Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Samaritan's Purse Shares Films from the Frontlines of Ukraine

What Should We Remember about William Wilberforce?

  • Tim Challies & Ken Curtis, PhD
  • Published Aug 18, 2023
What Should We Remember about William Wilberforce?

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) changed society with his fights for slavery, as well as for causes like animal protection and missionary work abroad. These authors provide different looks at what he should be remembered for.

Table of Contents

William Wilberforce vs. Slavery

He was only five feet tall and rather homely, by most accounts, but William Wilberforce had a smooth and powerful way of speaking. It wasn't easy, but this Christian politician managed to talk the British Empire into abolishing slavery.

You probably wouldn't have chosen the young Wilberforce as a moral crusader. Born to wealthy parents, educated at Cambridge, he started out as quite a playboy. As a child, he had stayed for a while with an aunt and uncle who were devout Methodists, but his mother, concerned that this kind of religious "fanaticism" would lead him astray, removed him from such spiritual influences, sending him off to a prestigious boarding school. From that point, William was on the fast track to political success.

Jumbo shrimp

He wasted no time. In 1780, at the tender age of 21, he ran for a seat in Parliament and won. He began to display the speaking talent that would make him a legend. Literary giant James Boswell saw him on the campaign trail and commented: "I saw what seemed to be mere shrimp mount about the table, but as I listened the shrimp grew and grew and became a whale." Wilberforce had arrived. Representing the large and influential district of Yorkshire, he enjoyed the good life, hobnobbing on intellectual subjects with his friends, and generally looking down on the religious zeal of the "evangelicals" in Britain.

But in 1785, while on a trip through Europe, Wilberforce borrowed a book from a friend—The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, by Philip Doddridge (perhaps best known as the writer of the hymn "O Happy Day"). Reading this, and following along in Scripture, Wilberforce became convinced of the truth of the Gospel.

For several months he continued to live the high life. Christianity was in his mind, but had little bearing on his daily decisions. Yet a conviction grew within him: If he was to follow Christ fully, he would have to say no to his worldly ways

Amazing grace

In fact, Wilberforce thought about giving up his political career for Christ. He sought the advice of John Newton (another hymn writer, known best for "Amazing Grace"). Newton had been a slave trader before his conversion, but now he spoke out strongly against slavery. He convinced the young Wilberforce that God could use him exactly where he had put him--in the midst of the precarious political arena.

Slavery was one of those hidden scandals, comfortably out of sight of the average Englishman, who benefited from it but never had to see firsthand its unspeakable human misery. Through the influence of Newton and others, Wilberforce knew what he had to do.

A long, hard fight

How little did he grasp then how formidable enemies can be when their economic interests are jeopardized. Would he have persevered if he had any idea that it would be over twenty years of exhausting conflict in Parliament before the slave trade was finally abolished in England in 1807--primarily due to his efforts? That it would take an additional 26 years to emancipate the existing slaves--just a few days before he died at age 74 in 1833?

Wilberforce endured one setback after another, often laid low by frail health and the attacks of opponents. Yet his position against slavery eventually won. His life remains an encouragement to all who are willing to fight social evil no matter how many setbacks are encountered.

You can't go it alone

Wilberforce was part of an amazingly effective small group of wealthy British Christians that became known as "The Clapham sect." Among their activities was the founding of the Sierra Leone colony in Africa for slaves who had been freed.

Moving on many fronts

Wilberforce was known to be involved with over 60 organizations in his driving concern to spread the Christian message and lift the moral climate. This included work for prison reform, opposition to pornography, and funding Christian schools for the poor. He also served as a cofounder of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Church Missionary Society.

God's timing

Wilberforce and his allies had assumed that slavery would die a natural death, once they made it illegal to buy and sell slaves (in 1807). But the slave trade just went underground, and continued--only slightly inconvenienced. The fight to abolish slavery entirely dragged on into the 1830s. Wilberforce was unstinting in his efforts, but his health was slipping. Younger members of Parliament took up the cause as Wilberforce recovered from various illnesses. He was resting at home on Friday night, July 26, 1833, when he heard the House of Commons had finally passed the Abolition of Slavery. Saturday morning he took a turn for the worse, and early Monday morning he died--having seen his life's dream accomplished.

Advice to his son Robert at Oxford

"But I wish you from my heart not to become a Politician. I hope you will act on a far higher level and where the path blessed by God is clearer as well as more peaceable."

("William Wilberforce vs. Slavery" by Ken Curtis PhD published on Christianity.com on April 28, 2010)

Slavery Abolitionist, Wm. Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (1759–1833) was the English politician and Christian philanthropist who led the abolition of the British slave trade. Wilberforce was Born in Yorkshire, England, but his father died when William was just 8 years old, so he went to live with his aunt and uncle, Hannah and William. (It may be of interest to the readers of this blog that Wilberforce’s aunt Hannah was the sister of Christian philanthropist John Thornton). Because of the wealth of his parents, he was able to live comfortably even with minimal work.

When he was 21, Wilberforce won the seat in the House of Commons in his hometown, Hull, because of the money he was able to invest and because of his great oratorical skills. This vocational move began 50 years in English politics for Wilberforce. In 1784, he was elected to a much more influential seat in Yorkshire. It wasn’t until he turned 37 that he met and—2 weeks later!—married his wife, Barbara Ann Spooner. In the first eight years of their marriage, they had four sons and two daughters. Wilberforce was devoted to the cause of abolishing the African Slave Trade for the rest of his life.

His Conversion

The aunt and uncle Wilberforce lived with were evangelical Christians. But concerned that her son was “turning Methodist,” his mother sent him to a boarding school. When there he lost interest in Christianity and cared more about being accepted by the social elite. But when he was 25, Wilberforce connected with Isaac Milner, a friend he met in grammar school who had since trusted in Christ. After talking with Milner at length about his hostilities and objections against Christianity, Wilberforce professed faith in Christ.

His conversion was not merely a private matter. Rather, his new faith led him to change his own lifestyle and to care for those in need. One of Wilberforce’s biographers, John Pollock, wrote, “He lacked time for half the good works in his mind.” But he believed that such good works could come from a new heart that only God can give. Thus, he was both doctrinal and pragmatic. He loved the truths of justification by faith alone, the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and the substitutionary work of Jesus. But he also loved pursuing justice for the poor, needy, and enslaved.

His Contributions

While Wilberforce is obviously most remembered for his arduous work against the British slave trade, he also made numerous other vocational and financial contributions to the work of Christ’s kingdom. He volunteered for dozens of societies. For example, he worked for the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Sunday School Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, and he even helped send mission aries to India and Africa. In fact, Wilberforce made major contributions to at least seventy such societies. He also used his wealth to help relieve the suffering of the manufacturing poor, French refugees and other foreigners in distress. Beside all that, he was also active in numerous reform movements including hospital care, fever institutions, asylums, infirmaries, refugees, and penitentiaries.

Finally, Wilberforce wrote a book called, A Practical View of Christianity, which had five printings in six months and was translated into five foreign languages. In it, he articulated the doctrines particular to Christianity which give rise to godly affections (or emotions). He also supported other religious publications and education, especially the schools of Hannah More, a close friend and leading reformer of British education. After ending the slave trade, Wilberforce spent the next 25 years seeking to end the institution of slavery itself. Providentially, three days before he died, Wilberforce heard that the House of Commons had passed a law emancipating all slaves in the British Empire.

("Slavery Abolitionist, Wm. Wilberforce" by Tim Challies published on Christianity.com on December 2, 2013)

Tim Challies is a pioneer in Christian blogging (www.challies.com) and author of the Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (Crossway) and The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion (Zondervan).

Further Reading:

Williams Wilberforce: The Little Man Who Fought Big Evil

How Did the Clapham Group Fight Slavery?

How Did William Wilberforce Change Christianity?

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/GeorgiosArt