William Wilberforce (August 1759 - July 1833) was born in the great northern seaport of Hull and served in the English Parliament from 1780 to 1825. Living for something much greater than himself, Wilberforce fought for the sake of human dignity and effected the lives of millions across the globe. Although he was involved with programs for education, overseas missions, parliamentary reform, and religious liberty, he is honored most for his untiring commitment to the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. When Wilberforce's opponents criticized his faith and attacked his reforms, instead of condemning them, he won them over with integrity, honesty, and sensitivity, using his incredible gifts of oration and persuasion. Wilberforce's unrelenting forty-year crusade against slavery required supreme perseverance and patience to overcome the many setbacks and defeats. In 1807, Parliament finally passed his bill of abolition. His triumph brought him incredible prestige and freed him to pursue other plans for improving the quality and morality of life in Great Britain. His efforts made the foundations for the great moral revival of the Victorian period. It is arguable that this phenomenal biography for good and for changing the world at deep levels of reform is derived from roots in conversion to an unpopular "sect," which his socialite mother opposed and sought to obstruct.
Wilberforce was the son of a wealthy merchant who died when William was still a child. Placed under the guardianship of his uncle and aunt (a strong supporter of John Wesley), William developed an early interest in Methodism. His mother, however, was disturbed by this development and the young Wilberforce was returned to her care.
After attending Pocklington School in 1776, William Wilberforce was sent to St John's College, Cambridge. He was shocked by the behavior of most of his fellow students 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." Wilberforce spent most of his time with the social elite, eventually losing his interest in Biblical religion. He was able to live off his parents' wealth doing as little work as possible.
In these surroundings, he befriended William Pitt the Younger who would later become the Prime Minister of England. At the young age of twenty-one, Wilberforce ran for the seat in the House of Commons of Hull in 1780. The £8,000 he spent and his incredible gift for speaking brought about his triumph over both his opponents. (Wilberforce never lost an election till he died, shortly before his 74th birthday.) In 1784, he was elected for the seat of the much larger and more influential Yorkshire.
On the long holidays between Parliament sessions, Wilberforce would sometimes travel with friends or family. One time, he invited Isaac Milner, a friend since grammar school. Milner turned out to be a strong Christian without the stereotypes that Wilberforce had felt about Evangelicals. The following summer, Wilberforce traveled again with Milner and discussed the Bible for hours and hours. Wilberforce said his “intellectual assent became profound conviction.”
This conversion to Christianity and the subsequent change in his life were manifested when he wrote that riches were, "considering them as in themselves, acceptable, but, from the infirmity of [our] nature, as highly dangerous possessions; and [we are to value] them chiefly not as instruments of luxury or splendor, but as affording the means of honoring his heavenly Benefactor, and lessening the miseries of mankind." By the same token, he believed everything in politics was for the purpose of alleviating misery and spreading happiness for all.
Wilberforce struggled about how to practice his beliefs in his public life. William Pitt tried to talk him out of becoming an Evangelical, saying that this change would "render your talents useless both to yourself and mankind." On December 7, 1789, Wilberforce risked seeing the unpopular Evangelical parliament member, John Newton. He had so many doubts about going to see Newton, he walked twice around the block before he could get up the courage to knock on his door. Newton encouraged him not to cut himself off from public life and wrote him two years later: "It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation." No one could have imagined at that time what Wilberforce would accomplish.
The battle of uncertainties lasted for a few months until a more peaceful serenity came over him on Easter Day, 1786. Wilberforce went into the fields to pray when, as he said in a letter to his sister Sally, "amidst the general chorus with which all nature seems on such a morning to be swelling the song of praise and thanksgiving."
Wilberforce was so ashamed of the "shapeless idleness" of his prior life that he wrote, "I was filled with sorrow. I am sure that no human creature could suffer more than I did for some months." Beginning soon after his conversion until he was married 11 years later, Wilberforce spent his days studying "about nine or ten hours a day," typically "breakfasting alone, taking walks alone, dining with the host family and other guests but not joining them in the evening until he 'came down about three-quarters of an hour before bedtime for what supper I wanted.'" "The Bible became his best-loved book and he learned stretches by heart." It seems as though Wilberforce wanted to make up the time he wasted due to his laziness in college.
At 37 years old, Wilberforce met Barbara and married her and on May 30, 1797, about two weeks after they met. In the first eight years of their marriage, they had four sons and two daughters. They were still married when Wilberforce died, thirty-six years later.
Wilberforce became interested in social reform, in particular improving working conditions in factories. Millions of men, women, and children had no choice but to work sixteen hours, six days a week in grim factories. People had come to the cities to find work but had been exploited and crowded together in filthy apartments. Here, they could easily catch cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis.
Eventually, Lady Middleton (Albinia Townshend, elder sister of Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney) approached Wilberforce and asked him to use his power as an MP to stop the slave trade. Wilberforce wrote "I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me," but he agreed to do his best. On May 12, 1789, Wilberforce made his first speech against the slave trade. As he studied the slave trade and learned of the atrocities, he became more and more resolved to do something about it. He described his conviction, "I confess to you, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its 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." He viewed the slave trade as his personal responsibility and asked the Parliament to be responsible as well, "I mean not to accuse anyone but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought to all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others."
Most of Wilberfore's fellow Tories were against any limits to the slave market but Wilberforce persisted. Even when his first bill, in 1791, was defeated by a landslide of 163 votes to 88, Wilberforce did not give up. The opposition that carried on for more than twenty years was because the plantations in the West Indies produced huge financial benefits to the traders and to the British as a whole. They could see no other way to produce besides using slave labor. It was such an emotionally heated debate that Wilberforce's life was threatened at times, especially when he criticized the slave ship captain, Robert Norris. Besides the concern of physical harm there was the sorrowful loss of friends and the enormous political pressure to back down because of the international political consequences. For instance, the West Indian colonial assemblies said they would declare independence from Britain and federate with the United States if Britain outlawed slavery. These kinds of financial and political arguments kept the Parliament stirred up for decades.
In 1805, the House of Commons finally passed a law that made it illegal for any British subject to transport slaves, but the House of Lords blocked it. In 1807, William Grenville made a speech saying that the slave trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity, and sound policy." This time, when the vote was taken, a huge majority in the House of Commons and the House of Lords backed the proposal and the Abolition Bill was passed with 283 votes to 16, making the slave trade illegal on all British ships. It was an emotional day in Parliament and Wilberforce, having given so much of his heart and effort, broke down and cried. It became law on March 25, 1807.
After 1807, with the support of friends such as Beilby Porteus, the Bishop of London, Wilberforce continued to fight for the complete emancipation of slaves in the British Empire. In 1823, Wilberforce wrote a 56-page booklet, Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. This pamphlet inspired the formation of the Anti-Slavery Society, which led the emancipation campaign.
Although British captains were fined £100 for every slave that was found aboard their ship, this did not stop the trade. If a slave-ship was in danger of being captured by the Navy, the captain would order the slaves to be thrown overboard in order to reduce the fine. Some of the campaigners realized that the only way to stop slavery completely was to make it illegal.
Wilberforce retired from the House of Commons in 1825, and Thomas Fowell Buxton became the leader of the Parliamentary campaign. The Emancipation Bill slowly gathered support and was approved on July 26, 1833. On that day, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce died three days later and a month before the Slavery Abolition Act was passed (an act which gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom).
Wilberforce wrote, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners." It was at his suggestion, together with Bishop Porteus, that the Archbishop of Canterbury requested George III of the United Kingdom to issue his Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice in 1787.
Wilberforce understood that the “peculiar doctrines” of Christianity lead to passion and emotions for spiritual things and encourage people to transform their morals (or manners, as they were sometimes called) thereby influencing the political welfare of the nation.
If … a principle of true Religion [i.e., true Christianity] should … gain ground, there is no estimating the effects on public morals, and the consequent influence on our political welfare.
He deeply felt that the key to new morals and lasting political reformation can only come about when new affections for God are experienced. According to Wilberforece, new affections would not come just from from ethical systems. Wilberforce promoted the concept that a persons actions were a reflection of their "peculiar doctrines." He wrote in his book about how most of the Christians in England were ineffective because they had abandoned their doctrines:
The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.
John Pollock, author of Wilberforce, explains the historical climate at the time of Wilberforce:
Too many men and women were hanged. Venality, drunkenness, and the high crime rate arose from the general decadence, especially the corruption and irreligion of the trend setters, not in those days pop stars and media moguls but the nobility and landed gentry. The high civilization of eighteenth century England was built on the slave trade, mass poverty, child labor, and political corruption in high places. As one historian wrote, there was little to choose between the morals of the English and French aristocracy in the century before the French Revolution.
Wilberforce endeavored to make goodness fashionable by establishing the Proclamation Society that was dedicated to promoting virtue in public life. Philanthropy was encouraged and a number of parliamentary measures for the poor, the deaf, the mentally ill, and for animals were introduced. Wilberforce also crusaded against pornography. In his driving passion to lift the moral climate of that time, Wilberforce was known to be involved with over 60 organizations.
The British East India Company was set up to give the English a share in the East Indian spice trade (before the Spanish Armada, Portugal and Spain had monopolized the market). In 1793, the East India Company had to renew its charter and William Wilberforce suggested adding clauses to enable the company to employ religious teachers with the aim of "introducing Christian light into India." He had also tried to set up a mission in India. This plan was unsuccessful, but Wilberforce tried again in 1813, when the charter had to be renewed again. Wilberforce, using many petitions and various statistics, managed to persuade the House of Commons to include the clauses. In part of his efforts, his work enabled missionary work to become a part of the conditions of the British East India Company's 1813 renewed charter. (Although concerned with the country deeply, Wilberforce himself had never been to India.) Eventually, this resulted in the foundation of the Bishopric of Calcutta.
Wilberforce was also a founding member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as well as the Church Missionary Society (since renamed Church Mission Society).
He also worked with the reformer, Hannah More, in the Association for the Better Observance of Sunday which had the goal to provide all children with regular education in reading, personal hygiene and religion.
Wilberforce worked to establish educational reform, prison reform, health care reform, and to limit the number of hours children were required to work in factories.
The seventeenth century house in which he was born is today Wilberforce House museum in Kingston upon Hull.
A film entitled Amazing Grace, about the life of Wilberforce and the struggle against slavery, directed by Michael Apted, with Ioan Gruffudd playing the title role, was released in 2006.
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