An Illustrated History of the Monstrous Evil (Putnam, 1978).

A thorough and fascinating account of the slave trade can be found in Roger Anstey’s The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition: 1760–1810 (Macmillan, 1975).

Other reforms and reformers

Wilberforce, of course, was but the most famous social reformer, and abolition, only the most famous cause of the 1800s. To gain an appreciation of the breadth of concern and the major Christian social activists of the era, note these books:

Saints in Politics by Ernest Howse (University of Toronto Press, 1952) and Saints and Society by Earle Cairns (Moody, 1960) give nice overviews of the Clapham Sect and other Christian social reformers. Evangelical Faith and Public Zeal: Evangelicals and Society in Britain 1780–1980 edited by John Wolffe (SPCK, 1995) contains essays that explore various causes to which evangelicals gave themselves.

To narrow to one concern, the inner city, see Salvation in the Slums: Evangelical Social Work 1865–1920 by Norris Magnuson (Baker, 1977) and Lighten Their Darkness: The Evangelical Mission to Working-class London, 1828–1860 by Donald M. Lewis for two careful and intriguing studies.

Again, most local libraries carry biographies of the more famous reformers of 1800s England, like Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry—though such books often ignore the importance of their spiritual commitment. Two biographies that do not downplay the role of Christian faith are David W. Bebbington’s William Ewart Gladstone: Faith & Politics in Victorian Britain (Eerdmans, 1993) and Georgina Battiscombe’s Shaftesbury: A Biography of the Seventh Earl, 1801—1885 (PBS, 1974).

Fiction

Probably no writer did a better job of evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of London, and the customs of his day, than did Charles Dickens. Take up and read David Copperfield, Hard Times, Oliver Twist, or even A Christmas Carol to do some “serious” historical background research.

Films and Videos

Film versions of any of the Dickens books are another way of exploring this era. Also see William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a 35-minute video produced by Gateway Films (1-800-523-0226), which comes with a leader’s guide for group discussion.

Issues of Christian History

This isn’t the first time we've covered this era. See our issue on William and Catherine Booth (Issue 26), founders of the Salvation Army, for an in-depth look at the most famous inner-city ministry in Victorian England.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Issue 29) looks at the greatest preacher of the era. William Carey (Issue 36), Hudson Taylor (Issue 52), and David Livingstone (forthcoming: fall 1997) look at three famous missionaries who grew up in industrial Britain and took advantage of its colonial reach to spread the gospel across the world.

Issues 1 through 51 are available now on CD-ROM for easy researching. See the ad on page 48 for more information.

Online and the Web

Christian History has a site on America Online (keyword: Christian History) where some past issues of the magazine can be found. In addition, there are dozens of message boards on a variety of topics where one can read and post messages to other church history fans. One message board, for instance, is designed to discuss the current issue on Wilberforce and the Century of Reform.

There is also a link to the Gateway Films site, which specializes in church history films (like the Wilberforce film mentioned above).

We now have a page on the world wide web. Go to this address: www.ChristianityToday.com/christianhistory

From there you can scan a number of church history related sites. For example, some have early church documents online others have pictures and articles about early American Methodism and others contain key texts from the Middle Ages. And on it goes.

You can search for other church history web pages on a topic of your choice from within the Christian History area or through more generic search engines, like Yahoo! or Alta Vista.

For example, entering “William Wilberforce” in Yahoo!, we found a site that has a letter John Wesley wrote to William Wilberforce six days before Wesley died, encouraging Wilberforce to continue in his abolitionist efforts. Look it up athttp://www.forerunner.com/forerunner/ and scroll to document X0554 and click.

Wilberforce and his Clapham friends used the cutting-edge media of their day to make history. There is no reason we shouldn’t use all the media of our day to learn about that history.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #53 in 1997]


William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (1759-1833), abolitionist and philanthropist, was born to a family of merchants. He was first educated at Hull Grammar School under Joseph Milner, an evangelical Anglican minister. His father died when Wilberforce was nine, and his mother sent him to stay near London where he was reared by an evangelical aunt and uncle. Through their influence, he came to faith at the age of 12. In this home he came into contact with such men as George Whitefield, the great evangelist, and John Newton, who had converted from a life of a slave trade, and ultimately penned the hymn Amazing Grace.

Wilberforce's mother and other close family friends were alarmed at young William's religious "enthusiasm" and sought to reverse this course. By the time he arrived at St. John's College at Cambridge in 1776, his evangelicalism was well behind him, and he was as worldly as any of his friends, and vastly popular. Witty, charming, erudite, eloquent and hospitable, not to mention exceedingly wealthy, Wilberforce as an undergraduate displayed the charisma of a natural leader who drew friends and followers into his world.

In 1779, Wilberforce moved to London where he became friends with William Pitt. Both were motivated to enter politics and Wilberforce was elected to Parliament in September 1780 at the age of 21, the youngest age at which one could be elected. Pitt was soon to be Chancellor of the Exchequer and by the age of twenty-four Britain's Prime Minister, and because Wilberforce and Pitt were inseparable, the political career of this son of a tradesman advanced quickly.

In 1784, while respected as one of Parliament's leading debaters, Wilberforce decided on a European tour and invited an Irish friend to accompany him. When the friend declined, Wilberforce asked Isaac Milner, the brother of Joseph Milner (his former schoolmaster) to join him. Isaac, an Anglican clergyman, was known as a brilliant Cambridge scientist and mathematician. Unaware of Milner's evangelical convictions, Wilberforce was surprised to find that someone whom he could respect intellectually could also embrace a Christian worldview. Together they read and reviewed the Greek New Testament and Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. By the end of two European trips, the politician was convicted of his sin. He acknowledged "a sense of my great sinfulness in having so long neglected the unspeakable mercies of my God and Savior."

At this time, Wilberforce sought counsel from John Newton, by then the leading Anglican evangelical in London, and by October 1785 the 'great change' became complete. For a time Wilberforce thought about a call to ministry and retiring from public life, but Newton and Pitt urged him to stay in Parliament and serve Christ there. Pitt said, “Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action” (The Private Papers of William Wilberforce, 1897, p. 13).

After a long period of self-questioning and prayer, Wilberforce reached his famous conclusion that "God had set before me two objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners" [i.e. morality]. While due in part to the influence of Newton, a former slave trader, Wilberforce's embracing of the anti-slavery cause was from the direct effect of embracing the Christian worldview. But this was not a popular cause. Wilberforce was the target of tirades and assassination threats. Admiral Nelson wrote that as long as he would speak and fight he would resist "the damnable doctrines of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies." An irate sea-captain pummeled Wilberforce on the street. It was whispered slanderously when he was yet unmarried that his wife was black and that he beat her. His friends were accused of being spies in the service of the French. Despite threats to his life, he put forward a bill in the House of Commons in 1793 advocating gradual abolition. It failed by eight votes, most members absenting themselves from the House so as not to have to vote. Next, he brought forward a bill prohibiting British ships from carrying slaves to foreign territories. It lost by two votes in a near-empty House. Promised the support of some Members of Parliament, he found himself abandoned. Although Wilberforce reintroduced the Abolition Bill almost every year in the 1790s, little progress was made even though Wilberforce remained optimistic for the long-term success of the cause.

In the meantime, Wilberforce directed some of his efforts into other arenas, largely evangelical or philanthropic. One historian has calculated that Wilberforce was a member of the committee of some sixty-nine voluntary societies. In addition to his abolition work, he was consistently involved in church work that included the Church Missionary Society and the sending of missionaries to India and Africa, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Proclamation Society Against Vice and Immorality, the School Society, the Sunday School Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, the Vice Society and others. His public philanthropic efforts were many, including relieving the suffering of the manufacturing poor, and French refugees and foreigners in distress. History records Wilberforce as having made major financial contributions to at least seventy such societies, and as being active in numerous reform movements which included reform in hospital care, fever institutions, asylums, infirmaries, refugees and penitentiaries. He supported religious publications and education, especially the schools of Hannah More, a close friend and leading reformer of British education (Gathro, William Wilberforce and His Circle of Friends).

In 1797 he published a book, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, a work of popular evangelical theology that was highly influential and sold well on publication and throughout the nineteenth century. It was also that year, at the age of 37, after a short romance, he married Barbara Ann Spooner, beginning 'thirty-five years of undiluted happiness'. Over the next 10 years, his family life became even busier with the birth of four sons and two daughters. Wilberforce viewed his own role as father as more important than his role as politician.

Wilberforce's resolve to end slavery never abated. He was joined in his efforts by like-minded Christian friends known as the “Clapham Sect”. For twenty years they labored to turn public opinion and political leaders against the evils of slavery and the tide began to turn.

On the night of February 23, 1807, excitement grew in the House of Commons as his latest motion was debated. Speech after speech spoke in favor of abolition, and his fellow members began to pay tribute to Wilberforce. The climax came when Solicitor General Sir Samuel Romilly contrasted the reception that Napoleon and Wilberforce would receive at the end of a day’s labors: Napoleon would come home in power and pomp, yet tormented by the bloodshed and oppression of war he had caused. “Wilberforce would come home to ‘the bosom of his happy and delighted family,’ able to lie down in peace because he had ‘preserved so many millions of his fellow creatures." The House of Commons rose to its feet, turned to Wilberforce, and began to cheer. They gave three rousing hurrahs while Wilberforce sat with his head bowed and wept.” (Belmonte, Hero for Humanity, p. 148) Then the Commons voted to abolish the slave trade by a vote of 283 to 16. Prime Minister Granville called the passage “a measure which will diffuse happiness among millions now in existence, and for which his memory will be blessed by millions yet unborn.”

Wilberforce went on to lobby the governments of other nations, including the US, to adopt similar measures, and to assure that the laws were enforced. After stopping the trading of slaves, he devoted himself for the next 25 years to ending the institution of slavery itself. Three days before his death in 1833, he heard that the House of Commons had passed a law emancipating all slaves in the British Empire.

Wilberforce’s faith in Jesus Christ changed him from a careless, wealthy young politician to a tireless, compassionate public servant. He developed and used his gifts of leadership and persuasion to champion countless efforts to better society. He was a moral leader who voted against his party when principle required it. His partnership with his Christian brothers and sisters in the Clapham Sect serves as a model for Christians working together to bring about meaningful reform in society. He persisted for decades in the tasks God had called him to, despite illness, physical threats, and enormous opposition. At his death the British nation honored Wilberforce by burying him in Westminster Abbey and erecting a statue in his memory.

For all of these reasons, Wilberforce is a man we hold up for our children to learn from and emulate. Learn more about our unique Christian mission here.


William Wilberforce’s Fight Against Slavery

Anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was horrified by the plight of slaves from Africa

By Ray Setterfield

July 29, 1833 — Every year in the late 1700s English traders would raid the coast of Africa, capture between 35,000 to 50,000 Africans, ship them across the Atlantic and sell them into slavery. It was a highly profitable business and it had been going on for centuries.

Present day estimates are that up to 12.8 million Africans were involved over a 400-year period. The horrific conditions in which they were transported &ndash almost like sardines in a can &ndash meant that over two million of them are thought to have died on the journey.

For his part, William Wilberforce knew and cared little about it. As a fun-loving teenager he was more interested in playing cards, theatre-going, gambling and late-night drinking sessions.

But in later life his eyes were opened when he became an evangelical Christian, a conversion that brought major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for others.

Persuaded to join the campaign against slavery and faced with evidence of its horrors, he wrote: "So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade's wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.&rdquo

Wilberforce was born in 1759 at Kingston upon Hull in the north-east of England, the son of a wealthy merchant. His grandfather had twice been elected Mayor of the town.

At 17, he began studying at Cambridge University where he made many friends including the future Prime Minister, William Pitt. Wilberforce&rsquos life at Cambridge was made easier by the deaths of his grandfather and uncle in 1777, which left him independently wealthy.

Encouraged by Pitt, Wilberforce decided to enter politics and in 1780 he was elected Member of Parliament for his home town of Kingston upon Hull when he was just 21 and still a student. It was said that he had spent £8,000 buying votes, but this was accepted practice at the time.

He was an eloquent and impressive speaker in Parliament. After watching him, Samuel Johnson&rsquos biographer, the diarist James Boswell, wrote: &ldquoI saw what seemed a mere shrimp . . . but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.&rdquo

Under the influence of campaigner Thomas Clarkson, Wilberforce took up the fight against slavery. According to the Christian History website, &ldquohe was initially optimistic, even naively so. He expressed &lsquono doubt&rsquo about his chances of quick success. As early as 1789, he and Clarkson introduced 12 resolutions against the slave trade &ndash only to be outmanoeuvred on fine legal points.

&ldquoThe pathway to abolition was blocked by vested interests, parliamentary filibustering, entrenched bigotry, international politics, slave unrest, personal sickness, and political fear. Bills introduced by Wilberforce were defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.&rdquo

The trade in slaves was prominent in the West Indies and one supporter of it, writing at the time, showed the scale of opposition that Wilberforce faced: "The impossibility of doing without slaves in the West Indies will always prevent this traffic being dropped. The necessity, the absolute necessity, then, of carrying it on, must, since there is no other, be its excuse.&rdquo

Wilberforce&rsquos religious convictions meant that anti-slavery was by no means his only passion. As Christian History reports: &ldquoAt one time he was active in support of 69 philanthropic causes and he gave away a quarter of his annual income to the poor.

&ldquoHe fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. He helped found groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and, of course, the Antislavery Society.&rdquo Wilberforce also founded the world's first animal welfare organisation, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Unfortunately, he had suffered from ill health all his life, sometimes being bedridden for weeks. He wrote about the effect of this when in his late twenties: "I am . . . a prisoner, wholly unequal even to such a little business as I am now engaged in: add to which my eyes are so bad that I can scarce see how to direct my pen.&rdquo

Wilberforce turned to the new drug, opium, to combat his ailments and became addicted to it. Though offering some physical relief, he found that the hallucinations and depression that the drug inspired were terrifying.

His ill health meant eventually that he had to pass the campaign torch to others and as the 1820s progressed he increasingly became more or less just a figurehead for the abolitionist movement.

His final public anti-slavery speech came in April 1833. Then on July 26 of that year a frail Wilberforce was told of government concessions that guaranteed the passing of a Bill for the Abolition of Slavery.

The good news was not enough to trigger a recovery of his health and he died three days later, aged 73. The Slavery Abolition Act was passed the following month, abolishing slavery in most of the British Empire from August 1834.


Change of Course for William Wilberforce

At the age of 28, Wilberforce wrote in his diary:

“God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals].”

Though he continued to be plagued by poor health that kept him bedridden at times for weeks, he attended to his causes. All his life he suffered chronic ill health that included a crooked spine, poor eyesight, and stomach problems. He wrote:

“So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”

When in 1797, he settled in Clapham, he became a member of the so-called “Clapham Sect,” a group of devout Christians dedicated to correcting social ills. Wilberforce was himself dedicated to helping found numerous parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Antislavery Society, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

He championed the cause of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. In total, he supported 69 philanthropic causes, giving one forth of his annual income to the poor.

In the same year, Wilberforce completed writing his book “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity,” which he’d been working on for some four years.

He spoke against the decline of morality in the nation but more than anything his own personal testimony and views. His book became a best seller and a strong and influential apologetic for a vital and living Christianity. The book sold widely for over forty years.


William Wilberforce and the Abolition of the Slave Trade: Did You Know?

William Wilberforce regarded slavery as a national crime for which all Englishmen were responsible. In 1818 he wrote in his diary, "In the Scripture, no national crime is condemned so frequently and few so strongly as oppression and cruelty, and the not using our best endeavors to deliver our fellow-creatures from them."

Wilberforce and his friends engaged in an antislavery public opinion campaign unprecedented in English history. In 1814 they gathered one million signatures, one-tenth of the population, on 800 petitions, which they delivered to the House of Commons.

The English ruling classes viewed abolitionists as radical and dangerous, similar to French revolutionaries of the day.

Antislavery bills of one sort or another were defeated in Parliament for 11 consecutive years before the act abolishing the slave trade was passed in 1807.

Slave ship crews were often treated more cruelly than slaves. Slaves brought a profit, so there was incentive to ensure they were adequately fed and cared for. In fact, the death rate for crews was higher than that for slaves.

Wilberforce was one of five members of the Clapham Sect (the aristocratic circle of Christian activists) who held seats in the House of Commons who never lost a parliamentary election.

In the summer of 1833, Parliament passed the second reading of the Emancipation Act, ensuring the end of slavery in the British Empire. Three days later, Wilberforce died.

Evangelical abolitionists have received high praise from secular commentators. For example, nineteenth-century historian W. E. H. Lecky said, "The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly .

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William Wilberforce - History


William Wilberforce 1759-1833

British William Wilberforce has his place in history because of his strong views against slavery, which put him in direct opposition to one of the main sources of commercial revenue of the British Empire at the time.

William Wilberforce by John Rising (b. 1753, d. London 1817)


Front Entrance of the Wilberforce House Museum
The House was built around 1660.
William Wilberforce was born here on August 24, 1759.

The Wilberforce House has been a museum since 1906.


William Wilberforce's Views and Values

Wilberforce was a spiritual man.

Around 1790, he became one of the leaders of the Clapham Sect , who were evangelical Christians, abolitionists, but other than that politically on the conservative side.

Clapham, by the way, is located in the south of London and used to be the Manor of Clapham back in the days.

Here is the map. Look for Battersea.


On May 12, 1789, Wilberforce delivered his Abolition speech to the House of Commons in London, in which he, one by one, addressed all major arguments that circulated against the abolition of the slave trade.

Four hours later, William Pitt the Younger thanked William Wilberforce

"for the manner in which he had brought the subject before the House, not merely in regard to the masterly, forcible, and perspicuous mode of argument which he had pursued respecting it, but particularly for having chosen the only way in which it could be made obvious to the world, that they were warranted in every ground of fact and of reason, in coming to that vote, which he trusted would be the end of their proceeding."

William Wilberforce's Family

William's son was Samuel Wilberforce , the Bishop of Oxford, later Winchester.



William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce's Brief Biography

August 24, 1759 - Birth at Hull, Yorkshire, England

Education at Cambridge

1780 - Enters Parliament

1784 - Converts to evangelical Christianity

1787 - Begins his quest for the abolition of the slave trade

1787 - Founder of the Proclamation Society

September 1791 - Is made honorary citizen of France

1807, March 2 - The U.S. Congress approves the Slave Trade Act , which effective from January 1, 1808, will abolish the importation of slaves. The slave trade is outlawed.

1815 - Speaks in favor of the Corn Laws

1823 - Founder of the Anti-Slavery Society, aka the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

1833, July 26 - The Slavery Abolition Bill is passed by the Commons

1833, July 29 - Death at London

1833, August 28 - The Slavery Abolition Act becomes law


History’s Badasses: William Wilberforce

Last time on History’s Badasses, we covered Sir Christopher Lee. This time, we’re turning back the clock on one of the most influential men in English history. This man doesn’t get talked about enough, and he really should be talked about more, because long before Abraham Lincoln ever signed The Emancipation Proclamation, William Wilberforce spent his life in pursuit of eradicating the slave trade all across the British Empire. He was friends with Prime Minister William Pitt, contemporaries with King George III, and a student during the American Revolution. He was an activist, philanthropist, and active voice in the English House of Commons for his entire life. But, who was he? And what led a man who had everything to lose to throw away his health, political reputation, and life, to go after one of the most notorious institutions the British Empire ever created, at a time when to do so was utterly unthinkable?

William Wilberforce was born in Yorkshire. As a young boy, he had an incredible religious fervor that actually worried his mother and grandfather. They sent him away to school, and, by the time he was a young adult at the age of 17, he’d lost all of his religious scruples entirely. He attended balls, plays, played cards, and immersed himself in a student’s social life. He stayed up late in the night, binge-drinking and gambling. Even so, he was sharp-witted, generous with his friends, and an excellent conversationalist. He made quick friends with the future Prime Minister William Pitt, and slowly, with a more studious companion, began to consider a career in politics.

He began his political career while still in university, an intern, of sorts. He was elected Member of Parliament at the very young age of 21, and sat the chair as an independent. He frequented parliament and social clubs, retaining a healthy social life, and his skill and wit only grew with age. The Prince of Wales even said that he would go anywhere just to hear Wilberforce sing. He was immensely popular, both in Parliament and out of it. His friend, Pitt, became Prime Minister in 1783, and Wilberforce became his key supporter.

At the age of twenty-four, Wilberforce was struck with a sudden fancy to tour Europe. Little did he know that this tour would eventually change his entire life. In October, 1784, one year after his friend, William Pitt, was elected Prime Minister, William traveled with his sister, mother, and the younger brother of his former headmaster. At first, nothing changed. William enjoyed his usual pastimes of gambling and card playing, but as he traveled more, he began to read a book on religion to pass the time. After that, Wilberforce began to read the Bible more, pray, and keep a private journal. Outwardly, he remained the same old Wilberforce: tactful, happy, but at the same time urging others toward faith. Inwardly, however, he was gripped with turmoil.

Wilberforce’s political ideals changed after 1784, drastically. He became well-known for advocating against animal cruelty, and pushed bills that reduced sentences for treason committed by women (a crime that, at the time, for some reason included murder of a husband). His interest in the slave trade was sparked by a meeting with James Ramsay, a ship’s surgeon-turned-clergyman, who told him of the conditions he’d witnessed aboard slave ships and plantations in Cuba. Wilberforce was appalled by what he learned from Ramsay, but apparently didn’t start moving until, three years later, a friend urged him to bring forward the idea of abolition of the slave trade in Parliament. If anyone could do it, if anyone could convince Parliament to tear down one of the singularly most profitable industries in the British Empire, Wilberforce could.

On May 12, 1787, beneath an oak tree, during a conversation with William Pitt, just eleven years after the American Revolution, Wilberforce made the decision to tear down the British Slave Trade brick-by-brick. He wrote in a journal entry that same year that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners”.

He launched a campaign against the Slave Trade that would last for almost fifty years. It took his health, saw him through the death of his best friend, and almost destroyed his personal reputation in Parliament.

He and William Pitt fought alongside each other against the Slave Trade and the East India Company, gathering evidence, raising awareness of the conditions slaves were kept in under the British Empire, and putting forth bill after bill in attempts to cripple the British Slave Trade.

Wilberforce’s health started to fail in 1820, mostly due to the stress the campaign brought on him. He continued to fight, however, giving speeches in London, in Parliament, writing essays and corresponding with important officials to raise support for abolition.

Even though he had to resign from his seat in Parliament in 1824, as his health completely failed him, Wilberforce kept fighting, writing letters to those he could and supporting from the outside. He made a final speech for abolition in Kent at a public meeting in 1833. The following month, due to his influence, the British government introduced a bill for the complete abolition of slavery, formally saluting Wilberforce and his contribution in the process. Wilberforce heard of this. Just three days later, he died. He’d been hanging on, hanging on because his work that he’d begun fifty years earlier wasn’t yet finished, and finally… finally it was.

One month after his death, the British government passed the Slavery Abolition Act, destroying slavery in most of the British Empire. 800,000 African slaves were freed. It was a feat that would have never been possible if Wilberforce hadn’t thought of it first under that oak tree in Yorkshire, 1787.


William Wilberforce


William Wilberforce, only son of Robert Wilberforce (1728–1768) and Elizabeth Bird (1730–1798), was born in Kingston upon Hull on 24th August 1759. William’s father, who was a wealthy merchant, died when he was seven years old and for a time was brought up by an uncle and aunt.

William came under the influence of his aunt, who was a strong supporter of John Wesley and the Methodist movement. According to his biographer, John Wolffe: “Meanwhile his aunt Hannah, an admirer of George Whitefield and friendly with the Methodists, influenced him towards evangelicalism. His grandfather and mother, however, took fright, and brought him back to live in Hull, where every effort was made to distract him from such enthusiastic religion.”

At seventeen Wilberforce was sent to St. John’s College. Following the deaths of his grandfather in 1776 and his childless uncle William in 1777, Wilberforce was an extremely wealthy man. Wilberforce was shocked by the behaviour of his fellow students at the University of Cambridge and later wrote: “I was introduced on the very first night of my arrival to as licentious a set of men as can well be conceived. They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than their lives.” One of Wilberforce’s friends at university was William Pitt, who was later to become Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister.

Following the deaths of his grandfather in 1776 and his childless uncle William in 1777, Wilberforce was an extremely wealthy man. After leaving university he showed no interest in the family business, and while still at Cambridge he decided to pursue a political career and at the age of twenty, he decided to become a candidate in the forthcoming parliamentary election in Kingston upon Hill in September 1780. His opponent was Charles Watson-Wentworth, a rich and powerful member of the nobility, and Wilberforce had to spend nearly £9,000 to become elected. In the House of Commons Wilberforce supported the the Tory government led by William Pitt.

The historian, Ellen Gibson Wilson, has pointed out: “Wilberforce was little over five feet tall, a frail and elfin figure who in his later years weighed well under 100 pounds. His charm was legendary, his conversation delightful, his oratory impressive. He dressed in the colourful finery of the day and adorned any salon with his amiable manner. Yet his object in life – no less than the transformation of a corrupt society through serious religion – was solemn… Wilberforce, although he rejected a party label, was deeply conservative and a loyal supporter of the government led by his friend William Pitt.”

In 1784 Wilberforce became converted to Evangelical Christianity. He joined the Clapham Set, a group of evangelical members of the Anglican Church, centered around Henry Venn, rector of Clapham Church in London. As a result of this conversion, Wilberforce became interested in the subject of social reform. Other members included Hannah More, Granville Sharp, Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay, James Stephen, Edward James Eliot, Thomas Gisbourne, John Shore and Charles Grant.

In June 1786 Thomas Clarkson published Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. As Ellen Gibson Wilson has pointed out: “A substantial book (256 pages), it traced the history of slavery to its decline in Europe and arrival in Africa, made a powerful indictment of the slave system as it operated in the West Indian colonies and attacked the slave trade supporting it. In reading it, one is struck by its raw emotion as much as by its strong reasoning.” William Smith argued that the book was a turning-point for the slave trade abolition movement and made the case “unanswerably, and I should have thought, irresistibly”.

In 1787 Thomas Clarkson, William Dillwyn and Granville Sharp formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Although Sharp and Clarkson were both Anglicans, nine out of the twelve members on the committee, were Quakers. This included John Barton (1755-1789) George Harrison (1747-1827) Samuel Hoare Jr. (1751-1825) Joseph Hooper (1732-1789) John Lloyd (1750-1811) Joseph Woods (1738-1812) James Phillips (1745-1799) and Richard Phillips (1756-1836). Influential figures such as Charles Fox, John Wesley, Josiah Wedgwood, James Ramsay, and William Smith gave their support to the campaign. Clarkson was appointed secretary, Sharp as chairman and Hoare as treasurer.

Clarkson approached another sympathiser, Charles Middleton, the MP for Rochester, to represent the group in the House of Commons. He rejected the idea and instead suggested the name of William Wilberforce, who “not only displayed very superior talents of great eloquence, but was a decided and powerful advocate of the cause of truth and virtue.” Lady Middleton wrote to Wilberforce who replied: “I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me, but yet I will not positively decline it.” Wilberforce’s nephew, George Stephen, was surprised by this choice as he considered him a lazy man: “He worked out nothing for himself he was destitute of system, and desultory in his habits he depended on others for information, and he required an intellectual walking stick.”

Charles Fox was unsure of Wilberforce’s commitment to the anti-slavery campaign. He wrote to Thomas Walker: “There are many reasons why I am glad (Wilberforce) has undertaken it rather than I, and I think as you do, that I can be very useful in preventing him from betraying the cause, if he should be so inclined, which I own I suspect. Nothing, I think but such a disposition, or a want of judgment scarcely credible, could induce him to throw cold water upon petitions. It is from them and other demonstrations of the opinion without doors that I look for success.”

In May 1788, Charles Fox precipitated the first parliamentary debate on the issue. He denounced the “disgraceful traffic” which ought not to be regulated but destroyed. He was supported by Edmund Burke who warned MPs not to let committees of the privy council do their work for them. William Dolben described shipboard horrors of slaves chained hand and foot, stowed like “herrings in a barrel” and stricken with “putrid and fatal disorders” which infected crews as well. With the support of Wilberforce Samuel Whitbread, Charles Middleton and William Smith, Dolben put forward a bill to regulate conditions on board slave ships. The legislation was initially rejected by the House of Lords but after William Pitt threatened to resign as prime minister, the bill passed 56 to 5 and received royal assent on 11th July.

Wilberforce also became involved in other areas of social reform. In August 1789 Wilberforce stayed with Hannah More at her cottage in Blagdon, and on visiting the nearby village of Cheddar and according to William Roberts, the author of Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More (1834): they were appalled to find “incredible multitudes of poor, plunged in an excess of vice, poverty, and ignorance beyond what one would suppose possible in a civilized and Christian country”. As a result of this experience, More rented a house at Cheddar and engaged teachers to instruct the children in reading the Bible and the catechism. The school soon had 300 pupils and over the next ten years the More sisters opened another twelve schools in the area where the main objective was “to train up the lower classes to habits of industry and virtue”.

Michael Jordan, the author of The Great Abolition Sham (2005) has pointed out that More shared Wilberforce’s reactionary political views: “More set up local schools in order to equip impoverished pupils with an elementary grasp of reading. This, however, was where her concern for their education effectively ended, because she did not offer her charges the additional skill of writing. To be able to read was to open a door to good ideas and sound morality (most of which was provided by Hannah More through a series of religious pamphlets) writing, on the other hand, was to be discouraged, since it would open the way to rising above one’s natural station.”

Wilberforce’s biographer, John Wolffe, has argued: “Following the publication of the privy council report on 25 April 1789, Wilberforce marked his own delayed formal entry into the parliamentary campaign on 12 May with a closely reasoned speech of three and a half hours, using its evidence to describe the effects of the trade on Africa and the appalling conditions of the middle passage. He argued that abolition would lead to an improvement in the conditions of slaves already in the West Indies, and sought to answer the economic arguments of his opponents. For him, however, the fundamental issue was one of morality and justice. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was very pleased with the speech and sent its thanks for his “unparalleled assiduity and perseverance”.

The House of Commons agreed to establish a committee to look into the slave trade. Wilberforce said he did not intend to introduce new testimony as the case against the trade was already in the public record. Ellen Gibson Wilson, a leading historian on the slave trade has argued: “Everyone thought the hearing would be brief, perhaps one sitting. Instead, the slaving interests prolonged it so skilfully that when the House adjourned on 23 June, their witnesses were still testifying.”

James Ramsay, the veteran campaigner against the slave trade, was now extremely ill. He wrote to Thomas Clarkson on 10th July 1789: “Whether the bill goes through the House or not, the discussion attending it will have a most beneficial effect. The whole of this business I think now to be in such a train as to enable me to bid farewell to the present scene with the satisfaction of not having lived in vain.” Ten days later Ramsay died from a gastric haemorrhage. The vote on the slave trade was postponed to 1790.

Wilberforce initially welcomed the French Revolution as he believed that the new government would abolish the country’s slave trade. He wrote to Abbé de la Jeard on 17th July 1789 commenting that “I sympathize warmly in what is going forward in your country.” Wilberforce intended to visit France but he was persuaded by friends that it would be dangerous for an English politician to be in the country during a revolution. Wilberforce therefore asked Clarkson to visit Paris on behalf of himself and the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Clarkson was welcomed by the French abolitionists and later that month the government published A Declaration of the Rights of Man asserting that all men were born and remained free and equal. However, the visit was a failure as Clarkson could not persuade the French National Assembly to discuss the abolition of the slave trade. Marquis de Lafayette said “he hoped the day was near at hand, when two great nations, which had been hitherto distinguished only for their hostility would unite in so sublime a measure (abolition) and that they would follow up their union by another, still more lovely, for the preservation of eternal and universal peace.”

On his return to England Thomas Clarkson continued to gather information for the campaign against the slave-trade. Over the next four months he covered over 7,000 miles. During this period he could only find twenty men willing to testify before the House of Commons. He later recalled: “I was disgusted… to find how little men were disposed to make sacrifices for so great a cause.” There were some seamen who were willing to make the trip to London. One captain told Clarkson: “I had rather live on bread and water, and tell what I know of the slave trade, than live in the greatest affluence and withhold it.”

Wilberforce believed that the support for the French Revolution by the leading members of the Society for the Abolition of Slave Trade was creating difficulties for his attempts to bring an end to the slave trade in the House of Commons. He told Thomas Clarkson: “I wanted much to see you to tell you to keep clear from the subject of the French Revolution and I hope you will.” Isaac Milner, after a long talk with Clarkson, commented to Wilberforce: “I wish him better health, and better notions in politics no government can stand on such principles as he maintains. I am very sorry for it, because I see plainly advantage is taken of such cases as his, in order to represent the friends of Abolition as levellers.”

On 18th April 1791 Wilberforce introduced a bill to abolish the slave trade. Wilberforce was supported by William Pitt, William Smith, Charles Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, William Grenville and Henry Brougham. The opposition was led by Lord John Russell and Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the MP for Liverpool. One observer commented that it was “a war of the pigmies against the giants of the House”. However, on 19th April, the motion was defeated by 163 to 88.

In March 1796, Wilberforce’s proposal to abolish the slave trade was defeated in the House of Commons by only four votes. At least a dozen abolitionist MPs were out of town or at the new comic opera in London. Wilberforce wrote in his diary: “Enough at the Opera to have carried it. I am permanently hurt about the Slave Trade.” Thomas Clarkson commented: “To have all our endeavours blasted by the vote of a single night is both vexatious and discouraging.” It was a terrible blow to Clarkson and he decided to take a rest from campaigning.

In 1804, Clarkson returned to his campaign against the slave trade and toured the country on horseback obtaining new evidence and maintaining support for the campaigners in Parliament. A new generation of activists such as Henry Brougham, Zachary Macaulay and James Stephen, helped to galvanize older members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

William Wilberforce introduced an abolition bill on 30th May 1804. It passed all stages in the House of Commons and on 28th June it moved to the House of Lords. The Whig leader in the Lords, Lord Grenville, said as so many “friends of abolition had already gone home” the bill would be defeated and advised Wilberforce to leave the vote to the following year. Wilberforce agreed and later commented “that in the House of Lords a bill from the House of Commons is in a destitute and orphan state, unless it has some peer to adopt and take the conduct of it”.

In 1805 the bill was once again presented to the House of Commons. This time the pro-slave trade MPs were better organised and it was defeated by seven votes. Wilberforce blamed “Great canvassing of our enemies and several of our friends absent through forgetfulness, or accident, or engagements preferred from lukewarmness.” Clarkson now toured the country reactivating local committees against the slave trade in an attempt to drum up the support needed to get the legislation through parliament.

In February, 1806 Lord Grenville was invited by the king to form a new Whig administration. Grenville, was a strong opponent of the slave trade. Grenville was determined to bring an end to British involvement in the trade. Thomas Clarkson sent a circular to all supporters of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade claiming that “we have rather more friends in the Cabinet than formerly” and suggested “spontaneous” lobbying of MPs.

Grenville’s Foreign Secretary, Charles Fox, led the campaign in the House of Commons to ban the slave trade in captured colonies. Clarkson commented that Fox was “determined upon the abolition of it (the slave trade) as the highest glory of his administration, and as the greatest earthly blessing which it was the power of the Government to bestow.” This time there was little opposition and it was passed by an overwhelming 114 to 15.

In the House of Lords Lord Greenville made a passionate speech where he argued that the trade was “contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy” and criticised fellow members for “not having abolished the trade long ago”. When the vote was taken the bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20.

In January 1807 Lord Grenville introduced a bill that would stop the trade to British colonies on grounds of “justice, humanity and sound policy”. Ellen Gibson Wilson has pointed out: “Lord Grenville masterminded the victory which had eluded the abolitionist for so long… He opposed a delaying inquiry but several last-ditch petitions came from West Indian, London and Liverpool shipping and planting spokesmen…. He was determined to succeed and his canvassing of support had been meticulous.” Grenville addressed the Lords for three hours on 4th February and when the vote was taken it was passed by 100 to 34.

Wilberforce commented: “How popular Abolition is, just now! God can turn the hearts of men”. During the debate in the House of Commons the solicitor-general, Samuel Romilly, paid a fulsome tribute to Wilberforce’s unremitting advocacy in Parliament. The trade was abolished by a resounding 283 to 16. According to Clarkson, it was the largest majority recorded on any issue where the House divided. Romilly felt it to be “the most glorious event, and the happiest for mankind, that has ever taken place since human affairs have been recorded.”

Under the terms of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807) British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found on board. However, this law did not stop the British slave trade. If slave-ships were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by ordering the slaves to be thrown into the sea.

In 1807 Thomas Clarkson published his book History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. He dedicated it to the nine of the twelve members of Lord Grenville’s Cabinet who supported the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and to the memories of William Pitt and Charles Fox. Clarkson played a generous tribute to the work of Wilberforce: “For what, for example, could I myself have done if I had not derived so much assistance from the committee? What could Mr Wilberforce have done in parliament, if I… had not collected that great body of evidence, to which there was such a constant appeal? And what could the committee have done without the parliamentary aid of Mr Wilberforce?”

Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign such as Thomas Fowell Buxton, argued that the only way to end the suffering of the slaves was to make slavery illegal. Wilberforce disagreed, he believed that at this time slaves were not ready to be granted their freedom. He pointed out in a pamphlet that he wrote in 1807 that: “It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately, would be to insure not only their masters’ ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom.”

In July, 1807, members of the Society for the Abolition of Slave Trade established the African Institution, an organization that was committed to watch over the execution of the law, seek a ban on the slave trade by foreign powers and to promote the “civilization and happiness” of Africa. The Duke of Gloucester became the first president and members of the committee included Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Henry Brougham, James Stephen, Granville Sharp and Zachary Macaulay.

Wayne Ackerson, the author of The African Institution and the Antislavery Movement in Great Britain (2005) has argued: “The African Institution was a pivotal abolitionist and antislavery group in Britain during the early nineteenth century, and its members included royalty, prominent lawyers, Members of Parliament, and noted reformers such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Zachary Macaulay. Focusing on the spread of Western civilization to Africa, the abolition of the foreign slave trade, and improving the lives of slaves in British colonies, the group’s influence extended far into Britain’s diplomatic relations in addition to the government’s domestic affairs. The African Institution carried the torch for antislavery reform for twenty years and paved the way for later humanitarian efforts in Great Britain.”

Wilberforce made it clear that he considered the African Institution should do what it could to convert Africans to Christianity. In 1811 he wrote: “In truth there is a peculiar call on our sensibility in the present instance, for in proportion as the lot of slaves is hard in the world, we ought to rejoice in every opportunity of bringing them under their present sufferings, and secure for them a rich compensation of reversionary happiness.”

In 1808 the Clapham Set decided to transfer the Sierra Leone Company to the crown, the British government accepted Wilberforce’s suggestion that Thomas Perronet Thompson would be a suitable governor. He introduced an extensive range of reforms and made serious allegations against the colony’s former administrators. Stephen Tomkins, the author of William Wilberforce (2007) has argued: “He (Perronet Thompson) single-handedly abolished apprenticeship and freed the slaves. He filed scandalised reports to the colonial office. Wilberforce told him he was being rash and hasty, and he and his colleagues voted unanimously for his dismissal. Wilberforce advised him to go quietly for the sake of his career.”

In the General Election following the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act Wilberforce was challenged by a political opponent. He won but the hard contest had left him “thin and old beyond his years”. In 1811 he decided to give up the county seat for reasons of health. Lord Calthorpe offered him a pocket borough at Bramber and he was returned from there in 1812 without having to leave his holiday home.

Francis Burdett was a supporter of Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade. In 1816 he attacked Wilberforce when he refused to complain about the suspension of Habeas Corpus, during the campaign for parliamentary reform. Burdett commented: “How happened it that the honourable and religious member was not shocked at Englishmen being taken up under this act and treated like African slaves?” Wilberforce replied that Burdett was opposing the government in a deliberate scheme to destroy the liberty and happiness of the people.”

In 1823 Thomas Clarkson, Thomas Fowell Buxton, William Allen, James Cropper and Zachary Macaulay formed the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Buxton eventually persuaded Wilberforce to join his campaign but as he had retired from the House of Commons in 1825, he did not play an important part in persuading Parliament to bring an end to slavery.

At the conference in May 1830, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery agreed to drop the words “gradual abolition” from its title. It also agreed to support the plan put forward by Sarah Wedgwood for a new campaign to bring about immediate abolition. Wilberforce, who had always been reluctant to campaign against slavery, agreed to promote the organisation. Thomas Clarkson praised Wilberforce for taking this brave move. He replied: “I cannot but look back to those happy days when we began our labours together or rather when we worked together – for he began before me – and we made the first step towards that great object, the completion of which is the purpose of our assembling this day.”

William Wilberforce died on 29th July, 1833. One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. When Thomas Clarkson heard the news he locked the door of his study and his wife heard him “in an agony of grief weeping and uttering loud lamentations.”

In 1834 Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, began work on their father’s biography. The book was published in 1838. As Ellen Gibson Wilson, the author of Thomas Clarkson (1989), pointed out: “The five volumes which the Wilberforces published in 1838 vindicated Clarkson’s worst fears that he would be forced to reply. How far the memoir was Christian, I must leave to others to decide. That it was unfair to Clarkson is not disputed. Where possible, the authors ignored Clarkson where they could not they disparaged him. In the whole rambling work, using the thousands of documents available to them, they found no space for anything illustrating the mutual affection and regard between the two great men, or between Wilberforce and Clarkson’s brother.”

Wilson goes on to argue that the book has completely distorted the history of the campaign against the slave-trade: “The Life has been treated as an authoritative source for 150 years of histories and biographies. It is readily available and cannot be ignored because of the wealth of original material it contains. It has not always been read with the caution it deserves. That its treatment of Clarkson, in particular, a deservedly towering figure in the abolition struggle, is invalidated by untruths, omissions and misrepresentations of his motives and his achievements is not understood by later generations, unfamiliar with the jealousy that motivated the holy authors. When all the contemporary shouting had died away, the Life survived to take from Clarkson both his fame and his good name. It left us with the simplistic myth of Wilberforce and his evangelical warriors in a holy crusade.

Eventually, Robert Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce apologized for what they had done to Clarkson: “As it is now several years since the conclusion of all differences between us, and we can take a more dispassionate view than formerly of the circumstances of the case, we think ourselves bound to acknowledge that we were in the wrong in the manner in which we treated you in the memoir of our father…. we are conscious that too jealous a regard for what we thought our father’s fame, led us to entertain an ungrounded prejudice against you and this led us into a tone of writing which we now acknowledge was practically unjust.”


William Wilberforce: The Little Man Who Stopped a Big Evil

It was 1768 in England, and nine-year-old William hurried downstairs where his Aunt Hannah and Uncle William had a carriage waiting.

"I'm coming," William mumbled as he climbed into the carriage. He wasn't happy about wasting his afternoon visiting a preacher. Still, John Newton had been a slave ship captain many years ago. Maybe he would have some interesting stories to tell.

When they arrived at Mr. Newton's house, William hung back shyly.

"And who is this young man?" John Newton asked.

"This is our nephew William. His mother sent him to live with us after his father died," replied Aunt Hannah. "We love him like a son!"

"William, I am very pleased to meet you. Do you like cake?" asked the pastor.

William smiled and nodded while his aunt responded laughingly.

"Of course he does! He may be small for his age, but it seems like all he does is eat!"

"Well, William, let's have tea and cake in the garden and get acquainted."

William followed Mr. Newton into the garden and was soon asking questions about his adventures at sea. Reverend Newton patiently indulged the boy's curiosity before steering the conversation in a different direction.

"Slaving may sound like a grand adventure, but it wasn't. I've repented of my sin of helping to capture and sell fellow human beings. Slavery is evil. God loves all people the same, William."

"Oh, yes, even the slaves. Even you, William!"

By the end of the day, William and John Newton were friends. After that, William went to see John Newton preach and was soon convinced that slavery was a great wrong. He wrote a letter back home to his mother.

Dearest Mum, I heard John Newton preach in church last Sunday. He has had an interesting life as a slave ship captain, but now he realizes slavery is sinful. He has asked for God's forgiveness for the way he has treated the people of Africa. He said he wants to treat all people with more love. I am thinking about committing my life to Jesus. I'd like you to come with me to hear Mr. Newton preach sometime. Your loving son, Willy.

William's mother, Elizabeth, was not happy to hear that her son was interested in religion. She considered the belief in a personal relationship with Jesus unnecessary and beneath her social standing. She immediately informed William's grandfather, who shared her concern.

"You're right, Elizabeth," he told her. "If that boy wants to be a Wilberforce and inherit any of my money, he'd better steer clear of that kind of religion."

Aunt Hannah was devastated. "Please don't take him, Elizabeth," she and Uncle William begged. They had no children of their own and had grown to love William. But Elizabeth could not be persuaded.

WILLIAM SEES THE LIGHT
Back in his mother's care, young William soon forgot about his introduction to faith. At age 21, he was elected to the British parliament, which is a part of government. He was soon known for his great talent in public speaking. He had a good job, lots of friends, and invitations to the best parties.

William loved being the life of the party by mocking the town's Christians--especially the ones who were just too religious. William's crowd of intellectual friends agreed that serious religion was quite beneath them.

In 1784, 25-year-old William and his family took a vacation to France. William invited along his friend Isaac Milner but hoped Isaac wouldn't talk about his Christian beliefs. But, with so much time together, discussions of faith were bound to happen. Isaac patiently answered William's questions and even gave William a book on faith. Within a few months, William was on his knees speaking to God. He had become a committed Christian, and his life's purpose would soon become clear.

SLAVERY, A FLAGRANT EVIL
William looked out his window onto the deserted cobblestone street. Pulling his cloak around his face, he darted out the door. No one must know about this secret meeting. The men in Parliament just wouldn't understand. William quickened his pace and slipped down a side street. Glancing once more in both directions, he knocked on the door and was beckoned inside.

"Why Mr. Wilberforce, you've become a fine young man. I've heard your name about town." John Newton still remembered meeting William nearly 20 years before. "Now how can I help you?"

"Reverend Newton, I've come to seek your counsel. I've recently begun to understand the faith you spoke of when I was just a boy. I've become a Christian and I want to do the right thing!"

"Go on," replied the older man patiently.

"It's just that I've prayed, but I'm still not sure what God wants me to do. Maybe if I want to serve God, I should quit my job as a politician."

"Ah, I think I understand," said Newton. "Mr. Wilberforce, God has given you a great gift for speaking, and He's given you a position of influence.

"Well, thank you, sir. So, should I become a preacher or perhaps an evangelist?"

John Newton looked hard at the young man. "Mr. Willberforce, God has already placed you right where He needs you. God needs people in all sorts of occupations to do His work. Just think of all the government officials who will listen to you but would scoff at a preacher like me! God has a great work for you. The road will be long, but He will use you."

With that, William felt at peace. His purpose became even more focused as he later wrote, "God Almighty has set before me a great object: the suppression of the slave trade."

A LIFETIME OF LABOR
William worked tirelessly toward this goal. He fought to educate lawmakers on the evils of slavery and to abolish the practice. Year after year he wrote new laws, but they were always voted down. Finally, after 20 years of work, a law was passed making it illegal to capture Africans and sell them as slaves. But what about those who were already slaves? Their release would take William 26 more years. He refused to quit even when frail health threatened to end his life or when his closest allies gave up.

In July 1833, the 73-year-old William Wilberforce was sick in bed. He was awakened by loud footsteps in the hall. As his bedroom door flung open, he slowly turned his head towards the commotion.

"William, have you heard? Your years of effort have finally succeeded. Parliament passed the Emancipation Bill! Slavery has finally been abolished in the British Empire!"

William Wilberforce raised his head slightly and gave his friend a weak smile. Though his body would never recover, his heart was leaping for joy, thinking of the many slaves who would finally be released to live in freedom.


Watch the video: William Wilberforce (December 2021).