A man and a brother
William Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759 to Robert and Elizabeth Wilberforce. His family were wealthy merchants and he was able to attend Hull Grammar School starting in 1767. There he received a good education and, having remarkable elocution, was often made to stand on a table and read aloud as an example to the other boys.
But a year after he started school his father died and he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Wimbledon – where he grew fond of his relatives and first encountered Methodism.
However, his Church of England family in Hull were not pleased with this development and promptly removed him from their care, Wilberforce returning to Hull. There he went to a different school and began to attend parties and the theatre. Influenced by Methodism, he at first resisted Hull’s social life but gradually gave in.
Wilberforce continued his education at St John’s College, Cambridge. Although he was not as dissolute as other students, he continued to pursue a lifestyle of ‘sober dissipation’. It was at Cambridge that he first met William Pitt (the Younger), although it was not until later that their friendship blossomed.
Conversion and reforms
After Cambridge he was elected MP for Hull in 1780 and later for Yorkshire. In Parliament his eloquence was legendary and he often spoke in support of his friend, Pitt, who became prime minister in 1783.
During 1785, Wilberforce was persuaded by a friend to read The rise and progress of religion in the soul by Philip Doddridge. This started an inner struggle leading to his conversion. He began to read his Bible and became self-critical regarding his use of time, vanity and spirituality.
He reformed his lifestyle. He rose at 6am to read his Bible and to pray; he moved closer to the House of Commons to spend less time travelling; he refrained from cards and gaming and resolved to reform the lifestyle and morality of the nation.
His first attempts to do this were resoundingly overturned in the House of Lords, but he was not discouraged. He started the Proclamation Society, which promoted the closure of brothels, the observance of the Sabbath, the reduction of drunkenness and violence, and the reform of the legal system.
The abolition of the slave trade
During the late 1700s many Africans were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic to the British colonies of West India, where they were forced to do backbreaking labour. Sugar, tobacco and cotton were then transported to Britain in what became known as the slave triangle. It is estimated that 11 million people were transported and 1.4 million of them died on the journey.
Wilberforce was soon convinced that the slave trade must be crushed. The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in May 1787, bringing together Quakers and Anglicans for the first time.
The society, which included figures like Josiah Wedgwood, Olaudah Equiano and John Newton, collected evidence and campaigned for the abolition of the trade. Their logo was a kneeling slave above the motto, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’
Wilberforce’s abolition bill was delayed in 1788 because he became ill. It was presented to Parliament the following year but rejected by 163 votes to 88. The subject was then debated in succeeding years until 1792, when a huge majority passed a bill for ‘gradual abolition’.
A year later another abolition bill was defeated by a narrow margin, further attempts were hampered by the outbreak of war with France, and it was not reconsidered until the early years of the 19th century. In 1804 the bill finally passed through the Commons, but it was too late in the parliamentary session to go to the Lords. On its reintroduction in 1805, it was defeated.
Following Pitt’s death in 1806, more abolitionists joined the Cabinet and on 23 February 1807 the Slave Trade Act was finally passed through Parliament by a huge majority of 283 votes to 16, receiving Royal Assent on 25 March 1807. Tributes were paid to Wilberforce whose face streamed with tears as the bill was passed.
Final years and lessons
Wilberforce continued to campaign for the eradication of slavery, but his health gradually worsened and he died on 29 July 1833 – a month before a final Act of Parliament abolished slavery throughout most of the British Empire.
At the insistence of Parliament, he was buried in Westminster Abbey close to William Pitt. Business in both Houses of Parliament were suspended as a mark of respect for the man who had devoted his life to campaigning for justice and God’s glory.
We can learn several lessons from his life.
Firstly, we should follow Wilberforce’s example and aim to be more Christlike. As ‘lights that shine in the darkness’, Christians should not be afraid to be different from the world.
Secondly, God has a purpose for our lives. Wilberforce wrote in his journal in 1787, ‘Almighty God has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners’. We may not become great public figures like Wilberforce, but we are just as important in God’s eyes.
Thirdly, even though, like Wilberforce, we may face great opposition, we should battle on and remember that God is in charge and his divine purpose will prevail: ‘Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out before us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:1-2).