Monday, March 31, 2014

William Wilberforce

London, England     Visited November 1997

It is a privilege to post a blog on one of my heroes.  William Wilberforce – a man of humanitarian commitment, of political good, of resolute character and, most of all, of true Christian faith in all of life. 

Young Wilberforce
William Wilberforce was born in 1759 to an upper middle class family of Yorkshire, England.  With the early death of his father, young William was sent to London to live with relatives.  However, the relatives turned out to be evangelical Christians, which unnerved his mother and caused her to bring William back home until college.  Wilberforce attended Cambridge where he was a popular but somewhat indifferent student.  However, it was at Cambridge where he met William Pitt, son of the great Prime Minister and his future advocate and friend. 

Wilberforce boyhood home in Hull

Pitt persuaded William to run for Parliament, which he did upon graduation from University.  Wilberforce was elected to the seat from Hull in 1780 at the age of 21.  In his initial years in Parliament he was known for his oratory skills but not much else.  He primarily saw his position as a means of personal advancement and was a popular but largely irrelevant MP. 

In 1784, while on a grand tour of Europe he engaged in conversations with his traveling companions, who were evangelical Christians.  Somewhere on this trip Wilberforce was confronted with the wastefulness of his life in light of the claims of Christ and he believed the Gospel for salvation.  I was looking for a description of Wilberforce’s conversion and couldn’t find anything compelling.  However, that problem was solved earlier today, March 29, 2014 at the 2014 Verge Conference in Austin, Texas.  I was attending the last session of the conference and the speaker Bryan Lorritts unpacked the life and significance of the life of William Wilberforce in the cause of social justice.  I took some video where Lorritts beautifully describes Wilberforce’s encounter with “the train wreck of the Gospel".

Returning to England, William found himself in a dilemma of conscience.  He wanted to dedicate himself to the cause of Christ and began to wrestle with a call to the ministry.  It was around this time that he rekindled an old relationship with John Newton, who was pastoring in London at the time.  On December 7 1785 he met with the renowned pastor to seek his counsel.  Much to the young man’s surprise, Pastor Newton encouraged him to see his calling in the political arena.  Newton’s recollection of the meeting is recounted in a letter to William Cowper:   

We had much conversation.  I judge he is now decidedly on the right track.  His abilities are undoubtedly very considerable, and his situation and connections are likely to afford him ample scope for usefulness in public life.  I hope the Lord will make him a blessing, both as a Christian and as a statesman.  How seldom do these characters coincide!  But they are not incompatible. 

Wilberforce early years in Parliament

Wilberforce returned to Parliament committed to perform his duties in concert with his Christian values, giving political attention to a range of England’s social ills.  He also connected with a group of upper class Christians in London who formed a missional community that became known as the Clapham Sect.  It was through these relationships that William became sensitized to the evils of the slave trade.  While slaves were little seen in England, the Empire was expanding largely on the economic benefits of slave trading.  But as he became more and more aware of the horrors of the trade Wilberforce took this cause as the passion of his life and career.  

As he said, 

"So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade's wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition."


Wilberforce in his prime
The story of Wilberforce’s herculean fight against the economic and political establishment to abolish the slave trade began in 1787 when Pitt asked him to head the parliamentary fight in the cause.  The young and still popular MP threw himself into the task confident in quick success.  It wasn’t to be.  By 1789 he had introduced twelve resolutions on the slave trade.  All were defeated by technical maneuvering without coming to a vote.  Over the next fifteen years he introduced eight bills, only to have each of them defeated; and each time it seemed more and more unlikely that he wouldn’t see victory in his greatest cause.  

A satirical cartoon depicting what opponents of abolition said would happen in British society under Wilberforce

Barbara Spooner Wilberforce

In these years William suffered also from a number of ailments (likely including ulcerative colitis).  He resorted to the use of opium, which at the time was considered a wonder-medicine with little understanding of its addictive strength.  Tireless work on abolition interspersed with debilitating seasons of illness left little room in his life for consideration of marriage and family.  But in 1797, at the age of 38, he met twenty-year-old Barbara Spooner and soon married.  The marriage was lasting and deeply loving and ultimately resulted in a family of six children being born over the next ten years.


With the death of his lifelong friend William Pitt in 1806, Wilberforce renewed his efforts to rid the nation of slave trading with a new tactic.  Rather than attacking the trade directly he worked through the political maneuvering that had so long thwarted his efforts to limit the trade.  Capitalizing an already existing law involving trade with the French, he was able to get a bill passed that had the indirect effect of making about 75% of the economics of the trade against the law.  With the axe laid to the root, Parliament took rallied around the moral issue over the next year and the abolition of the slave trade was finally passed in England in 1807.  

The fight for abolition was movingly portrayed in the 2007 film "Amazing Grace".  Here is the  trailer for the film.

While a significant victory for justice, abolition did not end slavery in England.  Wilberforce spent the remainder of his life working to end slavery in the British Empire, as well as on other justice and morality causes.  He also worked through his office and contacts to advance the cause of Christian mission in England and all her colonies.  William’s health continued to deteriorate in the first decades of the 1800s.  By 1830 he was a powerful symbolic figure and writer for abolition but too frail of health to actively campaign.  Finally, on July 26, 1833 government concessions guaranteed the passage of the Bill to Abolish the Slave Trade. With the vote on the bill a month later 800,000 slaves throughout the world were legally freed from bondage.  Three days later, on July 29, 1833, William Wilberforce’s fight was over and he passed into glory.  

Unfinished portrait 1828

William Wilberforce had requested to be buried at his sister’s home but Parliament prevailed upon his  to have him buried with high honor at Westminster Abbey.  He was laid to rest near his friend William Pitt.

Queen Elizabeth at Wilberforce tomb - Westminster Abbey

I visited Westminster Abbey two times in the nineties – one time with my brother and a later time with guys from my pastoral team.  Neither time was I able to take pictures.  I’ll be back. 
Your blogger at Westminster Abbey