William Wilberforce (1759–1833) was a British politician and abolitionist who helped end the English slave trade.
As a member of the Church of England, his faith in Christ energized his pursuit of social justice. He believed all of life should be under the lordship of Jesus Christ and ordered to his glory, accomplished through changing hearts as well as working for the common good.
Living Out Christianity in the Public Square
Wilberforce was born in Hull, England to a wealthy family. When his father died, he went to live with an aunt and uncle. There he would meet John Newton, the former slave-trader turned pastor and abolitionist. Newton’s relationship would prove significant in Wilberforce’s life, though it did not lead to immediate conversion.
At seventeen, Wilberforce attended St. John’s College, Cambridge. In 1780, as a twenty-one year old political upstart, Wilberforce won a seat in parliament.
Wilberforce converted to “serious Christianity” in 1784. He began to live for Christ, not merely claim a cultural title of Christian.
Wilberforce considered resigning from his public responsibilities, but he was encouraged to live out his Christianity in the public square by Newton and others. He took up the cause of abolition in 1786 as part of his commitment to doing good through his political career.
God Gave Him Two Great Goals
Wilberforce felt God had given him two great goals in life: the suppression of the slave trade and the improvement of public morality.
Despite the obvious injustices of slavery to the modern mind, British society of that time justified the practice of slavery because of the economic benefits for the British Empire and a belief in European racial superiority.
One of the first obstacles Wilberforce and other abolitionists had to overcome was ignorance of the nature of the slave trade. At the time, the world was largely unaware of conditions on the West Indian plantations, or that about one in four slaves died on the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas.
Social justice was a battle for the minds of the people. Wilberforce coordinated efforts with other abolitionists to take down first-hand accounts of sailors and slaves. They created diagrams of the inside of slave ships that showed the cramped and unsanitary conditions. Abolitionists printed pamphlets to give and cheaply sell to any who would read them. Public sentiment began shifting due to a widespread information campaign, which would eventually lead to the end of the British slave trade.
The Road to Abolition
The road to the abolition of slavery included a series of successes and failures.
As early as 1789, Wilberforce was able to get twelve resolutions against the slave trade passed. However, these resolutions were largely undermined because of nuanced legal interpretations.
Wilberforce proposed abolition bills that were defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. Finally, in 1807, Wilberforce used a political ruse to end the slave trade.
The institution of slavery would continue in the British empire for another 26 years. By that time, Wilberforce had retired from parliament due to his health.
Three days before his death in 1833, a bill emancipating all slaves in the British Empire was passed. Wilberforce lived to see his dream become reality.
Reflecting the Moral Order of Creation
Wilberforce’s greatest achievement was ending slavery in the British Empire. However, his impact spread to other social issues.
Wilberforce gave away about a quarter of his annual income to the poor. He helped organize and support Sunday schools among the working classes to encourage thrift and teach ethics to the poor.
These Sunday schools were about more than religious education. They also taught the poor to read. Wilberforce recognized that teaching people to read was a critical part of eliminating generational poverty. Greater literacy also encouraged a wider distribution of anti-slavery tracts.
Wilberforce believed that Christ was transforming culture. Wilberforce sought to impact the whole world with the gospel to redeem individual souls and impact the political and economic systems in which he lived. This is why Wilberforce shattered his health to create just laws that ended slavery and discouraged cruelty to animals.
The idea that society should be transformed, even if not fully, to better reflect the moral order in creation shaped Wilberforce’s personal and political life, making him a model of cultural engagement for later Christians.