Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Isabella Baumfree are legendary figures in the U.S. abolitionist movement. They are among the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose Christian faith was a source of strength during the long struggle for freedom and civil rights. Collectively, their moral conviction and courage helped to secure the liberties ofwhich everyone today is a beneficiary.
There is scarcely a child of elementary school age who doesn’t know of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Yet ask a college graduate if he’s heard of William Wilberforce, and you are as likely to get “You’re making that name up, right?” as a look of acknowledgement. The few who do remember him probably recall little more than that he was a prominent Brit who played a role in abolition.
While only 3 percent of Americans and 10 percent of Brits today know anything about Wilberforce, in 1858 Abraham Lincoln remarked that “every schoolboy knew his story."
So who was William Wilberforce, and how did he capture the admiration of everyone from schoolchildren to an American president? The answers are found in two excellent biographies, Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas and William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte.
Progress at a price
William Wilberforce was born into a wealthy mercantile family in the port town of Hull, England. The year was 1759, a time of progress and social tensions. In the afterglow of the Enlightenment, Britain had become the commercial and military capital of the world. But progress came at a high price.
Rapid industrialization resulted in crowded cities, with the attendant problems of poverty, hunger, disease, and record levels of vice and crime. Factories were dirty and unsafe. Sixteen-hour workdays were the norm. The work force included pressed labor and children, three-quarters of whom never lived to adulthood. On top of that, Britain led the world in the ugly business of slave trade, supplying the colonies with millions of captured Africans.
These conditions were largely ignored by those in the privileged class, who tended to view them as divine judgments against the victims. With the aristocracy and gentry dominating both the State and the Church of England, there was no authoritative structure possessing the moral will to challenge the status quo.
It was in this cultural milieu that William Wilberforce stepped onto the public scene.
A dangerous question
Wilberforce was elected to the House of Commons in 1780 at the tender age of 21. Despite his natural charisma and gift for oratory, the first four years of his public life were largely unremarkable. In his early career, he was, by his own admission, a nominal Christian—one born into the faith, but whose behaviors and attitudes reflected more of the prevailing culture than of true Christianity.
Then, after a period of study and long discussions with Isaac Milner, a Cambridge academic and intellectual, Wilberforce embraced the faith he had inherited. And that led to a stinging question, one that would determine his future course and that of the nation: How should his faith inform his public life?
It was a dangerous question. With the Enlightenment zeitgeist waxing high, identification with serious religious faith could undermine, if not end, one’s political career. Maybe it would be best, Wilberforce thought, to abandon his political position for the ministry. To help him decide, he sought the counsel of John Newton.
Two Great Objects
John Newton was a former slave ship captain turned clergyman, best known for composing the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace.” Newton became a mentor to William Wilberforce, leading him in the spiritual disciplines of Bible study and Scripture memorization.
When the young parliamentarian asked Newton about his quandary, the weathered pastor advised him to stay put. In a follow-up note Newton added, “It is hoped that the Lord has raised you up to the good of His church and for the good of the nation.”
After wrestling with his conscience and the advice of Newton, Wilberforce concluded, “It is evident that we are to consider our peculiar situations, and in these to do all the good we can. 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.”
The young politician soon applied his energies to “two great objects” that would remain the focal points of his life: the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners” or, in modern parlance, the restoration of morality.
Wilberforce realized that without a return to traditional Christian morals, any gains toward abolition would be short-lived, only to be offset by other types of injustice. A society tolerating slave trade, child labor, open prostitution, hazardous factories, and the crushing conditions of the poor was a society lacking the moral fiber to resist injustice, no matter how egregious.
He also knew that awakening a nation from its moral slumber would be a daunting task—one requiring a circle of like-minded Christians. The Clapham Sect was just such a circle, a small group of prominent, influential Christians who were serious about their faith and who were passionate about the plight of the poor and oppressed.
With the help of his Clapham associates, Wilberforce organized for the Society for the Suppression of Vice, which was primarily aimed at the corrupting influences of pornography, gaming, illegal lotteries, prostitution, and dishonest business practices. He also became a catalyzer in dozens of charities including the Bible Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
As a parliamentarian, Wilberforce was an eloquent advocate for prison reform, improved factory conditions and the humane treatment of animals. But despite the victories in these and other areas of social reform, the abolition of the slave trade and later, the Emancipation Bill, would become his crowning achievements.
However, those achievements came neither easily nor quickly.
The long road to victory
When Wilberforce began his campaign for abolition in 1787, he faced opposition on every side. Merchant lobbyists, Tory colleagues, and the general public believed that slave commerce was not only morally neutral, but vital to the economy and security of the realm.
Part of the problem was lack of social awareness. The horrific conditions on slave ships and on plantations in the West Indies were unseen evils in the mainland and in the hallowed halls of Parliament. Another problem was moral neglect. In particular, Christians who condoned slavery, notes historian Alvin Schmidt, did so because they were unaware of the scriptural injunctions against it, or “knowingly ignored them.”
Wilberforce approached these problems on multiple fronts.
In Parliament, he built support for abolition one person at a time. Meeting with individuals and small groups in side rooms and chambers, Wilberforce presented evidence for the diabolical nature of slave trade. Year after year he lobbied for anti-slavery legislation which, year after year, failed to pass—but in the meantime, support was growing.
He and his Clapham friends came together regularly for spiritual support, prayer, and Bible study. They used their influence in British society. They wrote pamphlets. They held rallies. They passed around petitions hoping to raise awareness and energize the movement. On one petition they gathered over 400,000 signatures on a scroll that Wilberforce rolled out on the floor of Parliament. (And this in a day before Fed-Ex and the internet!) It was a dramatic display of the changing public sentiment—a sentiment that brought increasing pressure to bear on government.
To professing Christians, Wilberforce wrote a book that has been aptly retitled, Real Christianity: Discerning True Faith from False Beliefs. There he notes that where true Christianity has flourished, it has raised the moral standards of society to the particular benefit “of the poor and the weak.” Over and against that is a cultural landscape scarred by the “fatal and widespread effects of . . . not considering [Christianity] as a principle of universal application and command for all of life.” Although he never mentions slavery by name, the book undoubtedly had its impact on the moral mood, becoming the first religious book since the Bible to become a bestseller and a classic.
Wilberforce led the charge for 20 years before Parliament finally outlawed slave trade in 1807. But the long hard fight had put a strain on the dogged campaigner. As his health deteriorated, Wilberforce continued to press for emancipation until 1825, when he retired from Parliament.
Then on July 26, 1833, 26 years after the Abolition Bill, Wilberforce received word that the Emancipation Bill had passed to close the chapter on England’s long, dark history of slavery. Upon hearing the news, the weary warrior lifted praise: “Thank God that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery.”
William Wilberforce died just three days later.
(Next time we will examine the far-reaching impact of Wilberforce.)
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.