William Wilberforce: Christian Abolitionist, Reformer, Statesman

“God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners,” said William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the man who would be the driving force in the ultimate end of slavery in the British Empire. When Wilberforce was born, English sailors were raiding the African coast, capturing tens of thousands of Africans yearly and shipping them across the Atlantic into slavery. An estimated one in four died in route.

Wilberforce - public domainThe economies of the British colonies depended on the slave trade. A promoter of the West Indies trade wrote, “The impossibility of doing without slaves in the West Indies will always prevent this traffic being dropped.”

As a young man, Wilberforce wasn’t aware of the horrors of the slave trade. After attending St. John’s College, Cambridge, he decided on a political career. At age 21, he won a seat in the House of Commons from his hometown, Hull. Small and frail, Wilberforce suffered throughout his life from various ailments, sometimes being bedridden for weeks and on several occasions at death’s door.

Conversion to Christ

In 1784, at age 25, Wilberforce became an evangelical Christian within the Anglican Church. He questioned whether he could pursue politics and remain a Christian. Wilberforce’s spiritual mentor was evangelical minister John Newton (1725-1807), writer of “Amazing Grace,” and former slave trader captain. He encouraged him to remain in politics, saying, “It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of his church and the good of the nation.”

Once Wilberforce learned of the evils of the slave trade, he devoted his life to its abolition. He wrote: “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the Trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition.” In 1787, abolitionists Sir Charles and Lady Middleton persuaded Wilberforce to use his political influence as a Member of Parliament to legislate against the slave trade. He joined the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, allying himself with such abolitionists as Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846).

Wilberforce became associated with the “Clapham Sect” called “the Saints.” Members were Christ-centered, Anglican evangelicals, influential in government and business. The group included such abolitionist luminaries as Granville Sharp, Zachary Macaulay, Hannah More and Thomas Clarkson. Wilberforce became the parliamentary “lightning rod” and team-building leader of this group of Christian reformers. John Venn, rector of Clapham parish church, was their chaplain.

The struggle and victory

In May 1788, Wilberforce introduced a 12-point motion to Parliament to abolish the slave trade. The motion was defeated as planters, businessmen, ship owners, traditionalists, MPs and the Crown opposed him.

The abolitionists, having to decide whether to attack the slavery institution or the slave trade, chose the latter course. Wilberforce educated himself on its evils and gave his first parliamentary speech in May 1789, a three-and-a-half-hour marathon. “I have proved that, upon every ground, total abolition [of the trade] ought to take place,” he told Parliament. But legislators were unswayed and buried his motion in committee for two years. Then, in 1791, the bill to abolish the slave trade was put to a vote in Commons and defeated by a landslide, 163 to 88.

Wilberforce now understood that the struggle would be long and bitter. He unsuccessfully reintroduced abolition bills regularly during the 1790s. The early years of the new century were also quite bleak for the abolitionists, as all legislation introduced in Parliament against the slave trade failed to win passage. Eventually, the tide turned.

On February 23, 1807, Parliament voted in favor of Wilberforce’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Passing overwhelmingly, first in Lords and then in Commons by nearly an 18 to 1 margin, the bill received Royal Assent and became law on March 25, 1807. Through the efforts of Wilberforce, members of the Clapham Sect and others, the slave trade was declared illegal in the British Empire. Wilberforce wept for joy. Eighteen years he had fought the good fight in Parliament.

The struggle was not over, however. Although the slave trade was illegal, it still flourished, and slavery itself remained in the British colonies. Some abolitionists argued that the only way to stop slavery was to make the institution illegal. Wilberforce was convinced of this, but also correctly understood there was little political will for emancipation at the time. He also feared that a sudden abolition of slavery would be disastrous for both slaves and society.

Wilberforce decided legislation was needed to plug holes in the anti-slave trade law. He pushed for a Slave Registration Bill with other abolitionists, arguing that if a slave was registered, authorities could prove whether the slave was recently transported from Africa. The measure was not executed or enforced.

Finally, Wilberforce joined the campaign to end the institution of slavery, but his health was deteriorating. Unable to campaign as vigorously as he had against the slave trade, in 1821 he offered leadership of the parliamentary anti-slavery crusade to Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845), an MP, abolitionist, social reformer and fellow evangelical.

In March 1825, at age 66, failing health forced Wilberforce’s retirement from Parliament. His last public appearance for the abolition cause was at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1830. While Buxton, Clarkson and others were equally important to the abolitionist cause, Wilberforce had played the key role, as team builder and inspirational, visionary leader.

Near death, on July 26, 1833, Wilberforce received wonderful news. The Slavery Abolition Bill ending slavery throughout the British Empire had passed the Commons, with passage assured in Lords. All slaves throughout the Empire would be freed and plantation owners would be compensated. Wilberforce said, “Thank God that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the abolition of slavery.”

Three days later, Wilberforce died.

The Slavery Abolition Bill became law August 29, 1833, and came into force a year later, abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire. On July 31, 1834, one year after Wilberforce’s death, 800,000 slaves, chiefly in the British West Indies, were “free at last.”

A generation later, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in states that had rebelled against the Union. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865, the institution of slavery in America came to an end.

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