On February 24th, 1793, a letter was written by a tired eighty-eight year old man, addressed to William Wilberforce.“Dear Sir,” it read. “Unless God has raised you up... I see not how you can go through with your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy... 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? O, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall banish away before it.”
It was the last letter that tired old man ever wrote. Just a week later, John Wesley was dead.
William Wilberforce was born sickly and almost blind. His father, a merchant, died when he was just 9 years old; his mother, poor and unable to care for her young son, consigned him to the care of his Aunt and Uncle in Wimbledon. There he received an education and adopted his relatives’ strong Evangelical views. He regularly attended church, where he was often inspired by the preaching of John Newton.
At the age of 17, Wilberforce found his way to Cambridge University where he met and became close friends with the future Prime Minister, William Pitt. Together they considered political careers and frequently watched House of Commons debates from the gallery. While at Cambridge, Wilberforce engaged himself in little other than the playing of cards, gambling and intemperate drinking. He had, however, a bright and cheery disposition and was admired by all his colleagues and those who encountered him.
In 1780, Wilberforce was elected to Parliament at the young age of 21. In 1784 he became the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire, his home town.
After being converted in 1785, he made a radical change in his lifestyle and habits. He became a conservative Christian, dedicated to prayer and spent much time in the Word.
Wilberforce met the Abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and a group of anti-slave-trade activists not long after his conversion. Thomas Clarkson had an enormous influence on William, convincing him to take on the cause of abolition. As a result, Wilberforce became one of the leading English Abolitionists and headed the Parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade.
William Wilberforce devoted his life to the cause of abolition and the work God called him to do. As well as campaigning against the slave trade, he advocated legislations to improve the working conditions for chimney sweeps and textile workers, and engaged in prison reform. He recognized the importance of education in alleviating poverty, and provided financial support for the establishment of Sunday Schools for the poor. Yearly he gave away thousands of pounds; he paid off others’ debts and gave portions of his wealth to clergymen to distribute in their parishes. He believed that those with wealth had a duty to give a significant portion of their income to the needy.
In 1797 Wilberforce met Barbara Spooner, a young anti-slavery supporter who was 18 years his junior. They married after just two weeks of courtship and had six children.
William battled fiercely for many years to end the trade of slaves.
Finally, in February 1807, the bill to abolish the trading of slaves in the British Empire was passed. This, however, did not release the millions of Africans already enslaved. It merely ended the transporting of ‘cargo’.
Wilberforce fought for the next 27 years to free slaves in the British Empire. He retired from Parliament in 1825 due to his failing health, only to return a few years later to lead yet another campaign against the slave trade.
After many years of hard work and perseverance, the bill was finally passed in 1833 to free slaves in the British Empire.
William Wilberforce died just 3 days later and was buried near his friend William Pitt in Westminster Abbey.
“When people speak of great men, they thing of men like Napoleon - men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men. But contrast the reception they will receive when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and in power, a man who’s achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow and remember: the slave trade is no more.”
-Charles Fox, from the film ‘Amazing Grace’
“You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did now know.” - William Wilberforce
Portrait of William Wilberforce by Karl Anton Hickel, c.1794