Christian politician and abolitionistby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
William Wilberforce was an important leader in the movement for the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery. BBC called Wilberforce the "conscience of Parliament."1 He was born in Hull on August 24, 1759 into a prosperous merchant family. When his father died, eight years later, he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle. His aunt was a staunch supporter of John Wesley and the Methodist movement. His mother became concerned that William would be influenced by "religious enthusiasm" and took her son back. He gradually forgot his aunt's influence and became caught up in "the social whirl of his mother's lifestyle."2 At seventeen he was sent to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he became a close friend of William Pitt, who would later become the Prime Minister of Britain.
At twenty-one Wilberforce entered the career of politics. He was elected to Parliament as Hull's representative in the House of Commons. Later the Yorkshire district elected him. At first Wilberforce was a "young back-bencher." 3 He did not become involved in any great causes. Then a very important event took place that would change his life forever. In 1785, he read "The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul." He converted to Evangelical Christianity and approached politics from an entirely different perspective. The elderly John Newton (ex-slave trader who wrote Amazing Grace) wrote to Wilberforce, "It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of his Church and the good of the nation." Convinced that he could use his political life for the service of God, he became concerned with the morality of British society. "He knew that his new commitment might cost him friends and influence but he was determined to stand for what he believed."4 He became a part of the Evangelical Christian community in Claphman and was one of the leaders of the "Claphman sect." The group was on fire for the Lord and very involved in their community. They published a journal called the Christian Observer, established the Association for the Better Observance of Sunday and founded several schools. They also founded missionary and tract societies including the Church Missionary Society.
In 1787 Wilberforce began to act on his new commitment by forming the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Society for the Reformation of Manners. He also wrote a book, which sold widely for forty years, called A Practical view of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in which he called on the upper class to live out the Christian values in their lives. He was instrumental in opening up India to Christian missionaries and participated in the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He also was influential in the lives of those around him and was the one who induced Samuel Marsden to leave Cambridge and take the gospel to Australia.
In 1798 he increased his campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. He had been approached by Lady Middleton to use his influence to bring an end to the slave trade to which he replied, "I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me."5 Despite doubts, he did agree to Lady Middleton's request. In 1791 he presented his first bill to abolish the slave trade. It was voted down, but Wilberforce persisted. He reintroduced the bill every year during the 1790s until is was passed on March 1807 with 41 to 20 votes in the House of Lords and 114 to 15 in the House of commons. During the debate the then Solicitor General, Sir Samuel Romilly, spoke against the trade and concluded with a long tribute to Wilberforce. According to The Morning Chronicle he received "three distinct and universal cheers," a very rare thing in the House of Commons, where applause is forbidden.
Wilberforce, however, was not yet finished. With the slave trade abolished he turned his efforts to the abolition of slavery itself. He did not however wish to emancipate the slaves all at once. In a pamphlet from 1807 he wrote: "It would be wrong to emancipate [the slaves]. To grant freedom immediately, would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must [first] be trained and educated for freedom." 6 In 1823 one of Wilberforce's followers founded the Anti-Slavery society of which Wilberforce became president. He campaigned for the mitigation and gradual abolition of slavery. In 1825 he retired from the House of Commons and in 1830 he made his last public appearance at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society. On July 26, 1833 the Emancipation Bill was passed freeing the slaves and compensating their owners. When he heard the news he is reported to have said, "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". 7 Three days later he died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey beside his lifetime friend William Pitt.