William Wilberforce vs. Slavery

  • Ken Curtis, Ph.D.
  • 2010 3 May
William Wilberforce vs. Slavery

He was only five feet tall and rather homely, by most accounts, but William Wilberforce had a smooth and powerful way of speaking. It wasn't easy, but this Christian politician managed to talk the British Empire into abolishing slavery.

You probably wouldn't have chosen the young Wilberforce as a moral crusader. Born to wealthy parents, educated at Cambridge, he started out as quite a playboy. As a child, he had stayed for a while with an aunt and uncle who were devout Methodists, but his mother, concerned that this kind of religious "fanaticism" would lead him astray, removed him from such spiritual influences, sending him off to a prestigious boarding school. From that point, William was on the fast track to political success.

Jumbo shrimp
He wasted no time. In 1780, at the tender age of 21, he ran for a seat in Parliament and won. He began to display the speaking talent that would make him a legend. Literary giant James Boswell saw him on the campaign trail and commented: "I saw what seemed to be mere shrimp mount about the table, but as I listened the shrimp grew and grew and became a whale." Wilberforce had arrived. Representing the large and influential district of Yorkshire, he enjoyed the good life, hobnobbing on intellectual subjects with his friends, and generally looking down on the religious zeal of the "evangelicals" in Britain.

But in 1785, while on a trip through Europe, Wilberforce borrowed a book from a friend--The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, by Philip Doddridge (perhaps best known as the writer of the hymn "O Happy Day"). Reading this, and following along in Scripture, Wilberforce became convinced of the truth of the Gospel.

For several months he continued to live the high life. Christianity was in his mind, but had little bearing on his daily decisions. Yet a conviction grew within him: If he was to follow Christ fully, he would have to say no to his worldly ways

Amazing grace
In fact, Wilberforce thought about giving up his political career for Christ. He sought the advice of John Newton (another hymn writer, known best for "Amazing Grace"). Newton had been a slave trader before his conversion, but now he spoke out strongly against slavery. He convinced the young Wilberforce that God could use him exactly where he had put him--in the midst of the precarious political arena.

Slavery was one of those hidden scandals, comfortably out of sight of the average Englishman, who benefited from it but never had to see firsthand its unspeakable human misery. Through the influence of Newton and others, Wilberforce knew what he had to do.

A long, hard fight
How little did he grasp then how formidable enemies can be when their economic interests are jeopardized. Would he have persevered if he had any idea that it would be over twenty years of exhausting conflict in Parliament before the slave trade was finally abolished in England in 1807--primarily due to his efforts? That it would take an additional 26 years to emancipate the existing slaves--just a few days before he died at age 74 in 1833?

Wilberforce endured one setback after another, often laid low by frail health and the attacks of opponents. Yet his position against slavery eventually won. His life remains an encouragement to all who are willing to fight social evil no matter how many setbacks are encountered.

You can't go it alone
Wilberforce was part of an amazingly effective small group of wealthy British Christians that became known as "The Clapham sect." Among their activities was the founding of the Sierra Leone colony in Africa for slaves who had been freed.

Moving on many fronts
Wilberforce was known to be involved with over 60 organizations in his driving concern to spread the Christian message and lift the moral climate. This included work for prison reform, opposition to pornography, and funding Christian schools for the poor. He also served as a cofounder of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Church Missionary Society.

God's timing
Wilberforce and his allies had assumed that slavery would die a natural death, once they made it illegal to buy and sell slaves (in 1807). But the slave trade just went underground, and continued--only slightly inconvenienced. The fight to abolish slavery entirely dragged on into the 1830s. Wilberforce was unstinting in his efforts, but his health was slipping. Younger members of Parliament took up the cause as Wilberforce recovered from various illnesses. He was resting at home on Friday night, July 26, 1833, when he heard the House of Commons had finally passed the Abolition of Slavery. Saturday morning he took a turn for the worse, and early Monday morning he died--having seen his life's dream accomplished.

Advice to his son Robert at Oxford
"But I wish you from my heart not to become a Politician. I hope you will act on a far higher level and where the path blessed by God is clearer as well as more peaceable."