|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.
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:
|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|
|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|
|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|