William Wilberforce: A Man for All Seasons
By Kevin Belmonte
By any measure, William Wilberforce was a most remarkable man and, indeed, he has been described as “the greatest reformer in history.”1 His legacy influenced the lives of kings and presidents and touched the poor and downtrodden in nations throughout the world.
Wilberforce was born in the port city of Hull, England, on August 24, 1759, into a prosperous merchant family that we would today describe as “upper middle class.” His family harbored hopes that young William might increase the family fortune or perhaps win an election to a prestigious political post. These hopes were not misplaced. Within months of graduating from St. John’s College, Cambridge University in 1780, Wilberforce secured a seat in the House of Commons as a member of Parliament for Hull—just a few days after his twenty-first birthday.
By this time, Wilberforce had become a close friend of William Pitt the Younger, who would become the youngest prime minister in British history. Both young men possessed great political gifts. Wilberforce was witty, lively and intelligent. He had a captivating charm and sang so well that in 1782, the Prince of Wales said he would go anywhere to hear Wilberforce sing. Pitt, himself one of Britain’s greatest orators, said Wilberforce had the greatest natural eloquence of any man he ever knew. These gifts enabled Wilberforce to overcome the class prejudice harbored by landed aristocrats (who largely ruled England) against the merchant class. He was a young man on the rise.
Pitt ascended to the premiership in 1783 at the incredible age of 24. Less than six months later, Wilberforce was elected a member of Parliament for the county of Yorkshire—one of the most powerful seats in the House of Commons. Yet Wilberforce’s path would take a very different course from Pitt’s following his election. Wishing to savor the success he had gained, Wilberforce set out on a tour of Europe with his family and a few invited friends. After several months, he returned in the midst of a spiritual crisis that had grown out of conversations he had with Isaac Milner, one of his traveling companions. Milner, an evangelical Anglican with a gift for winsomely articulating “the intellectual heart of Christianity,”2 was a Fellow of the Royal Society (Britain’s national academy of science) and later the president of Queen’s College in Cambridge.
Wilberforce returned to London in the fall of 1785, full of doubts about his future. His conversations with Milner had convinced him of the truth of Christianity, but he did not see how, or if, a Christian could serve God in politics. He was in the midst of what he would later describe as his “Great Change,” or his embrace of evangelical Christianity.
Not knowing where else to turn, Wilberforce sought out John Newton, the former slave-ship captain turned Anglican parson whom we remember today as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Wilberforce had known Newton as a boy. But Wilberforce’s family, alarmed by his growing attachment to someone they considered a religious fanatic, took him away from Newton’s influence and that of the evangelical uncle and aunt with whom Wilberforce had been staying.
Yet the good seed planted in Wilberforce’s heart by Newton (and by his uncle and aunt) never completely withered. When Wilberforce needed someone to turn to, he knew that he should seek out Newton. It was an inspired choice.
Newton helped Wilberforce see that God had a special purpose for his life—that he could serve God in politics and make a difference there, just as Daniel and Joseph had done in Old Testament times. By 1787, Wilberforce had taken up the charge for which we remember him today: the fight to abolish the British slave trade. And it was John
Newton, the former slave trader, whom God used to help Wilberforce see that he should take this course. A man guilty of crimes against humanity had helped set a friend on the path of service to humanity.
At the same time, Wilberforce had become deeply concerned with fostering moral and cultural renewal in Britain. As he wrote in his diary on October 28, 1787, God had set before him two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the work of moral reform. And so, even as Wilberforce waged what would be a 20-year fight to abolish Britain’s slave trade, he began scores of philanthropic initiatives. In concert with his fellow evangelicals among the Clapham circle (so called because they lived close to one another in the village of Clapham), he pursued reforms of all kinds.
Wilberforce led or was a member of at least 69 different benevolent societies. He was a founder and contributor to the Christian Observer, the Christianity Today of his time. He helped to found the Sierra Leone colony for freed slaves, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, hospitals for the poor, Britain’s Royal Institution (dedicated to scientific research), and the National Gallery (of art). He was active in educational reform, prison reform, the promotion of public health initiatives and advocating shorter working hours and improved conditions in factories.
Seeking always to be salt and light within his culture, Wilberforce worked with many people who did not share his Christian worldview. His prison reform work with Jeremy Bentham is one example, and his partnership in the abolition of the slave trade with Charles Fox is another. “It is the true duty of every man to promote the happiness of his fellow creatures to the utmost of his power,” Wilberforce believed.3
One of the most enduring aspects of Wilberforce’s cultural apologetic was the publication of his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System . . . Contrasted with Real Christianity in 1797. It became an immediate bestseller and went through five editions in six months. By 1826, 15 editions had been printed in Britain, and 25 editions had been printed in the United States. It was translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish.
A Practical View of Real Christianity touched many lives throughout Britain. Edmund Burke, the great political theorist and orator, had it read to him during the last few days of his life. It brought him great comfort, and he sent word to Wilberforce saying that if he lived, he should thank his friend for “having sent such a book into the world.”4 The book was instrumental in the conversions of the Scottish moral philosopher Thomas Chalmers and the eminent agriculturalist and travel writer Arthur Young.
To Wilberforce’s contemporaries, A Practical View of Real Christianity was a cri de coeur (“cry from the heart”)—a plea for his fellow Britons to embrace what he called vital, or authentic, Christianity. Unlike the turgid, often tedious tomes published at this time, A Practical View of Real Christianity was a winsome and conversational book. It was a declaration of Wilberforce’s faith commitment, and as such it not only reflected the influence of Jonathan Edwards and Philip Doddridge but also set forth Wilberforce’s vision of the good society. People whose lives had been transformed by the truths of Christianity, Wilberforce believed, could enrich the societies in which they lived. And as his legacy attests, he was correct.
Due to poor health, Wilberforce retired from political life in February 1825, having served his nation for nearly 45 years. Yet his passion to secure the emancipation of slaves throughout Britain’s colonies continued unabated. He took part in petition drives, guided the younger politicians (such as Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton and Lord Shaftesbury) who inherited his mantle, and spoke publicly when he could. Three days before he died, he learned that Parliament would pass the legislation abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire.
Among the many distinguished African-Americans whose lives were influenced by Wilberforce were William Wells Brown, Paul Cuffe and Frederick Douglass. Many of America’s founding fathers were also influenced by Wilberforce’s work, including John Quincy Adams, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, Rufus King, the Marquis de Lafayette and James Monroe. William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, even named his son William Wilberforce Hooper.
Among the literary figures affected by Wilberforce were Thoreau, Emerson and Whittier. Jedidiah Morse (the “father of American geography”) counted Wilberforce a friend, as did his son Samuel Morse—an artist and inventor so accomplished that he was known as “the American Leonardo da Vinci.” Other luminaries of early American culture whose lives were touched by Wilberforce include Caspar Morris, Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, Edward Everett, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., Timothy Dwight (a president of Yale), William Jay, George Ticknor, Abraham Lincoln, William Buell Sprague, Charles Sumner, William Cabell Rives, E. M. Bounds, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, and the parents of the gifted poet William Wilberforce Lord.
The influence of Wilberforce (and the Clapham circle) is not yet exhausted. Wilberforce University of Ohio, America’s oldest African-American college, continues to educate young people in our own day. Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate continue to draw inspiration from Wilberforce’s legacy. Prison Fellowship, the Wilberforce Forum and the Trinity Forum groups honor and perpetuate his commitment to cultural renewal. Wilberforce’s work has obviously not ended.
Following Wilberforce’s retirement in 1825, Robert Southey, Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1813 to 1843, paid tribute to his old friend. Southey’s words serve equally well as a tribute to Wilberforce’s enduring legacy: The House of Commons, Southey wrote, “will not look upon your like again.”5
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Excerpted from A Hero for Humanity , by Kevin Belmonte, © 2002. Published by Zondervan. Used with permission.
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