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William Wilberforce at Hull

April 2007 | by Dennis Hill

On Saturday 3 February a packed Kingston Evangelical Church, Hull, heard Phil Arthur, pastor of Free Grace Baptist Church, Lancaster, give two excellent addresses on the life and work of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), ‘Hull’s most illustrious son’.


This is the 200th anniversary year since the abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce’s evangelical Christian faith was the great motivation for his efforts for this and his other extensive charitable work.


The first talk focused on Wilberforce’s conversion – the church had already leafleted the area and invited people with this aspect especially in mind.


In ‘The making of an abolitionist’ Phil traced Wilberforce’s life, from his birth in Hull where he began life as the son of a well-to-do merchant, up to the point of his conversion. It wasn’t until 1785, after being elected as MP for Hull at the age of twenty-one, that William was decisively confronted with the claims of Christ. This came through conversations with Isaac Milner, his former tutor at Hull Grammar School, and led to the ‘great change’ in Wilberforce’s heart, by Easter 1786.

Two objectives

Wilberforce considered leaving political life, thinking that being a Christian and a politician must be mutually exclusive! John Newton, sixty-year-old former slave-trader but now Rector of St Mary’s Woolnoth in London, along with William Pitt, prime minister and close friend of Wilberforce, helped convince him that he could and should be both.


By 1787 Wilberforce was set on his life course. He wrote in his diary on 28 October 1787, ‘God has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners [i.e. morals]’.


Phil’s second address focused on Wilberforce’s 20-year struggle to end the slave trade, his health problems, involvement with the Clapham Sect – a group of Christian social reformers who helped to give Britain its humanitarian heritage – and family. Wilberforce’s devotion to his family became something of a model for early Victorian Christians.


Wilberforce is an example par excellence of what God can do to change society, through a person devoted to him.
There were visitors from Hull, West and North Yorkshire, and Lincoln. Together we enjoyed the talks, tea afterwards and a great time of fellowship. It was a blessed day.

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