Few men in history have demonstrated with greater effectiveness than William Wilberforce the far-reaching influence which Christian laymen may exercise on public life and opinion. We have had many excellent reminders of this during recent weeks as the two-hundredth anniversary of the great abolitionist’s birth has been commemorated. As Lord Hemingford said, at the special service held August 24 in his memory in Westminster Abbey, where he was buried: “William Wilberforce believed in the application of the Christian faith to every aspect of life, including politics; his vision and his impulse were Christian; he took no step without prayer.”
Wilberforce was born in the city of Hull, in the county of Yorkshire. When he was nine years old he lost his father, and shortly afterwards was sent to live with an aunt in London. There he heard the preaching of George Whitefield and began to feel strong religious stirrings within himself. Three years later, however, his mother, fearing that the boy was being swayed by “Methodist” influences, for which she had little sympathy, recalled him to his native city. That a strong social conscience was already emerging in the lad was shown by the publication of a letter from him in 1773, when he was 14, in a York newspaper denouncing “the odious traffic in human flesh” of which the slave-traders were guilty.
Early religious impressions seem, however, to have faded when, at the age of 17, Wilberforce went up to St. John’s College, Cambridge. Writes E. M. B. in The English Churchman: “He was a charming young man, with pleasant manners, and was immensely popular … about town. He loved gaiety, and developed a taste for the gaming-table; but when one day he realized that part of his gains was won from some who could not afford it, he was absolutely cured of gambling from that time onward.”
When he entered Parliament he was only 21, and he remained a member of the House of Commons for 45 years. The transforming spiritual crisis of his life came in the year 1784 during a tour of the continent. One member of the party was Isaac Milner, formerly an usher at Hull Grammar School and subsequently to become Dean of Carlisle, who was a man of clear evangelical convictions. As the result of conversations with this godly man, and the reading with him of Philip Doddridge’s book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, together with the Greek New Testament, Wilberforce returned to England in a state of great spiritual concern.
Still in a state of religious crisis, he sought out John Newton, rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in the city of London, whom God used to bring him through to a radiant faith in Christ as the Saviour and Lord of his soul. “He owed more to the Rev. John Newton, one-time master of a slave-ship, coarse, loose-living, foul-mouthed beyond belief, than to any other single influence in his life,” says Colin Cuttell in The Church Times. “Yet no two people could have been more dissimilar.”
Nor did the ex-slave-trader’s influence end with Wilberforce’s conversion. It continued during the ensuing years. As Michael Hennell, writing in The Church of England Newspaper, reminds us: “It was John Newton who urged Wilberforce not to become a religious recluse but to return to politics. It was Newton who enabled him to see a vision of a public life given to God.” “Newton,” says Colin Cuttell, “was both wise and holy. Wilberforce must take back the new Christian experience and insights into that milieu to which by birth and intellectual eminence he belonged.”
Of the long years of campaigning for the abolition of slavery, of the disappointments, the determined opposition of powerful vested interests, and the ultimate victory when, in March, 1807, both Houses of Parliament passed the Act of Abolition of the Slave-Trade, there is no need to write here. The story is well known. But, though the iniquitous trade was now forbidden, there were still many slaves already in captivity, and the work would not be complete until they had been set free. To achieve this object required further years of unremitting application, and it was not until 1833, just before his death, that the Act of Liberation was at last passed and 800,000 slaves freed.
Michael Hennell rightly observes that “Wilberforce’s championship of the slaves came directly from his experience of Christ.” It is, indeed, important to point out that Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign represented but one aspect, though undoubtedly the most prominent aspect, of his life work, and, moreover, that his concern for the welfare of his fellow human beings was by no means limited to a desire for their liberation in this world. It went far deeper than that: it was for the salvation of their whole beings, souls as well as bodies, through Christ, whether British compatriots or Negro slaves, that he labored.
This fundamental concern informed the whole of his life, public as well as private. It was seen in his emphasis on the importance of Sunday observance and on the duty of providing Christian instruction for the children of the poor. It was seen in his successful antagonism to the lottery sanctioned by the State, and in his denunciation of the exploitation of child labor. It was seen in the publication, in 1797, of his book entitled A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (recently re-published). “The title,” as Professor Briggs remarks, “reflects Wilberforce’s main preoccupation—human salvation—and the main obstacle to it: satisfaction with the bogus rather than with the real.”
Most of all, perhaps, this fundamental concern was manifested in the leading part he played in the founding of two great societies: the Church Missionary Society for the sending out of messengers of the Gospel to those, in Africa and other countries, who had never heard of Jesus Christ; and the British and Foreign Bible Society which is making available the Word of God to the peoples of the world in their own languages.
Behind his public achievements and his perseverance in the face of frequent ill health and numerous antipathies and frustrations lay a serene spiritual life of faith and devotion and prayer. “All may be done through prayer,” this man who was known as “the nightingale of the House of Commons” used to say.
“When the history of our own era is brought into proper perspective,” says Colin Cuttell, “there will be startling points of comparison with the age of Pitt. Shall we be able to point to a Wilberforce? There is no substitute in public life for lay leadership of that calibre and consistency.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.