February 23 this year marked the bicentenary of what the historian Trevelyan called ‘one of the turning events in the history of the world’. It was the day the British Parliament passed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. It was a triumph of perseverance with God’s help against seemingly insuperable difficulties.
William Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759 into a prosperous merchant family (the home is now the Wilberforce House Museum, High Street, Hull). Two of his sisters died in infancy, and he himself was always small in stature and had frequent bouts of colitis and weak eyes. Yet God ‘chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong’ (1 Corinthians 1:27).
He attended Hull Grammar School, where the headmaster’s brother, Isaac Milner, had just become a tutor. This was to be crucial in God’s plan for his salvation. Because of his already remarkable elocution, Milner later recalled, ‘We used to set him upon a table and make him read aloud as an example to the other boys’.
Introduced to Methodism
After his father died, the nine-year-old went to live in Wimbledon with his uncle and aunt, William and Hannah, and attended a school which (he said) ‘taught everything and nothing, and whose food I could not eat without sickness’.
Yet his relations were Evangelicals (his aunt greatly admired Whitefield) and they introduced him to Methodist preaching. His aunt’s brother, John Thornton, gave him a generous gift of money – on condition that some should be given to the poor. This sowed seeds of benevolence that were to flower throughout his life.
Hoping to wean him from religion and teach him to ‘cherish the love of pleasure’, his mother brought him back to be educated in the safer confines of Pocklington Grammar School. He attended many social events where his fine singing voice was in great demand.
His school was endowed by St John’s College, Cambridge, and there he went (aged just 17) in October 1776 – arriving with a large fortune in his pocket. The prevailing ethos was one of idleness and dissipation, drinking and playing cards. He scraped by with his natural ability in classics, but avoided mathematics.
He mourned over these lost college years for the greater part of his life. However, he had better company for his final two years, when his amiability and hospitality made him a favourite – there was always a Yorkshire pie in his rooms of which all could partake!
Member of Parliament
He was barely 21 years when, in the General Election of 1780, he gained the seat of Hull, having spent over £8000 in the campaign – about £1 million in today’s currency. He had attained the respectability his mother desired.
For several years he frequented London clubs, associating with the aristocracy and indulging in the common pastime of card playing. At Boodles, where Sheridan was a member, he won 25 guineas from the Duke of Norfolk. But he preferred the more select Goosetrees, frequented by William Pitt (‘the younger’) and supped there every night during 1780-81.
Once he was banker, but after winning £600 from some who could ill afford it, he abandoned this amusement for ever. About this time he first began to be interested in the plight of West Indian slaves.
His friendship with Pitt grew, and for a time Pitt lived at Wilberforce’s Wimbledon villa. On a shooting foray at Kingston Lacy in the summer of 1783, Wilberforce, with his weak eyesight, nearly shot Pitt – and was later teased about it. They later took a trip to France and met Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. In December, Pitt became Britain’s youngest Prime Minister at the age of 24.
Another General Election in 1784 saw Wilberforce standing on a table in a hailstorm at the York hustings. ‘I saw’, said Boswell, ‘what seemed a mere shrimp … but as I listened he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale’. He was elected as independent MP for Yorkshire. He defended this position successfully until he resigned on health grounds in 1812, when he became MP for the ‘rotten borough’ of Bramber.
A providential event
In the summer of 1784, providentially, Wilberforce asked Isaac Milner to join him on a continental tour, replacing another friend who had to cancel. They were accompanied by his mother, sister, a maid and a female cousin, Bessie Smith.
Wilberforce had no idea that Milner had become an Evangelical, and later owned, ‘If I had known his character, we should not have gone together’. Just before leaving Nice he chanced upon Doddridge’s Rise and progress of religion, which had been given to Bessie’s mother.
He asked Milner about it. ‘It is one of the best books ever written’, came the answer; ‘let us take it with us and read it on our journey’. The following summer he again toured with Milner, this time reading the Greek Testament, checking whether it substantiated Doddridge’s teaching.
That winter he came under deep conviction: ‘True, Lord, I am wretched, and miserable, and blind, and naked. What infinite love, that Christ should die to save such a sinner, and how necessary is it he should save us altogether, that we may appear before God with nothing of our own!’
He sought help from Rev. John Newton, who advised him to serve God in politics rather than enter the church. He detected much that needed changing in his life, and gave up all his club memberships. He later prayed: ‘Oh my God, for the sake of thy beloved Son, our propitiation, through whom we may have access to the throne of grace, give me a new heart’.
Abolition of the slave trade
Although many deplored the slave trade, Abolition had no strong advocate in parliament. Lady Middleton suggested to Wilberforce that he should take up the cause. He later told Pitt that he had ‘resolved to give notice on a fit occasion in the House of Commons of my intention to bring the subject forward’.
A London Committee for Procuring the Abolition of the Slave Trade was set up on 22 May 1787, to raise funds and gather information. Granville Sharp presided, while Thomas Clarkson was delegated to tour the country and visit ports connected with the slave trade.
That October, after a discussion with Newton, Wilberforce wrote in his diary, ‘God has set before me two great objects – the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners’ (the promotion Christian morality).
A Society for the Reformation of Manners was founded to oppose profanation of the Sabbath; swearing and drunkenness; licentious publications; and unlicensed places of public entertainment. Positively, he promoted education amongst the poor, helped found and support the British and Foreign Bible Society, and regularly gave away between a quarter and a third of his income both privately and to charitable causes.
Two weeks to live
The following year, Wilberforce fell sick and was given just two weeks to live. He agreed to go to Bath for the waters, but only after Pitt promised to take up the cause of Abolition in the event of his death.
However, he recovered and presented his Abolition Bill on 12 May 1789. ‘By Divine grace [I] was enabled to make my motion so as to give satisfaction – three hours and a half – I had not prepared my language, or even gone over all the matter, but being well acquainted with the whole subject I got on’.
Edmund Burke declared, ‘It equalled anything I have heard in modern times, and was not perhaps to be surpassed in the remains of Grecian eloquence’. But the Commons demanded more evidence.
On 24 February 1791, in his last letter before he died on 2 March, John Wesley wrote to encourage Wilberforce ‘in opposing that execrable villany [sic] which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature’. However, he lost the next debate in April.
His antagonists were wealthy and influential, including the Royal Princes in the Lords, while George III himself was a determined opponent. The town council of Liverpool spent £10,000 opposing Abolition, believing that their very existence depended on the trade.
Following the 1789 French revolution, opponents to Abolition were linking the concept of ‘liberty’ with ‘revolution’ and Jacobinism – so the general mood was against any radical reformation.
On 2 April 1792, Wilberforce proposed his second motion for immediate Abolition in an all-night debate, but this had to be modified to a gradual Abolition, with a date set for 1 January 1796.