The Great Evangelical Reformer: William Wilberforce (1759-1833)


Not much was expected out of the young sickly boy from Yorkshire. After the death of his father, he was farmed out to a pious Methodist aunt in Wimbledon outside London. But his mother was not impressed by the evangelical influence, so he she took him back to Hull in Yorkshire for safe keeping. No one would have predicted that the William Wilberforce would someday return to the suburbs of London, not as a neglected child, but as the champion of human rights in Parliament.

As he grew older, the young man Wilberforce would pursue a life of debauchery, gambling, clubbing and social folly. In 1776, when the Americans were declaring their independence, the young man entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, not to pursue an education but more of a right of passage. In those days, a place like Cambridge rewarded sons of wealth with beneficial connections. The deaths of his grandfather and uncle had left him independently wealthy and did not give him any inclination towards serious study. Instead, he immersed himself in the social circles and pursued a hedonistic lifestyle enjoying cards, gambling and late night drinking. Being witty, generous and an excellent conversationalist, he was a popular figure. He had numerous friends, including the more studious future Prime Minister, William Pitt. Despite his lack of serious study, he managed to pass his exams and graduated with a B.A. in 1781 and later in M.A. in 1788. Wilberforce would later regret not taking his studies more seriously.

Another influence at Cambridge was Professor Isaac Milner, who saw great hidden talent that was laying dormant in the unmotivated young man. He invited his gifted student to join him on holiday in Europe in 1784. The two would kill time between tourist stops by reading the Greek New Testament. Under Milner’s direction, the young Wilberforce blossomed spiritually. Upon returning to London, he sought the advice of John Newton of Amazing Grace fame. Newton’s vibrant combination of abolitionist reform along with strong Christian principles had a profound impact upon Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce had considered a political career while at Cambridge and in 1780, while still a student, was elected the MP for Kingston upon Hull. Later in 1784, he was elected the MP for Yorkshire, at the age of 24. Following his conversion, Wilberforce considered leaving public life. But Newton and Pitt both counseled him to stay in public life and Wilberforce resolved to do so “with increased diligence and conscientiousness.” He dedicated his life to the “suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners in England.” The political fight was not an easy one. There was significant opposition from conservative business interests in both houses of Parliament. But Wilberforce was convinced of the justice of the cause. In a speech in the House of Commons in 1791, he said:

“Let us not despair; it is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied. This is the first fruits of our efforts; let us persevere and our triumph will be complete. Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labor, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonor to this country.”

Having failed in convincing Parliament to pass legislation by presenting evidence of the evils of slavery, Wilberforce, Pitt and their allies changed tactics and started a broad grass roots campaign to arouse public opinion to force Parliament to act. The campaign drew the support of leaders such as John Wesley. In fact, the last letter Wesley wrote in 1791 was to Wilberforce urging not give up the fight against the slave trade.

Such support from the Christian community was both effectual and vital. In 1792, Wilberforce called for petitions supporting his bill in the Commons to abolish the slave trade and the petitions gathered more than 300,000 signatures including 229,000 from Methodists alone. In 1807, the trafficking of slaves was abolished. But Wilberforce did not stop there; he and his fellow abolitionists wanted slavery outlawed completely in the British empire. Wilberforce gathered about 800 petitions with approximately 1 million signatures requesting that the British government to ban the slave trade run by Europeans. Due to the broad coalition of support, slavery ended in the colonial possessions by the Slavery Abolition Act just  a month before Wilberforce’s death in 1833. Nearly 800,000 African slaves were freed, the vast majority in the Caribbean.

Wilberforce suffered from declining health for most of his life and resorted to taking small amounts of opium to maintain his strength and political responsibilities. Despite these health problems, his gracious Christian testimony, affectionate nature, superior mental abilities and gift of mimicry made him popular even with his opponents. When this great evangelical reformer died in July 1833, all of London wept.

Wiilberforce had requested that he be buried with his sister and daughter in Stoke Newington, just north of London. But members of Parliaments urged that he be buried in Westminster Abbey. The family agreed and on August 3, 1833, the great statesman-saint was buried in the north transept, close to his lifelong friend William Pitt. His funeral was well attended by all of London. As people paid their respects and as Wilberforce was laid to rest, both houses of Parliament suspended their business as a mark of respect.

Wilberforce was also involved with other causes. Many philanthropic ventures attracted his attention. He was partially responsible for the foundation of the bishopric of Calcutta and for the founding and supporting of the Bible Society, Church Missionary Society and the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. He was a conspicuous member of the evangelical Clapham Sect. He generously supported various social, educational and missionary endeavors. He was also the founder of the Christian journal, the Christian Observer. 

William Wilberforce has been rightly viewed as a Christian hero, a statesman-saint who put his faith into action. There have been various memorials honoring him. In 1840, a seated statue of him by Samuel Joseph was erected with an epitaph praising his Christian character and his long work to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself. In 2006, the University of Hull established the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation in a building adjoining Wilberforce’s birthplace. Various churches within the Anglican Communion commemorate him in their liturgical calendars. In 1856, the first university owned by African Americans was founded in Ohio and is named in honor of the man who helped set so many African slaves free. It is historically a black college. And of course, in 2007, the film Amazing Grace was released for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This great evangelical statesman continues to inspire to this day.

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