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William Wilberforce was a politician and philanthropist from England who fought against slavery as an Evangelical Christian. He used his position to advocate for a variety of causes, including abolitionism and missionary work. His conservative viewpoints at home caused many to criticize his anti-slavery work abroad, but his activism helped ratify the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. His life story features in the 2007 movie, Amazing Grace.

Youth and Education

William Wilberforce was born on August 24, 1759, in Hull, Yorkshire, England as the only son to parent’s Robert Wilberforce, a successful merchant, and Elizabeth Bird. He suffered many illnesses and poor eyesight as a child. He enrolled in Hull Grammar School in 1767 and befriended the young headmaster, Joseph Milner. He excelled in the supportive environment until his father died in 1768. He moved to Wimbledon with his aunt and uncle, where he attended a less supportive boarding school for two years.[1] He grew close to his aunt, Hannah, and she introduced him to evangelical Christianity and the Methodist preacher, George Whitefield.[2] He returned to Hull in 1771 upon the request of his mother and grandfather, whose Church of England beliefs conflicted with those he learned in Wimbledon.[3] Wilberforce’s parents enrolled him in Pocklington School between 1771 and 1776 since the headmaster at Hull Grammar converted to Methodism. He began attending Cambridge’s St. John’s College in October 1776.[4] His uncle and grandfather died in 1777, leaving him a fortune and allowing him to focus less on his studies and more on the social aspect of university. There he met William Pitt, who eventually became Prime Minister. He graduated in 1781 with a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters in 1788.[5]

Political Beginnings and Conversion to Evangelical Christianity

In late 1779, William Pitt encouraged William Wilberforce to join him in running for a parliamentary seat the following year. While still in university, Wilberforce was elected a Member of Parliament, or MP, for Kingston upon Hull in September 1780.[6] His personal wealth allowed him to run as an independent and supported Whigs or Tories based on the merit of their proposals.[7]

William Wilberforce may never have been elected or allowed to vote his conscience if not for the great fortune left to him by his family.

William Wilberforce continued to be active socially and Madame de Staël quotes that he was the “wittiest man in England.”[8] In December 1783, Pitt was elected Prime Minister and Wilberforce supported him, but remained an independent MP. In 1784, the Parliament dissolved and he ran for a position in Yorkshire and, on April 6, he returned to Parliament.[9]

In October, Wilberforce joined his mother, sister, and Isaac Milner, son of his former headmaster, and on a tour of Europe. Upon returning to England, he and Milner read the nonconformist Philip Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul.[10] He began a conversion to Evangelical Christianity during this same time and committed the rest of his life to the service of God. Since most polite society stigmatized evangelicalism, he considered retiring from the public eye. John Newton, an evangelical Anglican, and Pitt encouraged him to remain in politics. William Wilberforce quotes that he desired to remain in the spotlight only “with increased diligence and conscientiousness.”[11] His faith permeated his political goals from inclusion of Sabbath observance to the elimination of immorality through reform and education.[12]

Abolitionism

William Wilberforce began his main focus on the emancipation of slaves in November 1786 after a letter from Sir Charles Middleton, an active member of the abolitionist Testonites. He met with other Testonites with the Middletons in Teston during late 1786 to learn about abolitionism. He met Thomas Clarkson in 1787 and the two formed a partnership that lasted almost 50 years.

William Wilberforce’s Christian principles drove his desire to end slavery.

Wilberforce planned to introduce the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill in 1789, but he fell ill with ulcerative colitis in January 1788 and could not proceed. These gastrointestinal problems plagued him for the rest of his life and he resorted to moderate dosage of opium to help.[13]

Wilberforce made his first speech against the slave trade on May 12, 1789, where cited much of the evidence collected by Thomas Clarkson. Although he did not call for the end, he did propose 12 different resolutions to begin slowly reducing the trade. The House of Commons delayed the vote and the hearings did not conclude until the following year. Wilberforce and Clarkson advocated for abolition in France during the interim and in June 1790 the hearings finished. Wilberforce introduced the first bill in Parliament calling for the emancipation of slaves in April 1791. In 1792, he helped establish a colony of free blacks from Jamaica, Nova Scotia, and the United Kingdom in Sierra Leone. He failed to pass any bills before Pitt’s death in 1806, but continued to fight for abolition is various manners.[14] He helped get the Foreign Slave Trad Bill passed on May 23, 1806, and wrote, “A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade.”[15] This was published as a book after he was reelected in Yorkshire.[16] On March 25, 1807, the Slave Trade Act passed as part of Wilberforce’s fight for gradual abolition.[17]

Marriage and Family

A friend introduced William Wilberforce to Barbara Ann Spooner on April 15, 1797, and although he never previously sought a relationship with any women, he liked her and proposed after eight days.[18] They married on May 30, 1797, and they produced six children, William, Barbara, Elizabeth, Robert Issac, Samuel, and Henry William.[19]

Later Life and Death

Between 1824 and 1825, William Wilberforce’s health worsened and he resigned from Parliament.[20] Others in Parliament continued to fight for emancipation, but for complete and immediate abolition and not the gradual abolition as favored by Wilberforce.[21] He continued to advocate for the abolition of slavery even as his health declined in 1833 after a bad case of influenza.[22] He gave his last speech against slavery in Maidstone, Kent that April.[23] In May, the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery was introduced and on July 26, 1833, it’s passing was guaranteed. William Wilberforce died on July 29, 1833, in Cadogan Palace, London, at the house of his cousin. The Slavery Abolition Act passed only one month later. He was buried on August 3, 1833, in Westminster Abbey next to William Pitt.[24] The 2007 movie titled Amazing Grace documents William Wilberforce’s life and he is played by Ioan Gruffudd.[25]

References

Bibliography


Hague, W. (2007). William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, London, England.

Hochschild, A. (2006). Bury the chains: The British struggle to abolish slavery. London: Pan Books.


Pollock, J. (1977). Wilberforce. London: Constable.


Tomkins, S. (2007). William Wilberforce: A Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Wolffe, J. (2009). Wilberforce, William (1759–1833), politician, philanthropist, and slavery abolitionist. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29386

Footnotes

  1. Hague, 2007
  2. Wolffe, 2009
  3. Hague, 2007
  4. Pollock, 1977
  5. Hague, 2007
  6. Wolffe, 2009
  7. Hague, 2007
  8. Hochschild, 2006
  9. Pollock, 1977
  10. Hague, 2007
  11. Wolffe, 2009
  12. Hague, 2007
  13. Pollock, 1977
  14. Hague, 2007
  15. Pollock, 1977
  16. Hague, 2007
  17. Pollock, 1977
  18. Hochschild, 2006
  19. Wolffe, 2009
  20. Tomkins, 2007
  21. Hague, 2007
  22. Wolffe, 2009
  23. Tomkins, 2007
  24. Hague, 2007
  25. Amazing Grace. (2007, March 23). IMDB.

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