William Wilberforce: 1759 to July 29, 1833
Most people know William Wilberforce, if at all, because of the 2007 movie Amazing Grace. And while the movie did a good overall job depicting his crusade against slavery, it did not, and no movie could, totally depict the depth of his struggle nor the cause of his motivation.
His struggle was so great—over eighteen years—that he lost his health and at times even lost his will to continue.
His motivation was not primarily political. It was spiritual. He fought against the sin of slavery because he had already been freed by Christ from the slavery of sin. Wilberforce had lived a life of luxury and even decadence. But in 1786, at age 27, he saw his personal sin against God and his personal need for a Savior and committed his life to Christ. From that day forward he was a changed man.
We can all learn from him today that the true motivation for any of our social causes must begin with an internal surrender to Christ as our personal Savior from sin.
After his commitment to Christ, he found his purpose:
“God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Morals.”
A William Wilberforce Time Line
1759 Born, surrounded by wealth and a life of ease.
1780 Age 21, elected to parliament.
1786 Age 27, converted to Evangelical Christianity
He now saw that, “My life is a public one. My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.”
1789 Age 30, he begins an eighteen-year battle to end the slave trade.
Under the influence of Thomas Clarkson, he became committed to the abolition of slavery.
“So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”
His resilience: he was vilified; he was opposed. The battle was overwhelming and costly to his health.
The amazing grace that saved and changed him was the same amazing grace that empowered him to live out a courageous mission despite years of defeat and discouragement.
His friends’ encouragement: “We understand that you are struggling to decide whether to do the work of God or be a political activist. We humbly suggest that you can do both.”
1807 March 25, Age 48, Parliament abolishes slave trade in the British Isles. After 18 years!
1833 July 26, Britain outlaws slavery in all its territories—giving freedom to all slaves in the British empire.
1833 July 29, he passes into glory.
Impact of His Mentor, John Newton
After yet another defeat of his bill, this one in 1796, (after seven years of concerted effort) Wilberforce’s hopes were crushed. He contracted a severe fever, followed by excruciating intestinal troubles. Gravely ill, exhausted, and emotionally spent, he serious considered retirement from public life. Seeking counsel from his spiritual mentor, John Newton, he wrote his friend on July 21, 1796.
Newton both empathized with Wilberforce and encouraged him. “You meet with many things which weary and disgust you. But then they are inseparably connected with your path of duty; and though you cannot do all the good you wish for, some good is done.”
Ultimately, Newton pointed Wilberforce to the Bible—to Daniel in particular, and to Daniel’s God. “It is true that you live in the midst of difficulties and snares, and you need a double guard of watchfulness and prayer. But since you know both your need of help, and where to look for it, I may say to you as Darius to Daniel, ‘Thy God whom you serve continually is able to preserve and deliver you.’ Daniel, likewise, was a public man, and in critical circumstances; but he trusted in the Lord; was faithful in his department, and therefore though he had enemies, they could not prevail against him.”
Newton continued, “The great point for our comfort in life is to have a well-grounded persuasion that we are where, all things considered, we ought to be.”
Neither man knew that 11 long years would pass before the goal was finally reached. Newton died the same year the slave trade was abolished in 1807, but not before hearing the news from his friend and disciple, William Wilberforce.
African American Testimonials to William Wilberforce
When news of Wilberforce’s death on July 29, 1833 arrived, the officers of the Free People of Color met at the Presbyterian Church in New York to draft this resolution honoring him. “The most extensive manifestations of feelings be recommended to the people of color throughout the United States, particularly in this state.”
Frederick Douglass saluted the work of Wilberforce “that finally thawed the British heart into sympathy for the slave, and moved the strong arm of government in mercy to put an end to this bondage. Let no American, especially no colored American, withhold generous recognition of this stupendous achievement—a triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil, and a victory for the whole human race.”
Wilberforce’s Impact on the Abolition of Slavery in America
Impact on William Lloyd Garrison
When news reached the American shores in 1833 that the British government had at last voted to emancipate the nearly 800,000 slaves in bondage throughout its empire, the leaders of the American Anti-Slavery Society took this as their cue to formally launch their efforts to secure emancipation in America. William Lloyd Garrison and the other leaders of the AAS believed that the momentum established by Wilberforce was a harbinger of better days for America.
Impact on Maria Stewart
Garrison had already been moved and motivated by another Abolitionist—a young, widowed, female African American—Maria Stewart. Married at 23, widowed at 26, converted at 27, she challenged a nation at 28. In the fall of 1831, she entered the offices of Garrison, the editor of the newly established abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Stewart handed Garrison the manuscript of her challenge to African Americans to sue for their rights.
Referencing what was happening in Britain and beyond, she notes, “All the nations of the earth are crying out for liberty and equality. Away, away with tyranny and oppression! And shall Africa’s sons be silent any longer?”
Like Wilberforce, she was motivated by Scriptural convictions. “Many think, because your skins are tinged with a sable hue, that you are an inferior race of beings; but God does not consider you as such. He hath formed and fashioned you in his own glorious image, and hath bestowed upon you reason and strong powers of intellect. He hath made you to have dominion over the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea (Genesis 1:26). He hath crowned you with glory and honor; hath made you but a little lower than the angels (Psalms 8:5) . . .”
Impact on Political Leaders
He also influenced George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, many of whom he met and/or corresponded with, and all of whom read his writings and followed his career with admiration.
Impact on Josiah Wedgewood
He encouraged Josiah Wedgewood to design a medallion of a slave in chains on his knees with the inscription, “Am I not a man and a brother?” This was powerfully used also in the United States to communicate the personhood and equality of African Americans.
Implication for African Americans Today—and for All Americans
But God . . . We are image bearers—we are equal in worth and value. We are equal in intellect and dominion.
Freedom from the slavery of sin is the motivation for us to fight for freedom from the sin of slavery or any other societal sin.
Resilience comes ultimately not from our self-effort, but from God’s grace empowering us.
We all need mentors like John Newton who will dare us to be Daniels and Esthers.
Wilberforce’s “Other” Ministries
He supported 69 philanthropic causes. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor. He fought on behalf of orphans, child laborers, single mothers, and juvenile delinquents. He also was active in Foreign Missionary Societies and Foreign Bible Societies.