In 1807, the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire. This was largely due to the tireless efforts—which spanned decades—of the Evangelical Christian William Wilberforce. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833, as Wilberforce lay on his deathbed.
William Wilberforce inspired Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln with his moral clarity, spiritual strength, and sense of divine purpose. Wilberforce vanquished the mind-set that made slavery acceptable among some Christian peoples. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history. William Wilberforce shifted human consciousness in a fundamental way.
At the height of his political career, at the age of twenty-six, God opened the eyes of William Wilberforce. He would become the greatest social reformer in the history of the world. No politician ever used his faith to achieve greater gains for all of humanity. William Wilberforce gave away his entire, considerable, fortune to the poor, ending his days virtually penniless.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was born into a wealthy family in Hull, England. While still a boy, his letter to the editor about the evils of slavery was published in the local newspaper.
At 20, William Wilberforce was elected to Parliament, where he became best friends with the man who would soon become the youngest Prime Minister in British history, William Pitt the Younger. Pitt died at age forty-six in 1806 from complications of gout—an old man's disease.
William Wilberforce was an intellectual powerhouse, noted for his charm, wit, and cheerfulness. Wilberforce was a tiny man, standing just over five foot with a 33-inch chest. He soon earned a reputation as a brilliant singer—the "Nightingale of the Commons."
The Conversion of William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce invited an acquaintance, Isaac Milner, to go on a Grand Tour of Europe with him—unaware than Milner was a Christian. Wilberforce invited Milner because of his reputation as a great conversationalist. Milner was an enormous man and an utter genius, distinguished in physics, chemistry, and algebra.
Before this trip, Wilberforce wanted nothing to do Evangelicals, whom he viewed as embarrassingly out of step with the times. Why, Evangelicals even honored the Sabbath and disdained the high entertainment of the day, the theatre!
During the tour of Europe, Wilberforce was gradually converted through long conversations with Milner about the Philip Doddridge book The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Wilberforce so enjoyed this journey that a year later he asked Milner to join him for another trip around Europe.
The second tour included weeks of debate about the New Testament, as Milner drew Wilberforce into discussions about the meaning of the universe and eternal things. At this moment Wilberforce had it all—money, prestige, and the highest possible circle of friends and acquaintances. God convicted the heart of Wilberforce about his ingratitude. Wilberforce saw that the "corruption and profligacy . . . amongst the rich and luxurious has now extended its baneful influence and spread its destructive poison through the whole body of the people. . . . I now fully believed the Gospel and was persuaded that if I died at any time I should perish everlastingly."
During the second European tour with Milner, Wilberforce also had dinner with the seventy-seven-year-old Benjamin Franklin at the home of Lafayette. Their tour of France took place just four years before the French Revolution.
William Wilberforce felt he must declare himself to the world as a professing Christian. Not to do so would be to deny God. No longer would he live to please himself, ignoring the poor and suffering all around him, and ignoring God and God's love. Wilberforce was born again and emerged with a whole new attitude toward money and time. His wealth, his talent, and his time were on loan from God, given to him to use according to God's will. God had blessed him that he might bless others.
William Wilberforce at first thought he must choose between serving Christ and remaining in public life. He went to see his boyhood hero, John Newton, for advice. Newton convinced him to do both by serving God through his political career. Wilberforce became as zealous as anyone who had ever lived to improve the social conditions of the world around him.
The Clapham Circle
The diminutive Wilberforce was a brilliant orator. He became the leader of a group of affluent evangelicals who lived near London, which included the famous playwright, author, and philanthropist Hannah More. They became known as the Clapham Circle, a pressure group inside the Anglican and Methodist churches as well as in affluent society, devoted to the abolition of slavery, a refined gentility, and the improvement of mores. They set out to change the world for Jesus—and they did.
The Clapham Circle was the concept of Henry Thornton. He wanted his circle of friends to live near each other in the quaint village of Clapham, just outside London. In this way, they could plan and dream together; they could encourage and console each other—all with a cheerful and passionate evangelical impulse to serve God.
William Wilberforce called slavery "a national crime," "the foulest blot that ever stained our national character," and "a load of guilt, which has long hung like a millstone about our necks, ready to sink us to perdition."
The founder of the Evangelical movement was the wealthiest merchant in England, John Thornton of Clapham (1720-1790), the father of Henry Thornton. He gave away an immense fortune to Christian charities, missionaries, and social reformers. After his death, William Wilberforce assumed leadership of the non-denominational Evangelicals.
The Evangelicals were despised by the social elites of England, who regarding them as unsophisticated, overly earnest about life, and yet overly emotional about God.
In the fall of 1787, Wilberforce met Hannah More. More was clever and talented. She was the most popular writer of her day—far outselling Jane Austen—and a huge celebrity in Britain. Her nickname was the "Queen of the Methodists."
Hannah More founded and ran schools for poor children. She also wrote scores of religious and moral tracts. She joined forces with Wilberforce in his quest to reform the morals of Britain. At the time the word "manners" was used interchangeably with the word "morals,” hence the title of her influential book Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society.
Another of the Clapham Circle was Granville Sharp. He was a renowned musician from a family of renowned musicians that lived on a great barge that took them on tour over the great waterways of England.
Granville Sharp was a devout Christian who possessed a brilliant mind. He taught himself Greek and Hebrew. Sharp devoted hours of each day to study of the Bible, which he viewed as the infallible Word of God and the source of all English law. In 1787, he formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Thomas Clarkson was another devout Christian who would devote his life to ending slavery. His life would be threatened many times, but he never wavered from his belief that the slave trade corrupted and ruined the lives of all who touched it. Many sailors on slave ships were pressed onto them against their will, brutalized mentally and physically, and lived a miserable existence. These sailors died of the same diseases as the slaves and just as often. English sailors on slave ships had a 25 percent chance of dying on board.
William Wilberforce gradually came to the conclusion that God was calling him to a great purpose in life: to end slavery in the British Empire and the world. He first worked to end the slave trade, hoping the existing slaves would then be treated better since they could not be replaced. The lives of slaves in the West Indies were far worse than the slaves in America. Raising and harvesting sugar cane was one of the most brutal activities imaginable. African chiefs were crazed with greed to capture people and sell them to Europeans.
William Wilberforce had no idea he would have to work twenty years to abolish the slave trade, and nearly forty-five years to abolish slavery in the British Empire.
Josiah Wedgewood created an image that was the first iconic image used in a human rights campaign. The image is of a kneeling African, chained hand and foot, looking up imploringly and asking: "Am I not a man and a brother?" It soon appeared on thousands of snuffboxes, cameos, and letter-sealing fobs.
William Wilberforce and Hannah More also went to work to help the people of the most poverty-stricken part of the United Kingdom, Cheddar Gorge. Cheddar Gorge is the largest gorge in the UK. The inhabitants there had no churches and no schools. They lived in utter poverty, while they dwelled in hovels or in caves. Hannah More set up the first school in the area.
Colonization of Former Slaves
The Clapham Circle worked hard to establish a free, self-governing colony of former slaves in Sierra Leone, Africa. One reason for this was to allow blacks to prove that they were not savages incapable of governing themselves. This colony would be a beacon of freedom and self-government for all Africans and help create a thriving market economy with international trade on the Dark Continent. These abolitionists had no racist thoughts in this, as modern revisionists of history would have you believe. Their intentions were noble and pure.
In 1787, a few hundred blacks, along with sixty white helpers, landed in Sierra Leone to begin the experiment. Sadly, in 1789 the first fledgling town was burned to the ground by a neighboring African chieftain. In 1792, 1,000 more blacks arrived with $600,000 in capital donated by white Englanders. They founded the city of Freetown, which still stands today.
Wilberforce Works to Abolish Slavery
In 1791, William Wilberforce took on the daunting task of distilling ten thousand pages of testimony about the evils of the slave trade, that had been collected by abolitionists, to make it digestible for presentation to Parliament. Wilberforce went to work by himself on acres of pages filled with scrawled penmanship.
Unfortunately for Wilberforce—and far more so for the slaves—the bill to end the slave trade stalled in Parliament in 1792 because of a great backlash in Britain as it recoiled in horror at the monstrously murderous anarchy of the French Revolution. Liberty no longer sounded innocent and beautiful. Demonic bloodlust posed a threat to law and order.
Distaste developed for any reform movements in Parliament that could be seen as harmful in any way to British Civilization. The abolition movement was a Christian movement, but it somehow got linked in public consciousness with the godless, vehemently anti-Christ French Revolution, thus setting back the end of the slave trade another 15 years. The most damaging event was the bloody massacre of all the white people in Haiti after the slaves had won their freedom there.
Also in 1792, Wilberforce presented evidence that a slave ship captain named Kimber had flogged a fifteen-year-old girl to death. Kimber was put on trial but acquitted—in a travesty of justice. Kimber, described as a "savage-looking man," began threatening and stalking Wilberforce.
Slavers began to spread all sorts of false stories about Wilberforce, including that he had a black mistress.
In 1793, the mobs in France dragged their former King, Louis XVI, to the guillotine. Soon thereafter, France declared war on England. The more the Jacobins in Paris rioted, looted, and murdered; the more the chances diminished of passing radical legislation through the British Parliament with the words liberty or equality involved. There was justifiable fear that the French Revolution could jump the 21-mile-wide English Channel and ruin everything the British people knew and loved.
Wilberforce never gave up. In 1796, he wrote: "If it please God . . . may I be the instrument of stopping such a course of wickedness and cruelty as never before disgraced a Christian country." Because he was a Christian, Wilberforce naturally believed that all human beings were immortal creatures—created by God in His very own image.
By 1807, Wilberforce, now forty-seven years old, had been wracked with pain in his always-frail body for as long as he could remember. He suffered from curvature of the spine and ulcerative colitis. Each year, for twenty years in a row, Wilberforce had put forth his bill to end the slave trade and each year he was defeated.
After the death of his good friend, William Pitt the Younger, William Grenville became Prime Minister. The House of Lords finally passed the abolition bill put forth by William Wilberforce by a vote of 100 to 36. And then it passed the House of Commons by a vote of 283 to 16. The slave trade had ended in the British Empire.
Before the vote in the House of Commons, Wilberforce said, "The decision of the great question approaches. May it please God, who has the hearts of all in His hands, to turn them as in the House of Lords; and enable me to have a single eye, and simple heart, desiring to please God, to do good to my fellow-creatures, and to testify my gratitude to my adorable Redeemer."
William Wilberforce was soon venerated by his fellow man, but he was fully determined to give God all the glory for the victory after twenty years of hard fought battles in such a noble cause. He longed not to yield to pride and considered himself unworthy of praise, and so deflected all acclaim away from himself and upward to the One who had held up his tired arms all these years. William Wilberforce was now hailed as the conscience of the British Empire.
Abolition of Slavery
William Wilberforce did not rest after the slave trade was abolished. Now he looked forward to the emancipation of slaves and the end of slavery. Wilberforce started the African Institution for "promoting the Civilization and Improvement of Africa."
In 1823, William Wilberforce wrote his manifesto, Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. Wilberforce pushed the idea of buying all slaves in the British Empire to set them free. He proposed giving slave owners one-half the market value of the slaves as compensation. This would cost the Crown one hundred million dollars—over eight billion dollars today!
Many of his abolitionist friends opposed compensating men who had enslaved their human brothers and sisters. Wilberforce carried the day and said, "Thank God that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery!"
Wilberforce and India
In 1793, William Wilberforce proposed that schoolmasters and chaplains be sent to India for the first time to "enlighten and reform" the people of that vast country. They suffered "under the grossest, the darkest, and most depraved system of idolatrous superstition that almost ever existed upon the earth."
It was not the Hindu religion as much as the barbaric cruelties of Indian culture. This was a time in which female infanticide was common, as well as the suttee—the binding and burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyres. In the Bengal Province alone, ten thousand women were burned alive each year. Many of them were mere teenage girls and some were even younger. While they burned the crowds would celebrate with demonic, brutal laughter and a general air of levity. Usually, there were children left behind, having lost both parents in a single day.
In India, geronticide was also common—the murder of the "useless old." The sick were sometimes killed as well. And there were some human sacrifices for religious reasons.
The caste system was institutionalized slavery. Christian ideas would bring hope to the suffering people of India, particularly the poorest among them. By 1813, after years of work, Wilberforce had gathered 837 petitions with the signatures of 500,000 British citizens demanding teachers and preachers be sent to India.
To William Wilberforce, all human beings were equal in the eyes of God and made in God's image. Therefore all human beings must be treated with equal dignity. If not, the British government stood opposed to the teachings of the Christian Faith and the Bible. Wilberforce was concerned for the eternal souls of the persons of India. The India Bill finally passed Parliament.
Wilberforce and Haiti
Most people did not believe blacks were capable of governing themselves. That is why Sierra Leone was so important to the abolitionists. They believed that given their own country, and assistance, blacks could prove to the world that it was wrong about them.
In 1811, blacks got a great opportunity to show the world that they could be their own masters in Haiti. A former slave, Henri Christophe, became the first black to lead Haiti when it became an independent nation. He had himself crowned King Henri I, and set about to create a model state run entirely by former slaves. The whites of Haiti were all either killed or escaped.
In 1815, King Henri I asked William Wilberforce for assistance in setting up a system of education for Haiti. Wilberforce amazingly was able to persuade professors in the classics, mathematics, and surgery to leave Scotland, move to Haiti, and teach former slaves on an island whose white inhabitants had nearly all been recently murdered.
William Wilberforce persuaded King Henri I to provide an education to women as well. Wilberforce sent everything he could to Haiti, including encyclopedias, New Testaments, and virus vaccines. Alas, in 1820 King Henri I committed suicide.
Wilberforce and other Evangelicals in Parliament not only ended slavery, they also passed heavy taxes on racing, dice, cards, masquerades, operas, theatres, music, and guns. They passed restrictive regulations about public activities on the Sabbath, especially work; and aggressively prosecuted prostitutes, brothel-keepers, purveyors of obscene materials, illegal dance halls, and commercial Sabbath-breakers. Thus Britain entered what we now call the Victorian Age—the era in which misery and brutality were replaced with hope and civility.
Britain in the 18th Century was brutal, violent, vulgar, and decadent. In all the cities one would see a plethora of alcoholics, child prostitutes, public executions for petty crimes, public dissections of criminals, and unspeakable cruelty to animals. This social decay was the result of Britain retreating from the Christian Faith it had once so fervently embraced. The nation no longer was of a robust Christian character, despite retaining the outward trappings of religion.
Unchecked by the social conscience only provided by genuine Christianity, society had gradually decayed from the top down. The Prince of Wales was believed to have personally had sex with 7,000 women. Members of Parliament went about their work inebriated. Bulldogs were bred for bull-bating, hence their name. 25 percent of all unmarried women in London were prostitutes. Some brothels specialized in girls under fourteen and the average age of a prostitute was sixteen.
William Wilberforce and his friends sought to improve society. He belonged to seventy societies—that embraced a huge spectrum of human grievance and misery. Just to name a few of the organizations Wilberforce supported: The Bible Society, Church Missionary Society, School Society, Sunday School Society, Foreigners in Distress, Sick Strangers, Orphans and Vagrants, Juvenile Mendicants, Youthful Sinners, Distressed Widows, Poor Clergymen, Infirm Gentlewomen, Degraded Females, Society for the Relief of the Manufacturing Poor—as well societies to provide medical care for the poor and infirm, to build hospitals, to help those imprisoned by debt, to comfort the poor, to care for orphans of military men, and to maintain asylums for the deaf and dumb.
Wilberforce was able to accomplish so much that we do not have the space to recount it all here.
Wilberforce also reduced the number of crimes punishable by hanging; brought about major penal reform for women prisoners; reduced cruelty to prisoners in the Australian penal colony at Botany Bay; helped to eliminate floggings of sailors; stopped the use of little boys as chimney sweeps; ended bear-baiting and bull-baiting.
Wilberforce loved nature and animals. He believed that the spectacular cruelty to animals common in Britain contributed to the general coarseness of life, which led to other social pathologies. Wilberforce kept a menagerie of animals inside his home that included rabbits, turtles, and a fox. It is no wonder he co-founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
His house also thronged with servants he could hardly afford and all of them were either lame, blind, or helpless in one way or another. By his seventies, Wilberforce had given away all of his once vast wealth to those less fortunate than himself. Innumerable people benefited from his unprecedented generosity. He would come to the end of his life without a home of his own.
Wilberforce devoted his life to a reformation of morals in Britain. He kicked off this campaign with a document entitled "The Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality." Wilberforce intended to "make goodness fashionable." He knew that the hoi polloi generally follow the moral example set by the leaders of a society.
Wilberforce sought the prosecution of all persons guilty of drunkenness, blasphemy, lewdness, and using profanity in public. By showing the populace that the nation officially disapproved of these violations of propriety, Wilberforce caused a positive change in attitudes and habits of the average man.
In 1820, William Wilberforce was invited to visit the Duchess of Kent. When he was received by her, the now sixty-year-old Wilberforce immediately stooped to the floor to play with the infant child of the Duchess. The baby was the future Queen Victoria, who would lend her name to the era to come—while Wilberforce lent it his character.
Wilberforce the Evangelical Christian
William Wilberforce called his conversion to the Christian Faith in 1785 the "Great Change." There is no doubt that this was the central and most important event of his life. From then on, faith in Jesus Christ was the most important thing in life itself, and second was sharing this faith with others. Wilberforce tried to bring every conversation around to questions of eternity, everywhere he went and with everyone he met.
Wilberforce kept lists of friends and acquaintances with notes on how he might encourage them in their faith if they had any; and how he might lead them to faith if they had none. He also listed subjects he might bring up with each person that he could steer towards spiritual issues, what he called conversations about "first things." Many of these conversations bore great fruit. Wilberforce became a captivating figure as an icon for serious Christian faith. Wilberforce did not scold or badger people. As one woman wrote of him: "He makes no pretension to superior sanctity or strictness."
Most Anglican clerics of the day didn't believe the basic fundamentals of orthodox Christian faith. They largely kept this to themselves for fear of losing their high social standing as ministers, as well as their salaries. Wilberforce wanted to expose these pastors for what they were: dishonest men who pretended to believe in Christ because they had a good thing going. He commented that Anglican pulpits were full of "lukewarm professors lukewarmly professing a lukewarm faith that thrilled no one and challenged no one," which was in fact a tepid version of the real Christianity.
Wilberforce knew that if the British people could witness real Christianity in action, they too would take an interest in the sufferings of the poor and the imprisoned. He wanted nothing less than for Britain to repent and turn back to the true faith, which was wonderful, bracing, and beautiful. Wilberforce had much success in this endeavor.
William Wilberforce wrote his Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity not to skeptics but "to those who acknowledge the authority of the Holy Scriptures." Wilberforce said that Christians must "believe the doctrines, and imbibe the principles, and practice the precepts of Christ, or else suffer moral shipwreck."
Critics harped on historical changes in doctrine as proof that Christian truths are not eternal. Some charged that these changes had "thoroughly changed and disfigured our faith." The common defense against these charges was that doctrine had "developed" through further revelations of the Holy Spirit. William Wilberforce said, "It was only by gradual steps that the Christian mind gained such practical mastery over its spiritual inheritance." In other words, the Body of Christ had increased in wisdom over the centuries.
William Wilberforce was a man filled with constant thanksgiving toward God. He was keenly aware that he was the beneficiary of unmerited grace. He wrote: "Men must be regenerated by the grace of God before they are fit to be inhabitants of heaven."
It became well known in England that William Wilberforce led family prayers twice a day, with everyone kneeling against the backs of chairs for around ten minutes. He also honored the Sabbath, spending that day away from the world and its problems, devoting the day to God and to his family. As a result of this one man's example, these practices were soon established throughout England.
Barbara Spooner Wilberforce
When William Wilberforce was thirty-seven, he fell in love at first sight with the twenty-year-old Barbara Spooner while on vacation at Bath. He had been in love before but had ended the relationship because the woman did not share his evangelical faith.
Wilberforce had long worried that if he had a family they would be in constant danger since threats to his person for being an abolitionist were a daily feature in his life. He believed he was destined to die a violent death at the hands of an enemy of abolition.
The beautiful Barbara Spooner was not only lovely to behold, she was a deeply serious woman about her faith in Christ. She was from a wealthy family of Birmingham, the daughter of a prosperous banker. Wilberforce had waited and prayed for this woman all his born days. Within eight days they were engaged; within a month they were married; within ten years they had six children and by all accounts a wonderful marriage.
Wilberforce wrote that he adored Barbara's "dignity" and "cheerful innocence from a good conscience" as well as "her modesty and propriety." Their marriage was filled with mutual love and affection from the start. They spent their honeymoon visiting the poor.
Barbara Wilberforce proved to be a supremely devoted wife and mother—once considered the most noble of all human callings. William Wilberforce played with the children and his menagerie of animals as if he were one of them.
When William Wilberforce entered Parliament, there were only three serious Christians who were members. Christians generally disdained politics as not their concern. Wilberforce single-handedly changed that view. By the time he retired, there were 200 serious Christians in Parliament.
Wilberforce also had a hand in the total abolition of the slave trade throughout the dominions of France in 1815. Abolition now gained momentum around the world. Slavery still exists in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—in non-Christian parts of the world.
This article was extracted and sometimes paraphrased primarily from the fantastic book by Eric Metaxas Amazing Grace. The book was released at the same time as the fine film Amazing Grace. Both the book and the film are highly recommended—but the book is better. Also wonderful is the unrelated documentary The Better Hour.
More by this Author
- EDITOR'S CHOICE95
“It is better to obey God than man.” This passage from Acts 5:29 was the lifelong motto of a merchant from Lyon, France, turned evangelist named Peter Waldo (1140-1218). He founded a group of Christians who...
- EDITOR'S CHOICE71
In the 19th Century, we see develop a new, direct relationship between individual Catholics and the Papacy. The Roman Catholic Church now sought freedom from the power of the State. It realized that state privileges...
- EDITOR'S CHOICE117
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour is a designated scenic road system that circumnavigates Lake Michigan: excellent roads, huge sand dunes, beautiful vistas, fabulous beaches, and 100 historic lighthouses.