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William Wilberforce

The Evangelical Politician who Stopped Britain's Slave Trade

William Wilberforce

by Dennis Pollock

Many people like to think that their lives can make a difference in the world. And for the Christian this is not only a good thing to hope, but a reasonable expectation. Jesus tells us that if we abide in Him we will bear much fruit, and surely within this “much fruit” is the transformation and enhancement of the lives of some of those with whom we will interact as we make our way through this world.

For most of us, however, that difference, although incredibly powerful and dynamic in specific individual lives, is not something readily apparent on a larger, worldwide scale. We make a difference in our world, but not so much in the world. At that great Day of Judgment, there may be five or ten or twenty people who stand and testify that our presence in their lives made a major impact for good, but it probably won’t be thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions. In the case of William Wilberforce, however, there will surely be millions of men and women who will gladly testify that his life was, by the grace of God, a huge, inestimable blessing to them. He didn’t just change his own little world; he was used by God to transform the world.

Wilberforce was born in England in 1759 and died at the age of 73. He was not a preacher; he was not an evangelist; he was not an inventor. William Wilberforce was a British politician, serving over fifty years as a member of Parliament in the House of Commons. But in his own mind, even though he was continually up to his neck in political causes and deliberations, he was first and foremost a Christian. While today many people believe that politics and Christianity don’t really mix, Wilberforce saw himself as a representative of Jesus Christ in British politics. Although he was involved in many noble causes, he is known today primarily for one thing: his tireless efforts to bring the British slave trade to an end.

In his excellent biography of Wilberforce, Eric Metaxas writes:

(Wilberforce) saw the idea that all men and women are created equal by God, in His image and are therefore sacred. He saw the idea that all men are brothers and that we are all our brothers’ keepers… Wilberforce’s first great object was the abolition of the slave trade but his second great object, one might say, was the abolition of every lesser social ill. The issues of child labor and factory conditions, the problems of orphans and widows, of prisoners and the sick – all suddenly had champions in people who wanted to help those less fortunate than themselves… Taken altogether, it’s difficult to escape the verdict that William Wilberforce was simply the greatest social reformer in the history of the world. The world he was born into in 1759, and the world he departed in 1833 were as different as lead and gold. Wilberforce presided over a social earthquake that rearranged the continents and whose magnitude we are only now beginning to fully appreciate.


Before we look further into the great man’s accomplishments, let us consider his beginnings. William Wilberforce was born into privilege. His father was a prosperous British merchant – in fact very, very prosperous. By today’s standards the Wilberforce family were millionaires many times over. His parents were not strong Christians, however. In fact, they were not Christians at all. Although they held lightly to the Church of England, they had little use for the genuine believers in those days – the despised “Methodists” and nonconformists, who were derisively labeled “enthusiasts.”

As a child, young William was tiny, which was indeed true throughout his life. His height as an adult was 5 feet three inches at its peak, but due to a curvature of the spine, in his older years he probably stood around five feet. He was a sickly boy with stomach problems, which would plague him all his life. He also had very poor eyesight. With such liabilities, one might assume that this unfortunate little boy would end up on the fringes of society, with few friends and little influence upon anyone. In fact, the very opposite was true.

Although not at all impressive in stature, William Wilberforce was extremely impressive in that area which transcends size, looks, and strength. The boy, as well as the man, had an amazing, attractive, charismatic personality. His enthusiasm for life, his affectionate nature, his genuine concern for the well-being of others, his acute sense of humor, and his delight in social interactions took him far beyond his physical limitations. William was, from birth to death, a “people person.” He liked people and people liked him. He was also incredibly gifted in mental facilities, and in voice, speech, and writing. Despite his small size, he was impossible to ignore.

In addition to all this, Wilberforce had a beautiful singing and speaking voice, which made him pleasant to listen to, even if you didn’t care a thing for what he was saying. It seems that God, knowing the important role He had in mind for William, in demolishing slavery in the British empire and promoting the cause of Jesus Christ, fashioned for Himself a nearly-perfect instrument toward that end.

But the Creator of all things not only shaped Wilberforce through genetics; He also intervened into his environment as he grew from a boy to a man. Wilberforce might never have considered the claims of Jesus Christ had he grown up under the agnostic, secular, materialistic atmosphere embraced by his mother and father. They had virtually no use for anyone or any system that took the words of the gospel seriously and literally. But the gracious hand of God intervened in the life of little William in a way which ensured that William would be able to get a closeup view of true Christianity.

Foundations Laid

The catalyst that set all of this in motion was family tragedy. Within a short space of time, William’s oldest sister died, and then his father. Soon afterwards his mother fell terribly sick. Deciding that she could no longer care for William, she sent him to live with his uncle William and Aunt Hannah. Young William’s entire world was turned upside down. It must have been heart-wrenching for the sensitive child, but in fact it resulted in powerful Christian foundations to be laid in his life, for his uncle and aunt were everything that his parents were not – they were born-again, evangelical, passionate, thoughtful, serious, Bible-reading, praying Christians. For the first time in his life William got to see, close-up and personal, what real Christianity looked like. Eric Metaxas writes:

Wilberforce’s aunt and uncle… were at the epicenter of a spiritual renaissance in England at that time. They were close friends with one of the greatest figures of the eighteenth century, George Whitefield – the principal human force behind the social earthquake known as the Great Awakening.

Young William took to this immersion in red-hot Christianity easily and naturally. He soon was attending church, praying, and embracing Jesus Christ as his Savior. He even became acquainted with one of the most famous British evangelicals of that time, John Newton, who penned the most popular hymn in the history of Christianity, Amazing Grace. Newton had been a slave-ship captain who grew to hate slavery and everything connected with it. Seeds were being planted in the mind and heart of Wilberforce which would eventually produce a raging inferno of enmity toward slavery and the slave trade, springing from a Christ-centered perspective.

After a lengthy convalescence William’s mother regained her health. In time she came to recognize that her young son had become an evangelical, which in her mind, was about as evil as a Satan-worshipper. Her boy was being brainwashed and was turning into an “enthusiast.”

It took a couple of years for her to see what was happening, and by that time, William had imbibed a great big dose of real Christianity. She came to get her son and brought him home. In the ensuing years, she made sure to take him to all sorts of secular, “worldly” amusements and absolutely forbade him to attend evangelical churches. Her efforts appeared to work. As he grew to adulthood William gradually lost his evangelical passion and beliefs and became the proper secular son for which his mother fervently hoped.

From University to Parliament

With his brilliant mind and financial means, William was able to attend Cambridge, but by this time he had turned into a party-boy and did not take his studies seriously. He was smart enough to get decent, but not outstanding grades. However, his great love was to stay up late at night with friends, eating, drinking, and singing. His charisma, natural charm, and beautiful singing voice made him the life of every party, and Wilberforce relished it. Although a tiny little fellow, he was a big man on campus. Everyone enjoyed his company.

Eventually he developed close friendships with young men whose passion was to enter politics and become members of Parliament. Providentially, his best friend became William Pitt, a man who was a polar opposite of Wilberforce. Pitt was a serious student, shy, and incredibly motivated. What the the two did have in common were razor sharp minds. They were both brilliant and would become two of the most famous British politicians in the history of the empire.

Wilberforce decided to enter the world of politics. He was elected as a member of Parliament at the youngest age possible – twenty-one. Pitt was also elected and the two friends’ fellowship was transferred from the university halls to the House of Commons. At this point Wilberforce was no Christian. He sometimes even mocked the evangelicals, ignoring the fact that two of the most beloved people in his life, his aunt and uncle were devout Christians. But when it pleased God, who as with the apostle Paul had separated him from his mother’s womb, William was soon drawn back to the faith of his youth.


It happened on a long journey to spend some time in the winter in France with his mother, his sister, and a cousin. In those days travel was slow and boring (if you could avoid being robbed), and Wilberforce invited an acquaintance named Isaac Milner to travel with him in a second coach, so they could make the hours pass faster by enjoying intellectually stimulating conversation throughout the trip. Milner had once been Wilberforce’s tutor and was one of Britain’s leading intellectuals. He had a brilliant mind and could converse intelligently about every subject under the sun. Milner agreed to go with him, and the two riding together made quite an odd sight. Milner was a giant of a man and Wilberforce’s small size made him look more like a child than a man. Nevertheless, they were both highly intelligent, well-read, and enjoyed each other’s company immensely.

Their conversation ranged widely, and they both loved to joke and laugh, but things took a serious turn when Wilberforce made a chance comment, mocking the evangelicals who took their religion so seriously. Milner, while not really qualifying as an evangelical, had a great respect for these people, and replied that, if Wilberforce ever really wanted to discuss Christianity in a more serious manner, he would be glad to oblige him.

This shocked the twenty-four-year-old MP, and soon the subject came up for real. On the return trip to London they talked further and discussed a popular evangelical Christian book at length. It took some time, but those talks with Milner were used by God to make Jesus Christ attractive to young Wilberforce, and it was only a matter of time before he assented first intellectually and then in heart to the doctrines of Scripture and to the lordship of Jesus. The good-time, party-boy politician became a born-again Christian.

William Wilberforce was a changed man. He resigned from the five eating/drinking clubs which he had attended continually, and now spent hours reading the Scriptures. Before, a political career seemed the best possible choice, but now, thoroughly enraptured with Jesus, he gave thought to chucking the whole thing and becoming a minister. Politics lost its charm for him. But before making a decision to leave politics he decided to visit that man whose acquaintance he first made as a youth, John Newton.

By this time John Newton was perhaps the most famous Christian in England, apart from John Wesley. At the age of sixty, Newton was the pastor of one of London’s most important churches. Wilberforce went to Newton’s house, but somehow lost his nerve to go in and see this venerable man of God. He circled around the house a couple of times, and finally worked up the courage to knock on his door. He poured out his heart, and shared his perplexity about whether to stay in Parliament or resign and become a minister. Wilberforce probably expected Newton to encourage him to leave politics for the ministry, but if so, the older man surprised him. Newton told him that God had placed him in Parliament for “such a time as this” and that he might be able to do more good for the cause of Christ in the public world of politics than in the more cloistered world of pastoral ministry. Upon reflection Wilberforce decided this was a word from the Lord for him and committed himself to representing Christ in the political arena.

As a politician and a Christian Wilberforce took his job seriously. He educated himself and involved himself in nearly every issue of the day. In many ways he was fairly conservative, but his conscience moved him so powerfully, that if any issue seemed to have a moral component to it, he would give no thought to voting against his own party and political allies. He always had a tender heart toward the poor and oppressed, and he spent much time and effort throughout his life to promote societies and organizations which would give aid to such people, or in some cases animals. England was a rough, callous society in those days, and compassion and tenderness toward the unfortunate was rarely seen, particularly in Wilberforce’s early days. By the end of his life, he and his friends and associates would have changed all that, to a large degree.


One of the keys to Wilberforce’s political achievements was his ability to draw men and women to his causes. He was one of those rare types who was entirely likable. Somewhat like the former president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, almost everybody liked him. You might disagree with his politics, you might vote against him on every issue he brought up, but you could hardly help but like the small man whose sense of humor, and free and easy manner was highly attractive. Simply put, William Wilberforce had charisma, and he used this asset as a mighty weapon, a powerful tool to achieve what he wanted. And what he wanted were laws, decrees, and regulations which would make life easier for the poor and the prisoners, the widows and the orphans, and especially for the Africans who were suffering most of all at the hands of the British. He could never have accomplished much on his own, but his charisma and his cheerful and optimistic Christian faith drew others toward him, and resulted in powerful alliances of men, women, and groups which worked tirelessly and effectively to bring about social reform and relief for the downtrodden.

Metaxas writes:

Wilberforce labored to reduce the number of crimes punishable by hanging; he worked with the Quaker Elizabeth Fry to bring about penal reform for women prisoners… with Romilly on many other efforts at penal reform, including improvement of the harsh penal code of the time… Wilberforce referred to floggings in the army as an “object of my abomination,” and cruelty of any kind – whether against slaves or prisoners or sailors in the Royal Navy or animals – always touched him and roused him to action.

He was so outspoken about cruelty, abuse, poverty, and oppression, that in his later years he was known as “the conscience of the nation.” Cruel practices which had gone on for centuries, and of which everyone else had simply accepted as normal, were blasted by Wilberforce and their evil so magnified that people felt someone ought to do something about it – and eventually Parliament did just that.

It didn’t happen immediately, but within a few years of his election to Parliament, Wilberforce came to see slavery, and the slave trade, as the greatest evils of all. The only reason he didn’t see it quicker is that, like most of the British, he had no clue what was really involved in the capturing and transporting of Africans to serve as slaves in the West Indies. When Wilberforce learned of the terrible atrocities committed just in getting the Africans to their places of bondage, he was horrified.

Taking on the Slave Trade

In those days an attempt at total abolition of slavery would never have succeeded. Those who hated slavery knew this and decided that the wisest course would be to outlaw the slave trade. They assumed that once all slave trading and slave transport was ended, slavery would die a natural death. But more importantly they realized that at that time, abolition of the slave trade, not slavery itself was the only realistic possibility. And so they shelved the idea of total abolition of slavery and concentrated all their energies on outlawing the practice of transporting slaves from Africa to anywhere in the British empire.

It was an uphill battle. Major British companies were making enormous profits through the slave trade. In addition, the general populace of England was both unaware and unconcerned about what was happening to Africans in distant places. A major campaign to educate the people about the horrors and the brutality of just what was happening at the hands of greedy, brutal British men of means would not be enough, however. It would take something more. It would require a politician of influence who would take it upon himself to raise the matter in the halls of Parliament and press the issue again and again, like a ceaseless battering ram, until at last the doors that preserved the slave trade cracked and disintegrated.

All the events that led to William Wilberforce becoming that man are not entirely known, but one of the major factors was that he was essentially chosen by the leaders of England’s abolitionist movement. Several of the key men and women in the emerging movement to ban the slave trade took notice of young Wilberforce and recognized in him a kindred spirit. He was a serious Christian, as were nearly all of them. He was a thoroughly decent and compassionate man. And he was quickly becoming known as a friend of the poor and oppressed. Wilberforce was invited to one of their gatherings and was asked if he would consider leading the charge in the political arena. Most of the abolitionists were not politicians and their efforts were focused upon changing the public attitude toward slavery. They did this through the dissemination of reports of the horrendous atrocities that were continually done as Africans were ripped from their homes, crammed into ships in unspeakably miserable conditions, and sent to foreign lands where they would live out their lives (usually short) as slaves of men who treated them as nothing more than oxen.

These abolitionists were sincere, intelligent, and devout, but they were not politicians. They had almost no influence with the members of parliament who made the laws which shaped British policies and practices. They needed someone on the inside, and they were convinced that Wilberforce was the ideal man for the job. They could not have chosen more wisely. Wilberforce had developed some powerful connections. His best friend, William Pitt, was now the Prime Minister of England who favored outlawing the slave trade, although it was not by any means his highest priority. In addition, Wilberforce’s natural charm and charisma made him one of the most likable, popular MP’s of his time. Beyond all this, he was a born orator and could give stirring speeches in Parliament like almost nobody else. William Pitt, an outstanding speaker himself, said that Wilberforce “possessed the greatest natural eloquence of all the men I ever knew.” Once when Wilberforce got up on a table to make a public speech, one of his listeners reported:

I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table, but as I listened he grew and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.

Wilberforce told the eager abolitionists that he would be willing to lead the charge in the House of Commons once he had properly prepared and thoroughly studied the matter, and if no better spokesman could be found. The first qualifier simply required a bit of research, and as to them finding someone better, there was no chance of that. They could have waited and scoured English politics for the next thousand years and they would have found no one more perfectly suited, both by temperament, abilities, and spiritual passion, for the task.

Twenty Year Crusade

And so began a twenty year campaign to bring the wheels of the immoral, ungodly, and wretched British slave trade to a screeching halt. Of course, William had no idea it would take twenty years. At the beginning he seemed overly optimistic that the matter could be quickly studied and reported, and that the ugliness of transporting African slaves from their homes to foreign places of bondage would surely bring about a change of the public mind and soon a change of the minds of the politicians. Wilberforce was such a thoroughly decent, compassionate, and empathetic man that he did not realize the power of inbuilt prejudices among people who simply weren’t close to being as decent and compassionate as he was. Millions of pounds were being made from slaves every year, and that wealth was trickling down to many who weren’t directly involved. And when big money is involved, consciences are conveniently hardened and ineffective, even in the face of the most powerful evidence of cruelty and injustice.

Exposing the Slave Trade

Wilberforce and his friends began a campaign to inform the public of the exact nature of the slave trade, particularly the cruelty involved in transporting the slaves. The more they learned, the more horrified they became. Africans were jammed and crammed into ships until they could hold no more. Usually the slaves were kept in the belly of the ship in such close proximity that there was no room for them to sleep on their backs. These areas were not only cramped but often stifling and nearly airless, and disease was rampant. One of the most common factors was diarrhea, which resulted in overfilling the few buckets placed around for the slaves to relieve themselves. Soon the floor of the slaves’ quarters would be filled with sewage and vomit, and emit such terrible smells that few people, apart from the crew itself, could stand to be onboard the ships for more than a few minutes. Women and girls were brought on board naked and trembling and were frequently raped by the crew. It was said that a slave ship was part bedlam and part brothel.

That slaves would die on these journeys was a given. The ship owners allowed for a certain amount of “business losses” but if the death toll rose too high they would blame the captain and go looking for another. Ironically, when the abolition of the slave trade first began to be publicly debated, both in Parliament and in the public discourse, one of the defenses of the slave traders was that they were actually doing the Africans a favor by taking them away from a harsh life in Africa, treating them humanely, and upgrading their lifestyle in their new lives as plantation slaves. This was a flagrant lie, of course, but in the beginning of the debate, there was enough general ignorance on this issue, that many believed it. Some described the slaves singing and dancing on the ships, as though they were happy pilgrims. There was singing and dancing, but not like they suggested. The singing was a mournful way for the Africans to express their sorrow. And the dancing was done by demand of the crew. They would bring slaves on deck and force them to dance by threat of the whip. This was thought to provide exercise and keep them healthy, and also provided amusement for the crew.

Indeed, disease and death filled the ships to such an extent that even the crew was affected. In a deadly irony the abuse poured out on the poor slaves led to fast-spreading contagious diseases which did not limit themselves to the slaves’ quarters. It was estimated that the mortality rate among the crew on a typical slave ship was 25% annually. In some cases, the death toll among the crew was higher, percentage-wise, than it was among the slaves.

Wilberforce and his friends set about to put the record straight. Evidence of the monstrosity of the slave trade was not lacking. Within a few years they gathered mountains of documents, testimonies, and first-hand reports from both former slaves, repentant slave ship crew, and others who were exposed to the nature of slave transportation, until they eviscerated their opponents. The defense that slaves were happy to leave Africa and were treated humanely was so thoroughly demolished that before long those who had a personal interest in seeing that slave trade continue had to stop their mouths, at least with this particular ploy.

Change, But Not Now!

But evil being what it is and greed being what it is, they soon came up with another, subtler, and seemingly more reasonable argument. They admitted that, yes, the slave trade was horrible and must be ended, but now is not the time. Who knew what effects the cessation of this enormously profitable business would have on the economy? And there were so many other important matters to deal with. During much of the time Wilberforce and his friends fought to end the slave trade, Britain was at war with France. And could the nation really afford such a huge economic and social upheaval such as the ending of the slave trade would surely cause, at such a time? Their defense became that by all means the slave trade must be ended, but it must be done gradually, in incremental steps, and now was hardly the time to even begin.

These thoughts injected fears and doubts into even some of the more decent British politicians and people, and its end result was that for years nothing whatsoever was accomplished. Wilberforce thought, rightly, that to delay the end of the evil of the slave trade, based on the idea that it might bring some disruption to the nation, was complete folly. In his mind it was never wrong to do the right thing, whatever the consequences may or may not be. Often, the politicians would find ingenious means to put an end to the debate “for the present.” They would suggest that it just wasn’t the right time to debate such matters. Once, when an MP put forth a motion for “suspending the question” until the end of the year, Wilberforce could not contain himself. He rose to his feet and blasted the idea of suspending talks about ending the slave trade:

The question suspended? Is the desolation of wretched Africa suspended? Are all the complicated miseries of this atrocious trade – is the work of death suspended? No, sir. I will not delay this motion, I will call upon the House not to insult the forbearance of Heaven by delaying this tardy act of justice!

Every year Wilberforce would bring up a motion to outlaw the slave trade in all the British empire, and every year it would be voted down. One year, the vote was particularly heart-breaking. It seemed, by most people’s reckoning, that this year they would have the votes to carry the motion, but just barely. But when it came time for the vote, a sizable number of Wilberforce’s supporters didn’t show up to vote. Later it was discovered that they had been given tickets to a popular opera and had attended the opera rather than coming to the House of Commons to vote on this paramount issue. The motion to end the slave trade lost by a mere four votes. Wilberforce was absolutely crushed, and it took him some time to recover emotionally from the trauma of being so close to victory, only to be foiled by an opera. Many suspected that it was the enemies of abolition who had given these free tickets to those who supported it.

Public Opinion

But while the politicians delayed and debated and discussed and refused to take such a radical step as abolition, Wilberforce and his colleagues were busy on another front. It has been said that it’s not so important that politicians see the light; they just need to feel the heat. Wilberforce knew that if they could muster enough popular support, the day would eventually come when they would have to vote to end the slave trade.

One of the means of their campaign involved the use of pamphlets. The business of purchasing Africans, loading them onto vastly overcrowded ships, taking them to a foreign land where they would be sold was so horrific, that if the truth could ever be made known to the general public, there would arise such a clamor for abolition that even the most stubborn politicians would be forced to side with Wilberforce, if not for conscience’s sake, then for the sake of their own political future.

Oddly, the pro-slave trade interests tried also to write pamphlets to support their side, but it became increasingly difficult, and even ridiculous, to try to defend the indefensible. The abolitionists’ pamphlets were filled with first hand reports so terrible that if true even by half, such was enough to make any reasonable individual with a conscience a convert to the cause. And of course, they were not merely half-true. Indeed, some of the abuse suffered by the Africans was so disgusting that it could not even be printed in any detail, but only hinted at.

Wilberforce and his colleagues were, in a sense, the inventors of the concept we now call an icon. They had an artist create a rendering of a male African on his knees with his hands folded, and asking the question, “Am I not a man and a brother.” This became enormously popular, and was distributed as buttons, in women’s necklaces, on bracelets, snuff boxes, hair ornaments, and used in all sorts of other creative ways. This simple cameo became the most famous and widely recognized British “icon” of the 1700’s.

Petitions were gathered to present to the House of Commons with thousands and thousands of signatures. And while the politicians dillied and dallied and danced all around the issue, every year brought about an increase in the ranks of the abolitionists. For a long time Wilberforce seemed to be making little to no headway politically, but culturally and among the common people, he and his friends were gaining ground continually. From a historical perspective we can see today that the end of the slave trade and all of slavery was inevitable. It was going to happen at some point. But Wilberforce did not have the privilege of looking at things from that perspective, and often he was weary. Sometimes his tremendous exertions and many disappointments made him physically sick. It was a long twenty years. Wilberforce spent not only his time and energy, but great amounts of his own money in promoting abolition.

The Day Arrives

The day came when all the prayers and work and tears and speeches and pamphlets and meetings and debates paid off. Slowly but irreversibly, opinions in Britain had changed. Among the wealthy and the elite, as well as among common people, it became fashionable to speak critically of the slave trade. Evil was now called by its name. In the year 1807, as Wilberforce prepared once again to make a motion to outlaw all British slave trade, polls indicated that this time it would surely pass. Wilberforce had seen his hopes dashed so many times that he refused to speak of it as anything more than a possibility. But the dam had burst, and most of the MP’s were now eagerly aligning themselves with the movement. When it came time for a debate, none was necessary. Instead of arguing over the merits or fearful consequences of ending the slave trade, one member of Parliament after another stood up and gave a short, rousing speech about how necessary and how moral this measure was.

As the MPs rose to speak enthusiastically about ending the slave trade, Wilberforce finally began to see that this time it was really, really going to happen. He was moved to the depths of his soul. When one member finished speaking, six or eight leaped to their feet, anxious to go on record as supporting the abolitionist movement. Finally, the solicitor-general rose to speak. He greatly admired Wilberforce and spoke words of praise for the little man’s huge dedication to ending the slave trade. As he waxed eloquent, Wilberforce broke into tears, knowing that the great object for which he had labored for two decades was now at hand. As the others saw him weeping, they rose up and cheered for the man known as “the conscience of the nation.” As they cheered, Wilberforce broke down and sobbed, and the more he cried the more they cheered. And the more they cheered the harder Wilberforce cried. It was a glorious, spontaneous recognition of one man’s devotion to the oppressed Africans, a devotion which, despite disappointment after disappointment and rejection after rejection, refused to accept defeat. The final vote was 283 to 16 in favor of outlawing the slave trade.

Wilberforce and most of his friends had assumed that once the slave trade was ended, slavery itself would die a natural death. This did not happen. It would take yet another campaign to bring this about, but the work Wilberforce and his friends did in publicizing the misery of the Africans laid powerful foundations for the next step, as well as saving multitudes of Africans from the death-dealing journey from Africa to the West Indies, locked in chains on disease-ridden ships. Never very strong or healthy, Wilberforce became too feeble to lead the next movement, but he played his role, and wrote an effective book arguing for the freeing of all slaves. His reasoning for not speaking more about emancipation earlier, and concentrating entirely on ending the slave trade was a practical one: he knew that England was simply not ready for such a step. He stated, “If someone has two wounds, and one can be healed and the other cannot, is it not better to heal the one you can, rather than leave both unhealed?”

But within a decade after outlawing the slave trade, the troops were marshalling for the final fight of total emancipation for all slaves throughout the huge British empire. Others rose up to lead it, but Wilberforce was granted “elder statesman” status in the movement. Just three weeks before his death, they informed him that legal emancipation was at hand. Wilberforce was able to die with the knowledge that his beloved Africans had come from bondage to freedom in his lifetime. And, by the grace of God, he was one of God’s chosen instruments to bring this about.

Measure of the Man

Many Christians today and in the past have felt that Christians have no place in working to change society directly. Their idea is that we must focus entirely on evangelism and equipping the believers, and leave politics and social change to the ungodly. Often evangelicals leave social change to the liberal, unbelieving, nominal “Christians,” while they focus on “more spiritual things.” But Wilberforce never held to such an idea. He saw Jesus Christ as an Instigator of change and transformation, and he believed that this transformation should be true in society as well as in individual lives. Many of the Christians of those days believed such things, and made a huge difference in the world. I can’t help but agree with Wilberforce. Following Jesus Christ is by no means an invitation to stick our collective heads in the sand, never vote, never watch the news, and never concern ourselves with the state of society. If you don’t believe that, read the Old Testament prophets sometime. They had a lot to say about oppression, helping the poor and needy, and lifting the heavy loads of the suffering.

But unlike many liberals today, Wilberforce was thoroughly evangelical. He read the Bible and prayed far more than most pastors of his day (or our day for that matter). He was so eager to help men and women know Christ that he made notes about unbelievers of his acquaintance which contained ideas about ways which he could initiate a conversation concerning their need for Jesus. His major literary work was a book, not about slaves or the slave trade, but about basic Christianity, and the need for genuine Christians to live out their faith by godly lifestyles. It became a great success and was a blessing to many.

Advertisement for Jesus

William Wilberforce not only proclaimed Christ through writing, but his life was a constant advertisement for Jesus. Unlike many evangelicals who carry their Christianity in a harsh, dour manner, Wilberforce was a cheerful, happy, and witty believer. If you spent an evening with him you would hear all sorts of amusing stories and enjoy some of the most pleasant conversation of your life. The little man had a giant personality, which, unless you found yourself opposing him over his politics, and his love for the Africans, you could hardly help but like. He was clearly one of those “people who love people.”

He became a member of Parliament at the age of 21, and through half of his thirties, he seemed destined for a life of bachelorhood. Perhaps his small stature made him less attractive to the opposite sex than others, but with his political status, he surely would have been considered a highly eligible bachelor to many. Still, he often said that he felt he would live out his days unmarried. But at the age of thirty-seven all that changed overnight. Wilberforce was introduced to a young, twenty-year-old lady named Barbara. He was smitten instantly and in the next days could think of nothing but her. He proposed to her within eight days, and she accepted. They were married within six weeks. Their marriage was a happy one, with both husband and wife adoring each other. He was nearly 18 years older than she. They were the true opposites which not only attracted each other, but lived happily together. She was quiet and reserved; he was outgoing. She loved privacy; he thrived on being with people. But somehow they made it work and their affection for each other was obvious to all. She stayed home and raised their children and he went out to fight in the political arena.

Wilberforce was incredibly tenderhearted. He fought for the poor and illiterate, championed laws which reduced the number of hours children could be made to or allowed to work, and was even concerned about cruelty to animals. But his greatest passion was clearly the Africans. After one disappointing vote in Parliament, he said, “I could not sleep after first waking at night. The poor blacks rushed into my mind, and the guilt of our wicked land.” In one speech he declared: “Africa, Africa! Your sufferings have been the theme that has arrested and engages my heart –  your sufferings no tongue can express…”

Making a Difference

My research into the life of this great man leaves me with the thought that here was a Christian who really lived out his faith. He wasn’t perfect of course. At times he could be undisciplined and he was a poor money manager. After giving away huge sums, both in the cause of abolition, and simply out of personal generosity, and then supporting his son in a business deal that went bad, Wilberforce finished out his life nearly broke. He had to sell his house and live with one of his children. Still, he contented himself that he was in the hands of a good God and did not complain.

What can we learn from Wilberforce today? Perhaps the greatest lesson is the simple truth that the grace of Jesus Christ working in us should, somehow, some way, and at some time, result in making other people’s lives better. By all means we should share Jesus and help unbelievers to know him and receive salvation. But we should also look around and discover just what else Jesus would have us do to bless others in physical ways. While still in his twenties Wilberforce wrote that God had placed a two-fold calling on him, and that these would be the major themes of his life: “the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners (British morals)." Wilberforce stayed true to that calling throughout all the future decades of his life, and the world became a much better place because of it.


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