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...it’s clear that Wilberforce’s ultimately successful campaign to abolish slavery marked a turning point in history.
William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery.
Eric Metaxas, (New York: Harper One, 2008)
Famous for his subsequent biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2011) and Martin Luther (2017), Eric Metaxas’ first biography focused on William Wilberforce – the 18th century British politician and philanthropist who played a key role in abolishing slavery.
Wilberforce was born in 1759 in Hull, East Yorkshire, into a wealthy merchant family. Shortly after his father died, his mother, Elizabeth, sent the 9-year old Wilberforce to live in London with his father’s brother (another William) who had married Hannah Thornton. Hannah came from a wealthy family, her father (John Thornton) being a director of the Bank of England and a member of Parliament.
The childless William and Hannah were deeply spiritual people. They were close friends of George Whitefield, the famous preacher who, although ostracised by mainline Anglicans, helped prompt the First Great Awakening—the spiritual revival which swept 18th century Britain and the American colonies. William and Hannah were also close to John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who became an evangelical Anglican clergyman. Newton is famous for authoring the hymn, Amazing Grace. Newton was a regular visitor to the home of William and Hannah, often undertaking ‘parlour preaching’; through these visits the young Wilberforce grew to revere Newton (p 11).
However, being mainline Anglicans, Wilberforce’s grandfather and mother were disturbed by the influence of non-conformist evangelicals upon young Wilberforce. At 12, Wilberforce was promptly recalled to Hull to continue his schooling. At 17, he entered Cambridge University. By then, his religious interest had waned. Instead, he joined in the worldly pursuits available to a young, clever, well-to-do gentleman living in privileged circumstances.
Wilberforce subsequently graduated from Cambridge. In 1780, he became a member of Parliament. However, in 1784-5 he experienced a turning point. Metaxas describes this period in a chapter titled ‘The Great Change’. The change began during an extended tour of Europe when Wilberforce was accompanied by his friend, Isaac Milner. A brilliant Cambridge philosopher, mathematician, and clergyman, Milner was later appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (other incumbents include Isaac Newton in the 17th century and Stephen Hawking in the 20th century). Milner and his brother, Joseph, also gained fame subsequently for their seven volume Ecclesiastical History of the Church of Christ (1818).
Wilberforce’s conversations with Milner during the European tour played a key role in re-igniting Wilberforce’s interest in the Gospel. Then a visit with John Newton—whom he had not seen for twelve years—helped restore his faith. Wilberforce’s life change was reflected in his new attitudes towards money, time, and politics (Chapter 5).
The rest of Metaxas’ book describes the impact of Wilberforce’s renewed faith upon his political career and family life. Specifically, Wilberforce sought to reform 18th century British society—described as ‘brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar’ (p 77). At that time, slavery was common. Crowds enjoyed witnessing public hangings. They engaged in the bloody sport of bull-baiting where dogs—called bulldogs—were trained to taunt and kill an enraged bull (p 84). Prostitution was rife: it was estimated that around 25% of ‘all unmarried women in London were prostitutes’ (p 85).
In this milieu, Wilberforce and a circle of religious friends emerged as social reformers. Active between 1780s–1840s, the group became known as the Clapham Circle because members lived around Clapham in southwest London. Relatively few in number and including Methodists and evangelical Anglicans, the Clapham Circle had a disproportionate impact on society. Clapham members eventually founded or were affiliated with the British & Foreign Bible Society, Church Missionary Society, Anti-Slavery Society, and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now RSPCA).
Wilberforce’s greatest contribution arguably was spearheading the anti-slavery movement. He used his money and political status to campaign for abolition. His devout compatriots included Charles Middleton, later First Lord of the Admiralty, and Josiah Wedgewood, the famous pottery-maker. With the support of his Cambridge friend, prime minister William Pitt (the Younger), Wilberforce introduced a bill in 1789 to abolish Britain’s participation in the slave trade. However, due to persistent opposition from entrenched interests, the bill only became law in 1807. The actual abolition of slavery took much longer. It was not until August 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. Counting from 1789, it took 44 years to outlaw slavery in Britain. Meanwhile, Wilberforce had died in July 1833, aged 73, leaving his wife, Barbara, and several children.
Metaxas’ biography provides a readable account of not only Wilberforce but the social and political environment of 18th and 19th century Britain. While some may quibble with elements of Metaxas’ telling of the story, it’s clear that Wilberforce’s ultimately successful campaign to abolish slavery marked a turning point in history.
Prior to 1833, slavery in various forms had been accepted for millennia in virtually every culture. Today, slavery still exists. (Currently between 20-40 million people are estimated to be in involuntary bondage, including sex trafficking and child labour.) The key difference is that virtually everyone today views slavery as inhumane.
For this change in public opinion, we should thank Wilberforce and his circle of friends.
Benny Tabalujan serves as an elder at the Belmore Road Church of Christ in suburban Melbourne
and is editor of InterSections magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org