“God almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”
“Because of his own good nature, Wilberforce could hardly believe that others wouldn’t leap to do what was right when they finally knew the facts. He was mistaken.”
This past year I added a new person to my list of admired heroes of history: William Wilberforce. I was familiar with who he was, particularly that he was a champion of the movement to abolish slavery in England, and I saw the 2007 film, Amazing Grace, several years ago. Reading Eric Metaxas’ excellent biography of Wilberforce secured him in my opinion as one of the great influential men of modern times. Reading of his early life reminds me of Queen Esther, who was told by her uncle Mordecai, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Looking at the providential circumstances of the birth and character of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), it is evident that God had a plan and purpose for this man’s life. Wilberforce was born in a harbor city that, unlike most other English sea ports, did not allow slave traders, This meant he did not grow up accustomed to and desensitized by seeing the trafficking of human life. He was born into a wealthy family which gave him opportunities for education and social advancement. After the death of his father, from the ages of 10-12, young William lived with his Uncle and Aunt, who were very serious about their faith. Here he was introduced to the religiously enthusiastic Methodist movement, the ex-slave trader John Newton, the great poet William Cowper, and (probably only indirectly) the evangelist George Whitefield, who was a close friend of his relatives. Wilberforce commented, “Under these influences my mind was…much interested and impressed by the subject of religion.” These influences in William’s life were not to his mother’s liking, so she brought him back home, but the damage had already been done. Exposed to different social and educational influences eventually moved him away from his interest in religious matters, but the seeds had been effectively planted.
In 1776, William headed off to Cambridge. Wilberforce says of himself at this time, “I was naturally a high spirited boy and fiery. This pushed me forward and made me talk a great deal and made me very vain.” But God gave William Wilberforce the character and abilities that would enable him to accomplish the tasks God had ordained for him. He was a very passionate young man, with a strong commitment to truth and justice, and a heart of compassion for the suffering and under-privileged. He had a charming personality, and was gifted as both a singer and orator – people loved to listen to him, a talent that would come in very handy later as a Member of Parliament. One of his acquaintances at Cambridge wrote, “By his talents, his wit, his kindness, his social powers, his universal acceptability, and his love of society, he speedily became the centre of attraction to all the clever and idle of his own college and of other colleges.” And because of his bright mind, he didn’t have to study hard in order to get by. In fact, later in life he blamed his struggle with self-discipline to his years of idleness and slackness at Cambridge.
It was at Cambridge that he met and became close friends with William Pitt, the son of the prime minister. He began accompanying Pitt to the House of Commons to listen to the debates, and in 1780, at the age of 20, Wilberforce decided to run as a member of Parliament and won. Wilberforce’s skill and ambition may have taken him in a very different direction, but in 1785, a travel companion re-introduced him to the subject of religion, Eric Metaxas explains,
He examined the same tenets of orthodox Christianity to which a few years before he couldn’t give his assent. He seems to have wanted to know what was true, but until now had been unable to find out to his satisfaction. He knew if he discovered a truth to his satisfaction he would have no choice but to embrace it and act upon it…not just in small and isolated instances, but in all of his life.
Thus began William’s conversion to faith, what he would always refer to as “The Great Change”. He began to face the guilt of his sinfulness, his careless neglect of God, his living for his own pleasure, and his ignorance of the poor and suffering. But what did this mean for his career? After speaking with both John Newton and William Pitt, he came to the conclusion that being a committed Christian did not mean he must withdraw from public life. Pitt, who was (likely) not a believer himself, wrote to Wilberforce,
If a Christian may act in the several relations of life, must he seclude himself for all to become so? Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.
And a few months after their reunion, Newton wrote to William Cowper,
I judge [William] is now decidedly on the right track…I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide! But they are not incompatible.
And later Newton wrote to William himself, “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.” By the end the year, Wilberforce wrote these words to his mother (who by this time was not as adverse to his religious conversion as she may have once been):
Some are thrown into public, some have their lot in private life…It would merit no better name than desertion…if I were thus to fly from the post where Providence has placed me.
As a new Christian William Wilberforce began to reform his life; he committed much time to prayer and the reading and study of Scripture, determined to make better use of his time and money, addressed his laziness and bad habits, and became more attentive to social issues. But it did not end here.
After his conversion, Wilberforce made every effort to live out his faith in both his private and public life. It grieved him that a nation that proclaimed itself to be a Christian one could be so morally and socially corrupt. Slavery was only one of many cultural sins, and wasn’t on display nearly as visibly as many others. Drunkenness and alcoholism, adultery and prostitution, gambling and violence – all of these were prevalent in England, and Wilberforce made it his goal to confront these sins, call out the leaders of society to lead the example, and to “make goodness fashionable.” In 1787, he wrote in his diary, “God almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” Metaxas remarks,
Achieving either of the “great objects” was humanly impossible, but the extraordinary testimony of history is that Wilberforce was indeed instrumental in accomplishing both of them during his lifetime…He wished to bring civility and self-respect into a society that had long since spiraled down into vice and misery.
Rather than looking down upon or simply ignoring the under-privileged and lower classes of society, Wilberforce desired to reach out and assist these individuals to improve their condition.
For the moral degradation of society, Wilberforce in part blamed the Church of England, where the clergy “mostly didn’t believe the basic tenets of orthodox Christian faith but didn’t want to declare themselves for fear of losing their salaries and positions.” Out of a desire to call the nation to repentance, he wrote and published a book in 1797 entitled, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity. Ouch. Reminds one of Jesus calling out the Pharisees of his day as hypocrites and white-washed tombs.
Wilberforce explained that real Christianity had evaporated from England principally because it was woven into the social fabric and therefore was easier to ignore and take for granted. “Christianity especially,” he wrote, “has always thrived under persecution. For then it has no lukewarm professors.”
Wilberforce desired to bring to light the fact that England was a Christian nation in name only, and that the Christianity she professed was not real, authentic Christianity at all. (Sounds like another country I know.)
Of course we know how seriously he took up his second “great object”: the abolishment of the slave trade, with the ultimate goal being emancipation. The matter had been of interest to him earlier in his life; he stated,
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.
In 1787 he officially took up the cause, bringing it before Parliament. It was a cause he would spend the next 20 years fighting for, suffering one defeat after another as he would present bills and petitions to the legislators. Wilberforce finally achieved a victory in 1807, when the Slave Trade Act was voted in, prohibiting the slave trade in the British Empire. It was more than another 20 years before he would see the abolition of slavery and emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1833, just three days before his death.
William Wilberforce’s greatest accomplishment of abolishing slavery is enough to mark him down in history as a great contributor towards the advancement of human rights and liberty, so much so that his other many contributions in the areas of education, prison reform, and social improvement are often overlooked. He sponsored and financially supported various schools, missionary endeavors, and other charities. Just a few of the organizations created or sponsored by Wilberforce include:
- The Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor
- The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
- The Society for the Relief of the Manufacturing Poor
- The Institute for the Protection of Young Girls
- The British National Endeavour for the Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors
- the Friendly Female Society for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows and Single Women of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days (!)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the life of Wilberforce in Eric Metaxas’s lively and engaging biography and highly recommend it. I think you will find William Wilberforce will be added to your list of heroes as well. I look forward to reading some of his other biographies, like Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Martin Luther: the Man who Discovered God and Changed the World.
Other biographies of William Wilberforce, recommended by Metaxas:
- Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte (2002)
- God’s Politician by Garth Lean (1980)
- Wilberforce: God’s Statesman by John Pollock (1977)
Related Sites and Articles
- William Wilberforce’s Speech to the House of Commons, 1789
- Men and Women of the Abolitionist movement (The Abolition Project)
- William Wilberforce (ChristianityToday.com)
- William Wilberforce (mylearning.org)
- “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religion System, etc.” by W. Wilberforce (Gutenberg.org)
- Make a Difference by Living out your beliefs (crucibleleadership.com)
- Amazing Grace, 2007 movie
- Eric Metaxas’ Blog (ericmetaxas.com)