The world honors William Wilberforce (1759-1833) for his exemplary public service. Becoming God’s willing worker for humanitarian social reform came as an act of faith for William Wilberforce rather than as an accident of birth. It followed his personal encounter with faith after this twenty-five-year-old Member of Parliament realized the wisdom of abandoning what he called his heretofore dissolute and wasteful lifestyle.
Biographer William Hague describes the classic conversion Wilberforce experienced during the autumn of 1785.1 Hague finds it impossible to discern what other subconscious forces pushed Wilberforce into the agonies of his conversion experience that November. But he wonders if Wilberforce, after becoming a Member of Parliament representing the Yorkshire district, found the “excesses of the London club land he inhabited, with its gambling, womanizing, gluttony and restitution” revolting and dissatisfying.
Achieving membership in Parliament, and enjoying all the wealth he needed, failed to produce the satisfaction for which Wilberforce searched. Hague suggests that by November 1785 the peculiar mixture of influences Wilberforce experienced, namely the guidance he received from the writings of Doddridge, and the rational force of his friend Milner’s arguments, compounded by his boyhood receptiveness to religion “produced … a true conversion crisis.” 2
Wilberforce later described to his friend his emergence as an Evangelical convert as “like wakening from a dream and recovering the use of my reason after a delirium.” Although his wealthy Anglican family discouraged his evangelical and Methodist non-conformist leanings, walking with Christ became a lifetime journey for William. Dissatisfied with institutional religion as he knew it, his newly-found faith led him into the company of other transformed individuals also interested in giving active public expression to their personal faith.
Initially, he questioned whether or not he should leave public service. William Pitt, his close friend and future British Prime Minister, encouraged Wilberforce to allow his Christian life to produce action rather than mere meditation. William Wilberforce consequently sought the wisdom of John Newton, the former slaver that young William had idolized after meeting him when but a boy.
Newton encouraged Wilberforce to avoid becoming cut off from his friends. “It was Newton,” concludes Hague, “who not only calmed and soothed him but, from that time and for a good decade afterwards, fortified him in combining his religious beliefs with a continued political career” 3
William Wilberforce consequently became the point-man in a non-conformist platoon sometimes referred to as the Clapham Sect. These young evangelicals [born-again believers] came mostly from privileged Anglican families. They married and neighbored together in the Clapham area south of London. Lampooned as “Clapham Saints,” they became the nineteenth century social reformers (active c. 1790 – 1830).
Historian Stephen Tomkins describes them as "a network of friends and families … powerfully bound together by their shared moral and spiritual values, by their religious mission and social activism, by their love for each other, and by marriage." 4
His new associations fired his passion for further independent reform. Before long young Wilberforce, also being a man of privilege launched his own personal effort to improve working conditions for British factory workers. As the scion of a wealthy Hull merchant, he enjoyed the privilege of entering Cambridge at seventeen. At the university, he met another student named William--William Pitt, the younger.
These two young men became life-long friends and Pitt, the Younger, eventually became Prime Minister of Britain. Having no interest in his family business, Wilberforce joined parliament in 1780. The twenty-one year-old university student represented Hull while completing his studies. Later, he represented Yorkshire.
Wilberforce’s Clapham Sect friends added enormous influence into his life as a young Christian, with a social conscience. Thomas Clarkson was the son of an Anglican clergyman. Granville Sharp and Josiah Wedgwood were strong abolitionists. They were ably assisted by other Clapham associates and together this close-knit body of believers campaigned hard against British slave trade. Forming the “Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” they opposed allowing British ships to transport captured slaves from Africa to the West Indies (Official Medallion pictured right).
Slaves, being commercial property, endured the worst of shipping conditions. They were sold in the West Indies, and elsewhere, with all the other products of growing commercialization. Such influences prompted Wilberforce to pursue with quiet vigor the abolishment of slavery throughout the Empire and today the world honors him for his significant part in turning this page of human history.
Wilberforce assisted those of us who follow him by first turning a corner himself, and by then reestablishing a new direction while devoting his life to public service. Once he agreed to lobby against the slave trade, he continued to bring consistent anti-slavery legislation before parliament annually, vigorously supported by his Clapham Sect friends.
With other abolitionists assisting, he and his Clapham friends raised public awareness by writing pamphlets and books, signing petitions, and participating in rallies. Wilberforce remained a faithful and willing worker; petitioning Parliament patiently but regularly with his anti-slavery legislation for eighteen long years.
By 1807, a sufficient number in Parliament supported Wilberforce that the British Government mandated abolishment of the trading of slaves. In 1833, Parliament enacted further legislation freeing all slaves found under the British flag. By this time, Wilberforce had become Britain’s retired Elder Statesman, and it was with a tear-streaked face that the elderly abolitionist listened quietly as friends read him the exciting news stating that Parliament had finally passed the anti-slavery legislation.
Wilberforce died shortly thereafter, after investing his life in causes that he deeply believed renewed society. In 1802, he helped organize the Society for the Suppression of Vice. He cooperated with holiness reformer Hannah More in the Association for the Better Observance of Sunday, also a member of the Clapham Community. He associated closely with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Throughout his long public career, William Wilberforce encouraged Christian missionaries to serve in India.
His 1825 retirement from public political life was followed by his death on July 29, 1833, very shortly after Britain’s House of Commons freed all slaves under the British flag.
William Wilberforce left a shining example of faith and piety for all to follow. He modeled a role for Christians of all times, especially those willing to invest time and talents in sharing God with others. Wilberforce honored others with the same acceptance he sought for himself, and the world has not forgotten. Tourists still visit Wilberforce’s burial plot in Westminster Abbey where his remains lay adjacent to his life-long friend, William Pitt:
... In an age and country fertile in great and good men,
He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times
Because to high and various talents
To warm benevolence, and to universal candour,
He added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life … 5
1 William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Campaigner. (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007), p. 78.
2 Hague, p. 82.
3 Hague, p. 88.
4 Tomkins, Stephen The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s circle changed Britain (Oxford: Lion, 2010), p1.
5 Eric Metaxas. Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 278, lines from “To the Memory of William Wilberforce”