William Wilberforce was born in 1759. In 1768 he was sent to stay with Uncle William and Aunt Hannah in London. They were supporters of George Whitefield, and he heard John Newton preach at their home. He went to Cambridge University from 1776. He was charming, eloquent – and lazy. However, there was one positive result: he became a good friend of William Pitt the younger, the future Prime Minister, whose support was invaluable in the fight to abolish the slave trade. In 1780 he became MP for Hull and then in 1784 for Yorkshire.
At this time Wilberforce was a sceptic, attending a Unitarian Chapel in London. He went on a Grand Tour of Europe over the winter of 1784-5 with several members of his family. Also on the Tour was his former tutor, Isaac Milner who had recently become an evangelical Christian. Just before the return journey, they came across a copy of Philip Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, which his cousin Bessy had been given. Milner knew and approved of the book, so they read and discussed it on the way home. By the time they reached England, Wilberforce, with Milner’s help, had come to understand the doctrines of the gospel and was determined to ‘search the Scriptures to see whether they agreed’.
With Milner’s help Wilberforce came to ‘a settled conviction’ of the truth of Christianity. More, he came under deep conviction of sin. He later wrote, ‘My anguish of soul for some months was indescribable, nor do I suppose it has often been exceeded.’ He wrote to Pitt telling him of what he called ‘the Great Change’ and warning him that henceforth his conscience would be captive, not to a political party, but to Christ. Having no other religious acquaintances, he decided to consult John Newton secretly. He walked twice round the square outside Newton’s home before he dared to knock at the door. By Easter 1786 he had found comfort and took communion for the first time when he visited William Unwin, the clergyman who had given Doddridge’s book to his cousin Bessy.
The good of the nation
The question now was: should he withdraw from public life? Newton had urged him not to do so, writing in November 1786, ‘I hope great usefulness to the public and in the church of God will be your present reward’. Later, in 1787 he wrote, ‘It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of his church and for the good of the nation’. His life was certainly changed; he gave up going to the theatre – and also public concerts, lest people should think he just didn’t like plays! Nevertheless he was consistently cheerful. Some said he was out of his mind, but a certain Mrs Sykes commented, ‘If this is madness, I hope that he will bite us all’.
In 1785 Wilberforce had met Sir Charles and Lady Middleton and also Thomas Clarkson, who had written a prize-winning essay on the subject of slavery. Lady Middleton wanted her husband to raise the matter in Parliament, but they decided that Wilberforce would do a better job. He consulted his friends and undertook the task in May 1787. Clarkson and the Quakers set up the ‘Committee for Effecting the Abolition of Slavery’ in the same year. Wilberforce had thus joined forces with a most remarkable group of men, who together with others formed the influential Clapham Sect.
When he responded to the Middletons’ request, he began to research the subject seriously. He discovered that 40,000 slaves were transported to America each year in British ships. He made himself master of the facts about the so-called Middle Passage, the worst part of the journey from Africa to the West Indies.
Many of his colleagues lived or lodged in Clapham, which was then a village outside London. The evangelical vicar, John Venn, was a member of a famous evangelical family and provided pastoral oversight. Henry Thornton and his son John were rich and godly and generous. Zachary Macaulay was an invaluable member, being a veritable encyclopaedia of the facts on the subject of slavery. ‘Let’s look it up in Macaulay’ was their frequent cry. Thomas Clarkson was in many ways the driving force.
Wilberforce had now found his role in life. He wrote in his diary, ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners’ (i.e. morals). And again, ‘My walk, I am sensible, is a public one; my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men, or quit the part which Providence seems to have assigned me’.
The political battle
His motivation for fighting slavery was religious, as he argued that slavery cut off multitudes from ‘gospel light’. However, the battle must be fought in Parliament. On possibly giving up being an MP, he wrote in 1811, ‘I shrink with awe from the idea of at once giving up for life the efficiency for religious and humane purposes (the former weighs with me ninety-nine parts in a hundred) which would arise from my continuing in the House of Commons.’ From 1793-1797 Wilberforce annually presented a bill for abolition to Parliament – and annually it was rejected. Sometimes his friends let him down; a crucial vote was lost because twelve of Wilberforce’s supporters went to the opera.
Wilberforce’s integrity was respected in Parliament. Over the years he became ‘in a sense the conscience of England’. He described himself as ‘an isolated, unconnected man, who is trying to do some good in public life’. One of his biographers, John Pollock, writes that victory on abolition ‘brought him a personal moral authority with public and Parliament above any man living’. When it came to moral principles, ‘Wilberforce’s perception of what was right appeared intuitive, and his vote was certain: neither rank, nor power, nor eloquence bewildered him for a moment then’ (Pollock, p.220).
Pitt’s support dwindled and then, in 1804, he died. However, at this low ebb, the tide turned. The situation changed. Pitt was succeeded by Lord Grenville as Prime Minister and he determined to push through abolition and succeeded, just! The constitution of Parliament had also changed; there were now many more evangelicals, including dissenters. The great but largely forgotten revival from 1798-1840 made the later emancipation of the slaves possible. Emancipation, abolishing slavery itself, was a different issue from the abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce had to be very cautious because if his opponents could allege that he was aiming at emancipation all his efforts for abolition would have been wasted. Politics is the art of the possible and Wilberforce was right to do what was possible at the time before moving on to emancipation when he could. The fact that this took another 26 years shows that Wilberforce was quite right.
The great need today is similarly for a spiritual change. Only this can achieve what we want to see in the moral sphere, but like Wilberforce we must fight on anyway.