Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce

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Belmonte, Kevin (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2002)
A Synopsis by Harris Campbell

Chapter 1. Foundations

  • William was born on August 24, 1759, in the English port city of Hull.
  • He was named after his paternal grandfather, Alderman (William) Wilberforce, who had built great wealth in the Baltic trade and had inherited considerable properties from his mother.
  • William was the only son of four children to Robert and Elizabeth Wilberforce. He and one sister, Sarah, survived to adulthood. His parents were “religious according to the old school”(p. 26), likely nominal adherents to the Church of England.
  • Robert died in 1768, and his mother had a lengthy illness shortly thereafter, forcing William to be placed in the care of his uncle William Wilberforce and aunt Hannah for about two years. They were early Methodists, and personal friends of George Whitefield and John Newton. William came to know John Newton “as a parent when I was a child, I valued and loved [him]” (p. 31).
  • Aunt Hannah’s half-brother, John Thornton, was a devout evangelical who had a great influence over William as well, teaching him to be generous to the poor. William had become “completely a Methodist.”
  • Elizabeth, his mother, was alarmed that her son was becoming an enthusiast. She brought him to be with her in Hull, where she introduced him to the world and its diversions. Wilberforce wrote, “At first all this was very distasteful to me, but by degrees I acquired a relish for it, as so the good seed was gradually smothered, and I became as thoughtless as any amongst them” (p. 35).
  • Though he corresponded with Aunt Hannah and Uncle William, within a few years his evangelical leanings had been purged.

Chapter 2. Prelude to the Task

  • At the age of seventeen, William entered St. John’s College at Cambridge. He was small, slightly over five feet, and not particularly handsome. He had been sickly as a child, though he enjoyed sports and other recreation. He was very quick witted naturally, a great orator, and fully capable of holding his own among his peers. From his training, he was refined and well-mannered.
  • In college, he spent much of his time playing cards, singing, and drinking. He used his own room to host classmates, who enjoyed his hospitality. Entertainment seemed to squander his study time, and he rarely attended classes. He was able to pass by his natural talent. He loved to travel in the English countryside, including mountaineering and riding for long distances.
  • In the last year of college, from 1779-1780, he made a key friendship with William Pitt, son of the great politician the Earl of Chatham. Pitt influenced William to enter politics. The main issue of the day was the disastrous war with America.
  • His grandfather, Alderman Wilberforce, had died a few year earlier and left him a large fortune through the guardianship of his mother, as well as regular income as a silent partner in the family business. He was free to attend the meetings at the House of Commons, and was captivated by the oratory of the leaders of that day. With his own eloquence, quick intelligence, and winning personality, he had a growing list of powerful connections.
  • William was elected to parliament at the age of 21, having spent a great deal of his own money in the campaign. Pitt was also elected, and the two became close friends, moving in the same political circles. He was elevated quickly among his peers.
  • Wilberforce and Pitt traveled widely. In 1783, they met with Louis XVI of France, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who entertained them with Benjamin Franklin and his son. Soon after, William Pitt became the Prime Minister of England, and Wilberforce the member of Parliament for Yorkshire, a prestigious district. He became more involved in the elite levels of London society, including having membership in five different clubs.

Chapter 3. The Great Change

  • Wilberforce said that the greatest event of his life was his “great change” or embrace of evangelical Christianity.
  • It began when, in 1784, William set out on a continental journey with his mother, sister, and extended family. Wanting to have some intellectual companionship, he invited Isaac Milner, a former tutor of his, and a graduate of Cambridge University. Milner, unbeknownst to Wilberforce, was an evangelical, while Wilberforce had become a skeptic and Unitarian. Their conversations eventually landed on spiritual matters.
  • Along the way, Wilberforce picked up a book from the home of his cousin, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, by Philip Doddridge. They read it together and interacted on the trip. Later, Wilberforce described this as “a very striking instance of Providential arrangement at a very critical period of my life” (p. 80).
  • Several months of parliamentary responsibility interrupted the journey. When it resumed, they read parts of the New Testament together in Greek. Wilberforce gradually became convinced of the truth of Christianity.
  • Upon returning in October 1785, he began to wrestle with the implications, waking up early in the morning with thoughts of guilt for precious time and opportunities wasted. He looked upon his past several years with true remorse.
  • One of the first persons he consulted on this change in his life was his old acquaintance John Newton, who encouraged him to remain in Parliament and continue in the same circles.
  • Wilberforce informed William Pitt of his great change. After much interaction, Pitt was not won over but did encourage his good friend to remain in politics. The quandary of remaining in politics versus sacred activities such as church ministry, was soon settled for Williamsburg, though he knew there would be many changes. He was convinced of his call: “Not that I would shut myself up from mankind [or confine] myself in a cloister. My walk, I am sensible, is a public one; my business is in the world; and I must mix in assemblies of men, or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.” (p. 96).
  • In the winter of 1785-86, Wilberforce moved to be near John Newton, so he might be within reach of his pastoral counsel.
  • He felt deep humiliation and shame over his wasted years in college, and began on a path of reading. From Greek classics to recent philosophers, biographies, sermons, and poetry, his range of readings was quite extensive.
  • A principle he deemed of “first rate importance” was “that of bringing all men who are like-minded, and who may probably at some time or other combine and concert for the public good.” (p. 100). Working together with those who were philosophically opposite was necessary to bring about needed reform.
  • One of the most significant aspects of Wilberforce’s legacy was to show that the role of Christian and Statesman are compatible, and his life instructs us on how to bring one’s faith to bear on society’s needs.

Chapter 4. The First Great Object

  • In 1787, a little more than a year after his great change, Wilberforce wrote in his diary, “God almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals]” (p. 102).
  • As early as 1780, Wilberforce had asked a friend going to Antigua to collect information on the wrongs being done in the name of slavery. In 1783, he records in his diary a conversation he had with James Ramsey concerning the condition of the Negroes. Ramsey soon published the first of two important abolitionist books.
  • Wilberforce was strengthened in motivation through his interaction with social-minded evangelicals who met at the home of Sir Charles Middleton and his wife, Lady Margaret. Though a member of Parliament, Sir Charles did not feel adequate to take on the task as a leader-spokesman. They contacted Wilberforce, who began to study the matter of the slave trade in depth. In 1787, he stated his willingness to take up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade. He soon informed his good friend, William Pitt, the Prime Minister, who supported him fully.
  • Before he could inform the Parliament of his intention to address the slave trade, he became very ill with ulcerative colitis, and at one point was given less than two weeks to live. Wilberforce called on his good friend Pitt, and asked him to take on the cause for him in government. Pitt agreed, and immediately made official inquiries. In May 1788, Pitt moved a resolution binding the house to study the slave trade in the following session. The result of that session was the passage of a bill to regulate the number of slaves that could be carried in a ship, according to the ship’s tonnage.
  • In the Spring of 1789, Wilberforce was fully recovered and gave a three hour impassioned speech calling for the abolition of the slave trade. The House of Commons voted to hear more evidence. In April 1791, debate on a bill for the abolition of the slave trade began. Wilberforce was scheduled to speak. The Quaker William Allen came to observe, and wrote, “Wilberforce rose, and in an able speech, which continued for nearly four hours, opened the hidden things of darkness in an admirable manner, exposing the horrid traffic in its native deformity” (p. 113). The bill lost, 88 to 163.
  • The next few years were difficult politically, with France declaring war on Great Britain in 1793. A bill to gradually eliminate the slave trade was defeated, and Wilberforce was rumored to be giving up the struggle altogether. This was not true, but the trials of political life were becoming hard. Wilberforce had to oppose his good friend Pitt on some key matters as an act of conscience during the war, which brought a painful estrangement. Some slave traders had threatened his life. He was challenged to a duel, but refused to enter into it on theological grounds. The Treason and Sedition Bills created a great deal of discontent in the district he represented, challenging the leadership of Wilberforce and Pitt, who were now reconciled.
  • Yet, with all of the political turmoil across Europe, Wilberforce chose again to bring up the abolition of the slave trade in the House of Commons. In March 1796, his bill was defeated only because “ten or twelve of those who had supported me [were] absent in the country, or on pleasure. Enough [were] at the opera to have carried it. [I was] very much vexed and incensed at our opponents” (p. 134). Wilberforce may have suffered an emotional breakdown at this point. A personal letter from John Newton strengthened and encouraged him. Newton used the words of Darius to Daniel of confidence in God’s ability to preserve and deliver.
  • From 1797-1803, Wilberforce annually introduced a motion to abolish the slave trade, often with great passion and skill. Various setbacks prevented passage. The motion in 1804, though also defeated, showed that popular support for abolition had grown steadily and that eventual passage was likely. His good friend and most supportive Prime Minister, William Pitt, passed away in 1806.
  • Passage of the abolition of the slave trade occurred on February 23, 1807, with most of the speeches in the debate supporting the bill. Solicitor- General Sir Samuel Romilly brought the evening to its climactic point when he contrasted Napoleon and Wilberforce and the reception each would receive at the end of their labors. “The House of Commons rose to its feet, turned to Wilberforce, and began to cheer. They gave three rousing hurrahs while Wilberforce sat with his head bowed and wept. Then at 4 a.m., the Commons voted to abolish the slave trade by an overwhelming majority, 283 to 16” (p. 148).
  • After twenty years of battles, the war against the slave trade was won. John Newton, who had helped Wilberforce more than any other to stay in the war, died that same year, having seen the victory.

Chapter 5. The Second Great Object

  • Wilberforce lived in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, where people left farms to find employment in the rapidly growing cities. There were great hardships and much poverty. The clergy had become apathetic, if not morally corrupt. For the middle and upper classes, immorality was afforded by wealth… drunkenness, gambling, and selling votes to the highest bidder.
  • In 1787, one year after his great change, Wilberforce began a dual emphasis of reform: eliminate public corruption and promote religion in the hearts of the people. He took this from the writing of the Reverend Josiah Woodward, who in 1697 recorded what had happened in that day: When King William and Queen Mary had assumed the throne, they issued a proclamation “for the encouragement of Piety and Virtue: and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.” Local societies had begun to form for the reformation of manners. Religious societies worked to strengthen moral consensus. “Many groups of young men gathered for the purpose of considering the implications of Scripture for their lives. This attraction to Scripture, as well as increased religious devotion, was in fact a religious revival that was the genesis for works of moral reformation” (p. 154).
  • At the bequest of Wilberforce, King George III gave a similar proclamation. William Pitt, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other powerful and respected people within Wilberforce’s network joined in their support. The Society for the Reformation of Manners was formed among the leadership class. It pursued legislative strategies and formed volunteer organizations that could better lives. From 1780 to 1830, hundreds of societies were formed to address all kinds of needs: distributing Bibles, educating the blind, helping animals, treating ailing seamen, promoting vaccination, etc.
  • There were many critics, some quite prominent, such as Lord Byron. Even so, Wilberforce continued on, setting the model by his own life. He became very generous, setting aside in an anonymous way large portions of his income for the needy. He gave sums to active pastors to distribute to needy parishioners. He invested in education for the poor, often helping young men go to school or prepare for college through a tutor. He helped in the formation of Bible Societies and led a twenty year fight to convince the government to allow the introduction of Christian missions into India.
  • Noted historian F. K. Brown describes the years 1787-1837, the fifty years in British history before the Victorian era, as the “Age of Wilberforce” because of the tremendous influence he had.
  • In Wilberforce’s book, A Practical View of Christianity, he set forth four central ideals: stewardship, respect for the rights of others, forwarding the views of others, and the promotion of the happiness of others (p.175).

(The last five chapters are not as relevant to our subject of revival and reform).

Chapter 6. The Washington of Humanity

  • Wilberforce had strong influence on the abolition of slavery in other lands, especially America and Russia, through communication with key leaders like Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and Emperor Alexander of Russia.

Chapter 7. Nature, Morals, and Ideas

  • Wilberforce had a continuing love for nature and learning, and interacted with the leading thinkers of his day. Wilberforce felt that the promotion of Christianity was vital to the maintenance of British culture, and that courses in Christian apologetics should be included at the Mechanic’s Institute and London University.

Chapter 8. Home and Hearth

  • Remaining very amiable and hospitable, the home was the center of his life. He married Barbara Spooner in 1797, and they lived a very happy life together raising their children. Having children later in life, he decided to put the family before his responsibilities in Parliament, even taking on a lesser district in order to have time to enjoy and nurture his children. Three of his sons graduated from Oxford and became ministers in the Church of England.

Chapter 9. Finishing Well

  • In later life he took on the emancipation of slaves, particularly in the West Indies. He began by writing ‘a manifesto”: Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. Ill health required him to resign from politics in 1825, having refused again the offer of a peerage (seat in the House of Lords).

Chapter 10. Abiding Eloquence.

  • He continued his involvement in causes in his last days, including the construction of a church for the people near to where he had moved, and further involvement in the abolition of slavery. He died on July 29, 1833, and was given the high honor of being buried in Westminster Abbey.