His 40-year struggle against slavery makes William Wilberforce a model of Christian persistence.
London, October 25, 1787. It was still dark when the slight young man quickly pulled the dressing gown around his small, thin frame and sat at the worn oak desk in the second-floor library. As he adjusted the flame of his lamp, the warm light shone on his piercing blue eyes, upturned nose, and high wrinkling forehead—an agile face that reflected an inner turmoil as he eyed the jumble of pamphlets on his cluttered desk. They were all on the same subject: the horrors of the slave trade.
He ran his hand through his wavy hair and opened his well-worn Bible. He would begin this day, as was his custom, with a time of personal prayer and Scripture reading. But his thoughts kept returning to the pamphlets’ grisly accounts of human flesh being sold, like so much cattle, for the profit of his countrymen. Something inside him—that insistent conviction he had felt before—was telling him that all that had happened in his life had been for a purpose, preparing him to meet that barbaric evil head-on.
William Wilberforce was born in Hull in 1759, the only son of a prosperous merchant family. He was an average student at Cambridge, but his quick wit made him a favorite among his fellows, including William Pitt, who shared his interest in politics. Often the two young men spent their evenings in the gallery of the House of Commons, watching heated debates over the American war.
After graduation, Wilberforce ran as a conservative for a seat in Parliament from his home county. He was only 21, but the prominence of his family, his speaking ability, and a generous feast he sponsored for voters on election day carried the contest.
When he arrived in London, the city’s elegant private clubs and societies welcomed him; Wilberforce soon fell in step, happily concentrating on the pursuit of pleasure and political advancement.
He spent his evenings with friends, consuming enormous dinners accompanied by multiple bottles of wine followed, perhaps, by a play, dancing, or a night of gambling. His friendship with William Pitt and other young politicians flourished. Then, in early 1784, Pitt, though only 24, was elected prime minister. Inspired, Wilberforce took a big political gamble, surrendering his safe seat in Hull to stand for election in Yorkshire, the largest and most populous constituency in the country.
It was a grueling campaign, and the outcome uncertain, when Wilberforce addressed a large rally just prior to the election. James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s celebrated biographer, stood in the cold rain and watched Wilberforce, barely over five feet tall, prepare to address the wet, bored crowd.
“I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table,” Boswell wrote later, “but as I listened, he grew and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.”
Such was the power of the young parliamentarian’s oratory; he was elected from Yorkshire. And as an intimate of the prime minister, respected by both political parties, William Wilberforce seemed destined for power and prominence.
After the election, Wilberforce’s mother invited him on a tour of the Continent. Wilberforce agreed, then ran into his old schoolmaster from Hull, Isaac Milner, and spontaneously asked him to join the trip.
That vacation was to change his life.
Milner was eager to debate the quick young orator, though he could not match his skill. As their carriage ran over the rutted roads between Nice and the Swiss Alps, their lively discussion turned to religion. Wilberforce, who considered his flirtation with Methodists (as the religious enthusiasts of his day were known) a childish excess, treated the subject flippantly. Milner growled at his derisive wit, stared moodily out the carriage window, and declared, “I am no match for you … but if you really want to discuss these subjects seriously, I will gladly enter on them with you.”
Provoked by the older man’s remark, Wilberforce entered in, eventually agreeing to read the Scriptures daily.
As the summer session of Parliament got under way, Wilberforce returned to the whirl of the London social scene. But his diary reveals subtle changes in his tastes. One party, of the kind he routinely attended, was now described as “indecent”; his letters began to show concern for corruptions he had scarcely noticed before. The seeds of change had been planted.
That fall of 1785, as he and Milner returned to the Continent to continue their tour, Wilberforce was no longer frivolous. He pressed his companion about the Scriptures. The rest of the party, in fact, complained about their preoccupation as they studied a Greek New Testament on their coach between cities.
Wilberforce returned to London in early November 1785 faced with a decision he could no longer avoid. He knew the choice before him: on one hand, his own ambition, his friends, his achievements; on the other, a clear call from Jesus Christ.
On December 2, weary and in need of counsel, Wilberforce resolved to seek out a spiritual guide. He made a fascinating but unlikely choice: John Newton.
Son of a sailor, Newton had gone to sea at age 11, where he eventually deserted, was flogged, and exchanged to a slave ship. Later Newton himself became a slave on an island off the coast of Africa. Rescued by his father, he sailed on a slave ship and in 1750 was given command of his own slaver. Then, on a passage to the West Indies, Newton was converted to Jesus Christ, later expressing his wonder at the gift of salvation to “a wretch like me” in his famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
Though he cautioned Newton in a note to “remember that I must be in secret … the face of a member of Parliament is pretty well known,” Wilberforce called on Newton, now a preacher. He reassured him and, prophetically, told Wilberforce to follow Christ but not to abandon public office: “The Lord has raised you up to the good of his church and for the good of the nation.”
Wilberforce knew he had to share his new faith with his old friends. The responses were predictable: some thought his mind had snapped under the pressures of work; many were convinced his newfound belief would require him to retreat from public life. Still others were simply bewildered. But it was Pitt’s reaction that Wilberforce cared about most. He wrote to the prime minister, telling him that though he would remain his faithful friend, he could “no more be so much of a party man as before.”
Pitt’s understanding revealed the depth of his friendship; but after their first face-to-face discussion, their relationship would never again be the same. And, indeed, one of the great sorrows of Wilberforce’s life was that the friend he cared for most never accepted the God he loved more.
Two Great Objectives
On this foggy Sunday morning in 1787, as Wilberforce sat at his desk, he thought about his conversion: Had God seen fit to save him only for the eternal rescue of his own soul, or also to bring His light to the world around him? He could not be content with the comfort of life at Palace Yard or the stimulating debates in Parliament. True Christianity must go deeper. It must not only save but serve; it must bring God’s compassion to the oppressed, as well as oppose the oppressors.
His mind clicked, and he dipped his pen in the inkwell. “Almighty God has set before me two great objectives,” he wrote, his heart suddenly pumping with passion, “the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” With those words, the offensive was launched for one of the epic struggles of modern history. God’s man, called to stand against the entrenched evils of his day: the self-indulgent hedonism of a society pockmarked by decadence and the trade that underwrote those excesses—the barbaric practice of trafficking in human flesh for private gain.
From his discussions with Thomas Clarkson (author of the pamphlets on Wilberforce’s desk) and others, Wilberforce knew the issue had to be faced head-on in Parliament. He wrote: “[S]o enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might.”
Thus, throughout the wet fall of 1787, he worked late into the nights, joined by others who saw in the young politician the man God had raised up to champion their cause in Parliament.
But suddenly, in February of 1788, Wilberforce fell gravely ill. Doctors warned he could not last more than two weeks; in Yorkshire, the opposition party, cheered by such news, made plans to regain his seat in Parliament.
By March he was somewhat better, though not well enough to return to Parliament. He asked Pitt to introduce the issue of abolition in the House for him. Purely out of the warmth of their friendship, the prime minister agreed.
So in May of 1788, Pitt, lacking Wilberforce’s passion but faithfully citing his facts, moved a resolution binding the House to discuss the slave trade in the next session.
His motion provoked a lukewarm debate, followed by a vote to duly consider the matter. However, those with interest in the trade were not worried about a mere motion to discuss abolition. But then Sir William Dolben, a friend of Wilberforce, introduced a one-year experimental bill to regulate the number of slaves that could be transported per ship. The debates grew heated, with cries for reform.
Now sensing the threat, the West Indian bloc rose in opposition. Tales of cruelty in the slave trade were mere fictions, they said; it was the happiest day of an African’s life when he was shipped away from the barbarities of his homeland. The proposed measure, added Lord Penrhyn hysterically, would abolish the trade upon which “two-thirds of the commerce of this country depended.”
In response to such obstinate claims, Pitt himself grew passionate. Threatening to resign unless the bill was carried, he pushed Dolben’s regulation through both Houses in June of 1788.
The success of Dolben’s bill awakened the trade to the possibility of real danger. By the time a recovered Wilberforce returned to the scene, they were furious and ready to fight, and shocked that Christian politicians had the audacity to press for religiously based reforms in the political realm. “Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon,” sniffed the Earl of Abington. Lord Melbourne angrily agreed: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade private life.”
Wilberforce and the band of abolitionists knew that privatized faith—faith without action—meant nothing at all if they truly followed the God who mandated justice for the oppressed.
Wilberforce’s first parliamentary speech for abolition on May 12, 1789, shows the passion of his convictions, as well as his characteristic humility:
“When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House—a subject, in which the interests, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved … it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task. But … I march forward with a firmer step in the full assurance that my cause will bear me out … the total abolition of the slave trade.…
“I mean not to accuse anyone, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others.”
But the passionate advocacy of Wilberforce, Pitt, and others was not sufficient to deter the interests of commerce in the 1789 session. The West Indian traders and businessmen pressured the House of Commons, which voted not to decide.
“Let The Flame Be Fanned”
The House’s vote to postpone action spurred Wilberforce to gather exhaustive research. He and his coworkers spent nine and ten hours a day reading and abridging evidence; and in early 1791, he again filled the House of Commons with his thundering yet sensitive eloquence.
However, the slave traders were equally determined. One member argued:
“Abolition would instantly annihilate a trade, which annually employed upwards of 5,500 sailors, upwards of 160 ships, and whose exports amount to £800,000 sterling; and would undoubtedly bring the West India trade to decay, whose exports and imports amount to upwards of £6,000,000 sterling, and which give employment in upwards of 160,000 tons of additional shipping, and sailors in proportion.”
He paused, dramatically, and pointed up to the gallery, where a number of his slave-trading constituents watched approvingly, exclaiming brazenly, “These are my masters!”
Another member, citing the positive aspects of the trade, drew a chilling comparison: the slave trade “was not an amiable trade,” he admitted, “but neither was the trade of a butcher … and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a very good thing.”
Incensed, Wilberforce and other abolitionists fought a bitter two-day battle; members shouted and harangued at one another as spectators and press watched the fray. By the time the votes were cast, in the terse summation of one observer, “Commerce clinked its purse,” and Wilberforce and his friends were again defeated.
After their loss in 1791, Wilberforce and his growing circle of Christian colleagues, grieved and angered by the unconscionable complacency of Parliament, met to consider their strategy.
They were a varied group, marked by a common devotion to Christ and to one another. They were, says one historian, “a unique phenomenon—this brotherhood of Christian politicians. There has never been anything like it since in British public life.”
In 1792, as it became apparent that the fight for abolition would be long, Henry Thornton, a member of Parliament and a wealthy banker, who brought managerial ability and a gift of administration to the diverse group, suggested to Wilberforce that they gather together at his home in Clapham, a village four miles south of Westminster—convenient to Parliament yet set apart.
Thornton had thought out his plan and believed that living and worshiping together would draw the brotherhood closer to God and to one another. His home, Battersea Rise, was a lively Queen Anne house on the grassy Clapham common; as friends came to live or visit, Thornton added extra wings. Eventually Battersea Rise had 34 bedrooms, as well as a large, airy library designed by Prime Minister Pitt. And it was here that they prepared themselves for the battles to come.
As the Clapham community analyzed their battle in 1792, they were painfully aware that many of their colleagues in Parliament were puppets—unable or unwilling to stand against the powerful economic forces of their day. Therefore, Wilberforce and his workers went to the people. In 1792 he wrote, “It is on the general impression and feeling of the nation we must rely … so let the flame be fanned.”
The abolitionists, accordingly, distributed thousands of pamphlets describing in detail the evils of slavery, spoke at public meetings, circulated petitions. They organized a boycott of slave-grown sugar, a tactic even Wilberforce thought could not work, but which gained a surprising following of some 300,000 across England.
Later in 1792, Wilberforce was able—incredibly—to bring 519 petitions for the total abolition of the slave trade, signed by thousands of British subjects, to the House of Commons. As their movement rode on a surging tide of public popularity, even the vested economic interests of the West Indian bloc could not ignore the abolitionists’ growing base of support. But again the slavers exercised their political muscle. The House moved that Wilberforce’s motion should be qualified by the word “gradually,” and it was thus carried. The slave traders had no real fear of a bill that could be indefinitely postponed by that simple yet powerful word.
Though Wilberforce was wounded at yet another defeat, he had a glimmer of new hope. For the first time, the House had voted for an abolition motion; with the force of the people behind the cause, it would only be a matter of time.
However, the events of the day soon reversed that hope. Across the English Channel, the fall of the Bastille in 1789 had heralded the people’s revolution in France. By 1792, all idealism vanished; the September Massacres had loosed a tide of bloodshed in which the mob and the guillotine ruled France.
In England, fear of similar revolution abounded; any type of public agitation for reform was suspiciously labeled as “Jacobinic,” after the extreme revolutionaries who fueled France’s Reign of Terror. This association, and ill-timed slave revolts in the West Indies, effectively turned back the tide of public activism for abolition.
The House of Commons, sensing this shift in the public mood, took the opportunity and rejected Wilberforce’s motion for further consideration of the abolition of the trade. The House of Lords’ attitude was summed up by the member who declared flatly, “All Abolitionists are Jacobins.”
The abolitionists’ success was quickly reversed; lampooned in popular cartoons and ridiculed by critics, Wilberforce could have no hope of success.
One can only imagine the grief and frustration he must have felt. Perhaps he went home late one night and sat at his old oak desk, staring into the flame of a single candle. “Should I give up?” he might have thought. He sighed, flipping through his Bible. A thin letter fell from between the pages.
Wilberforce stared at the shaky handwriting. Its writer was dead; in fact, this letter was probably the last he had ever written. Wilberforce had read and reread it dozens of times, but never had he needed its message so deeply: “My dear sir,” it began,
“Unless the Divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise, in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils, but if God be for you who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary of well-doing.…”
The letter was signed, “Your affectionate servant, John Wesley”
“Be not weary of well-doing.” Wilberforce took a deep breath, carefully refolded the letter, and blew out the candle. He needed to get to bed—he had a long fight ahead of him.
Wilberforce doggedly introduced motions for abolition each year: 1797, 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801. And the years passed with Wilberforce’s motions thwarted and sabotaged by political pressures, compromise, personal illness, and continuing war with France. By 1803, with the threat of imminent invasion by Napoleon’s armies, the question of abolition was put aside for the more immediate concern of national security.
Yet, during those long years of struggle, Wilberforce and his friends never lost sight of their equally pressing objective: the reformation of English life.
John Wesley’s indefatigable preaching over 50 years had produced a great revival a half-century earlier, with its effect still being felt in many areas, particularly among the poor. But many individuals within the Church of England were Christian in name only, with religion simply part of their cultural dress.
Wilberforce would not accept a perversion of Christianity that treated Christ as Savior but not Lord. Of church people he wrote: “If Christianity were disproved, their behavior would alter little as a result.” Thus, Sunday morning worship that did not manifest itself in daily holy living was hollow faith.
In the campaign against the slave trade, Wilberforce had seen the enormous impact that small pamphlets had in moving public attitudes. So he set out to collect on paper his deepening convictions about holy living. Taking advantage of a six-week recess late in 1796, he finished work on a book he had been formulating for years. The title told the story: A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity.
He completed it in early 1797. His publisher, skeptical about the sales potential of such a narrow religious book in the market of the day, greeted him with less-than-encouraging words: “You mean to put your name on the work?” Assured that Wilberforce did, the printer agreed on a cautious first run of 500 copies.
In a few days it was sold out. Reprinted again and again, by 1826, 15 editions had been published in England and 25 in America, with foreign editions in French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. Republished in 1982, it remains a classic today (Real Christianity, Multnomah Press, 1982; edited by James Houston, foreword by Sen. Mark Hatfield).
Reflections on a Doer
William wilberforce’s A Practical View of … Real Christianity inspired me to reevaluate my own career. It led me to much-needed reflection and brought encouragement to my heart. The founder of the Clapham Society shows great understanding regarding obedience, humility, family love, legislative priorities, and many other areas of concern for the follower of Jesus Christ. Almost 200 years later, his insights are a beacon for biblical faith and action.
In the prologue to John’s Gospel we have clarified for us and for all time that the Word of Genesis became flesh and lived with us, full of grace and truth. This great light has never been darkened, giving us hope that in fact God became a man and humbled himself so we could not only know him personally, but have our lives transformed for his purposes. And the good news is that all of creation will one day be transformed into the new heaven and the new earth.
People, not power
One of the most compelling and encouraging characteristics I find in Wilberforce’s life was the early resolve to focus his legislative and personal agenda on building relationships. This took the place of power manipulation and legal machinations. In other words, he sought to continue the incarnation of the Word in loving acts of mercy, justice, and charity to those around him—even if they were his adversaries.
If Christians in political life cannot be witnesses in this most basic manifestation of the living Word on a day-to-day basis, then the whole concept of public service is a mockery. Christians reaching out in deed as well as word to touch the lives of the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, and the frightened, are the only expression in the flesh of the living Christ that many people are going to know. Wilberforce was certain, as I am, that social progress, if it is to be true, needs a biblical base.
In Chapter 6 of Real Christianity, Wilberforce outlines his presuppositions about public policy. He was convinced the Christian faith had direct relationship to the activities of the state. The servant nature of our faith is found clearly in his statement that “religion has generally tended to promote the temporal welfare of political communities.”
He was convinced that true Christianity was peculiarly and powerfully adapted “to promote the preservation and health of political communities.” Only with the model and teachings of Jesus Christ could the dreadful disease of selfishness be healed in all its different forms.
When people conform their corporate heart to the heart of Christ, deep caring resulting in sensitive institutions, laws, and civil order are the final gifts. Wilberforce believed that vital Christian faith “does not favor that vehement and inordinate ardor in the pursuit of temporal objects, which progresses toward acquisition of immense wealth, or of widely spread renown. Real Christianity does not propose to gratify the extravagant views of those mistaken politicians whose chief concern for their country is extended domination, the command of power, and unrivaled affluence.” Today, as then, those who rule are meant to rule with meekness. To be in a position of civil authority is to take seriously the obligations to and the cares of those we serve.
The very fact that Wilberforce has been rediscovered two centuries after his commitment to Christ and to the cause of justice is a sign that ideas are mere illusions until they take on the form of a living and loving person.
In other words, the definitive Word in Jesus Christ has a continuing expression in each believer’s words and deeds. Christ lived out his life through William Wilberforce, and he does today through each of us, whether in shops, homes, and factories, or in public life, offices, and schools.
William Wilberforce’s pinnacle contribution was to give us confidence of the assurance that “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” is a reality worth trusting.
Adapted from the preface to Real Christianity, by William Wilberforce, abridged and edited by James M. Houston.
In A Practical View, Wilberforce presented a clear biblical message of salvation and a call to Christians to holy living, as opposed to the insipid “religion” so commonly practiced.
Wilberforce minced no words: To enter the kingdom of God one must be born again. He wanted to impress his readers that “all men must be regenerated by the grace of God before they are fit to be inhabitants of heaven, before they are possessed of that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.” The true Christian is distinguished not by his church attendance but by his likeness to the holy, righteous Christ.
One prominent reader, who skeptically picked up A Practical View and ended up being converted by it, said simply, “It led me to the Scriptures.” Countless thousands on two continents were similarly affected.
Wilberforce put into practice what he preached to others. Until his marriage in 1797, he regularly gave away a quarter of his income or more to the poor, to Christian schools, and to those in special need. He paid the bills of those in prison under the harsh debt laws of the day, releasing them to live productive lives; he helped with the pension for life given to Charles Wesley’s widow. And in 1801, when the war with France and bad harvests created widespread hunger, Wilberforce gave away £3,000 more than his income.
Since the group at Clapham were mostly political conservatives, it may seem ironic to some that they were constantly engaged in schemes to aid the oppressed. They organized the Society for the Education of Africans, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, the Society for the Relief of Debtors (which over a five-year period obtained the release of 14,000 people from debtors’ prisons), to mention a few.
That these two efforts—reforms of manners and abolition of the slave trade—remained linked through the years demonstrates the extraordinary spiritual insight of the Clapham sect. They understood the crucial interdependence of social reforms and a true spiritual movement. To attack social injustice while the heart of a nation remains corrupt is futile; to seek to reform the heart of a nation while injustice is tolerated ignores the lordship of Christ.
The years of battle had welded Wilberforce and the Clapham brothers into a tight working unit. With five of them serving as members of Parliament, they exerted an increasingly strong moral pressure on the political arena of the day. Derisively labeled “the saints,” they bore the name gladly, considering their persecution a welcome reminder of their commitment not to political popularity, but to biblical justice and righteousness. James Boswell’s bit of snide verse shows the bitter abuse heaped on Wilberforce by his enemies:
Go, W—— with narrow skull,
Go home and preach away at Hull.
No longer in the Senate cackle
In strains that suit the tabernacle;
I hate your little wittling sneer,
Your pert and self-sufficient leer.
Mischief to trade sits on your lip.
Insects will gnaw the noblest ship.
Go, W——, begone, for shame,
Thou dwarf with big resounding name.
“God Can Turn The Hearts Of Men”
Wilberforce and his friends were undaunted as they prepared for the fight in Parliament in 1804. The climate had changed. The scare tactics of Jacobin association would no longer stick; and public sentiment for abolition was growing again.
Thus the House of Commons voted for Wilberforce’s bill by a decisive majority of 124 to 49; but victory was short-lived. The slave traders were better represented in the House of Lords, which adjourned the bill until the next session.
In 1805, the House of Commons reversed itself, voting against abolition, rejecting Wilberforce’s bill by seven votes. A well-meaning clerk took him aside. “Mr. Wilberforce,” he said kindly, “You ought not to expect to carry a measure of this kind—you and I have seen enough of life to know that people are not induced to act upon what affects their interests by any abstract arguments.” Wilberforce stared steely-eyed at the clerk. “Mr. Hatsell,” he replied, “I do expect to carry it, and what is more, I feel assured I shall carry it speedily.”
Nevertheless, Wilberforce went home in dismay, his heart torn by the notion of “abstract arguments” when thousands of men and brothers were suffering on the coasts of Africa. “I never felt so much on any parliamentary occasion,” he wrote in his diary. “I could not sleep after first waking at night. The poor blacks rushed into my mind, and the guilt of our wicked land.”
In 1806, Wilberforce went to Pitt to press for the cause. Pitt seemed sluggish; Wilberforce pushed harder, reminding him of old promises. Pitt finally agreed to sign a formal document for the cause, then delayed it for months. It was finally issued in September 1805; four months later Pitt was dead.
William Granville became prime minister. He and Foreign Secretary Fox were both strong abolitionists; and with their power behind it, the passing of Wilberforce’s bill appeared now only a matter of time.
After discussing the issue with Wilberforce, Granville reversed the pattern of the prior 20 years and introduced the bill into the House of Lords first, rather than the House of Commons. After a bitter and emotional month-long fight, at 4 A.M. on the morning of February 4, 1807, the bill passed.
It then went to the House of Commons.
On the night of its second reading, February 22, a soft snow fell outside the crowded chambers. Candles threw flickering shadows on the cream-colored walls. The long room was filled to capacity but unusually quiet. There was a sense that a moment in history had arrived. A force more powerful than kings and parliaments and slavers’ profits had triumphed; passions had been spent, and the moment was near that would mark the end of an epic 20-year struggle.
Wilberforce, who had eaten supper earlier with Lord Howich, who was to introduce the bill, took his usual place quietly. He had written in his diary that morning with guarded confidence, “God can turn the hearts of men,” but now, looking over the crowded room, he felt too aware of the defeats of the past to be certain of success.
Lord Howich, though an experienced speaker, opened the debate with a nervous, disjointed speech that reflected the tension in the chambers. Yet it did not matter; the opponents of abolition found they could do little to stem the decision about to be made.
One by one, members jumped to their feet to decry the evils of the slave trade and to praise the men who had worked so hard to end it. Speakers hailed Wilberforce and praised the abolitionists. Wilberforce, overcome, simply sat stunned. Waves of applause washed over him, and then as the debate came to its climax, Sir Samuel Romilly gave a passionate tribute to Wilberforce and his decades of labor, concluding, “when he should lay himself down on his bed, reflecting on the innumerable voices that would be raised in every quarter of the world to bless him; how much more pure and perfect felicity must he enjoy in the consciousness of having preserved so many millions of his fellow-creatures.”
Stirred by Romilly’s words, the entire House rose, the members cheering and applauding Wilberforce. Realizing that his long battle was coming to an end, Wilberforce sat bent in his chair, his head in his hands, unable even to acknowledge the deadening cheers, tears streaming down his face.
The battle was won. As one by one the members cast their votes for abolition, the motion was carried by the overwhelming majority of 283 to 16.
Late that night, as Wilberforce and his friends burst out of the stuffy chambers and onto the snow-covered street, they frolicked about like school boys, clapping one another on the back, their joy spilling over. Much later, at Wilberforce’s house, they crowded into the library, remembering the weary years of battle, rejoicing for their brothers on the African coast. Wilberforce, the most joyous of all, turned to the lined face of his old friend Henry Thornton. They had worked through years of illness, defeat, and ridicule for this moment. “Well, Henry,” Wilberforce said with joy in his bright eyes, “what do we abolish next?”
In the years that followed that night of triumph in 1807, a great spiritual movement swept across England like a fresh, cleansing breeze. With the outlawing of the slave trade came a growing movement toward total emancipation. Wilberforce continued as a leader of the cause in Parliament as well as working for reforms in the prisons, among the poor, and in the workplace. In poor health much of the time, he watched many of his friends die as the years rolled by; yet saw others raised up in their places. Though in the beginning of his crusade he was one of only three members of Parliament known to be committed Christians, by the end of his life more than 100 of his colleagues in the House of Commons and 100 members in the House of Lords shared that commitment. Thus, he could retire in 1825 knowing that God had raised up others to continue the fight.
On the night of July 26, 1833, the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery passed its second reading in the House of Commons, sounding the final death blow for slavery. Told the glad news, the old man, now sick and helpless in bed, raised himself on one bony elbow, then sank back, a quick smile crossing his lined face. “Thank God,” he said, “that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the abolition of slavery!”
By the following Sunday he was in a final coma, and early Monday morning, William Wilberforce went to be with the God he had served so faithfully.
More Than Granite Monuments
In the summer of 1978, my wife, Patty, and I were in London, where I was delivering a lecture series at All Souls Church. When I noticed a free evening in my schedule, I asked my hosts to arrange a visit to Clapham, the place where Wilberforce and the “saints” spent so much of their lives praying, planning, and preparing for their glorious crusade.
Though I was a relatively new Christian, Wilberforce had already become a model for my life. Having experienced the lure of politics, power, and position, I well understood the kind of inner struggles he must have endured. When he anguished over his decision to follow Christ, he wrestled with the most fearsome dragon: “Pride is my great stumbling block,” he wrote in his diary.
I wrestled with the same dragon that unforgettable night in August of 1973 when a friend shared with me how Christ, the living God, had changed his life. All at once, my achievements, success, and power seemed meaningless. For the first time in my 40 years I realized that deep down in me was the most awful sin; I longed to be forgiven and cleansed. But the dragon of pride fought fiercely before it was slain in a flood of tears.
Wilberforce’s life was also a magnificent inspiration for me in the ministry I had begun to prisoners. I was anxious to visit the hallowed ground where Wilberforce and his friends had lived and worked.
A friend drove us through busy streets, heading south from the center of London. Clapham, in Wilberforce’s time a peaceful village a few miles from the city, was long ago swallowed in the urban sprawl. We passed row after row of narrow, drab little houses, and eventually came to the top of a small hill. “There it is,” our friend exclaimed, pointing down a shabby street. “That’s where Henry Thornton’s house used to be!”
“Used to be?” I replied in disbelief. “Surely the Clapham sect’s homes have been preserved as historic sites!”
“No,” my friend shook his head. “Leveled long ago. People don’t even know the exact location.”
I was stunned and disappointed.
We drove several blocks to Clapham green and stopped at an old soot-stained Anglican church. Our host had phoned ahead, so the rector was waiting to greet us.
“Wilberforce once preached in this pulpit,” he announced proudly as he led me up a rickety flight of wooden steps to an ornately carved oak pulpit. For an instant I felt a twinge of excitement to stand where this slight, little man with his thundering voice had stood.
Painted in the center of a small stained glass window behind the altar was what the rector described as a “quite good likeness” of Wilberforce. I squinted, but could barely make it out. “Is that all there is?” I asked, my disappointment deepening. “Oh, no!” the rector replied, leading me to a side wall where a small brass plaque was mounted in honor of the Clapham “saints.” A pile of booklets about Wilberforce and his companions was stacked on a nearby table under a sign “50p apiece.” And that was it.
I will never forget the scene, nor my emotions, as we left that little parish church. The cool, misty air sent chills through me. “After all those men accomplished,” I mumbled, “surely more could have been done to honor their memory.”
As we walked past the rows of dreary houses lining Clapham green, my host cautioned, “Not a good area to walk at night.” It didn’t matter; I felt I had already been robbed, somehow cheated.
Suddenly I stopped and stared across the green. In my mind’s eye I began to see row upon row of black men and women walking right across the soft grass. I could hear the clanging of the chains as they fell from arms and legs.
Of course, of course, I thought. Clapham is just what Wilberforce and his brothers would want. No spires of granite or marble rising into the sky. No cold statues or lifeless buildings in their honor. Rather, the monument to Wilberforce and his friends is to be found in the freedom enjoyed by hundreds of millions of black people, liberated from bondage by a band of men who gave their all in following Christ.
Moreover, it was Wilberforce and his friends who financed the first missionaries. Now Christianity, once the religion of the people’s oppressors, is exploding across the African continent, growing faster than anywhere else in the world.
But the legacy of Wilberforce goes beyond even abolition and Africa. Taking a longer view of history, we can now see that he was a man standing in the gap at a crucial point in the history of Christendom—and the world. The eminent historian Will Durant once wrote that the great turning point of history was when “Christ met Caesar in the arena—and Christ won.” Well might he have added that 15 centuries later, Christ met vice and vested interest in Britain—and Christ won.
It was out of Wilberforce’s effort that a great spiritual movement in England came. Social reforms swept beyond abolition to clean up child labor abuses, poorhouses, prisons, to institute education and health care for the poor. Church attendance swelled. Evangelicalism flourished, and later in the century missionary movements sent Christians fanning across the globe.
A monument to Wilberforce? Yes, the monument is a living legacy, found not only in the lives of millions of free men and women, but in the spiritual heritage of Christians everywhere.
Wilberforce has left a special legacy for today’s Christians, caught up as so many are in the illusion that military might and political institutions are all-powerful. In the conclusion to his masterful book, A Practical View, Wilberforce wrote:
“I must confess equally boldly that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies, nor on the wisdom of her rulers, nor on the spirit of her people, as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ. I believe that their prayers may yet prevail.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineOur Worship Is Turning Praise into Secular ProfitWith corporate consolidation in worship music, more entities are invested in the songs sung on Sunday mornings. How will their financial incentives shape the church?español
- RelatedWilliam WilberforceAntislavery politician
- Editor's PickHow to Stay Hitched When Your Wife Ditches YouHarrison Scott Key’s latest book gives a tragi-comic take on the Christian humility required to stay married.