Christian History Home > Activists > William Wilberforce
Wilberforce was initially optimistic, even naively so. He expressed "no doubt" about his chances of quick success. As early as 1789, he and Clarkson managed to have 12 resolutions against the slave trade introduced—only to be outmaneuvered on fine legal points. The pathway to abolition was blocked by vested interests, parliamentary filibustering, entrenched bigotry, international politics, slave unrest, personal sickness, and political fear. Other bills introduced by Wilberforce were defeated in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.
When it became clear that Wilberforce was not going to let the issue die, pro-slavery forces targeted him. He was vilified; opponents spoke of "the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies." The opposition became so fierce, one friend feared that one day he would read about Wilberforce's being "carbonated [broiled] by Indian planters, barbecued by African merchants, and eaten by Guinea captains."
Prime minister of philanthropy
Slavery was only one cause that excited Wilberforce's passions. His second great calling was for the "reformation of manners," that is, morals. In early 1787, he conceived of a society that would work, as a royal proclamation put it, "for the encouragement of piety and virtue; and for the preventing of vice, profaneness, and immorality." It eventually become known as the Society for the Suppression of Vice.
In fact, Wilberforce—dubbed "the prime minister of a cabinet of philanthropists"—was at one time active in support of 69 philanthropic causes. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor. He fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. He helped found parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Antislavery Society.
In 1797, he settled at Clapham, where he became a prominent member of the "Clapham Sect," a group of devout Christians of influence in government and business. That same year he wrote Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians—a scathing critique of comfortable Christianity that became a bestseller.
All this in spite of the fact that poor health plagued him his entire life, sometimes keeping him bedridden for weeks. During one such time in his late twenties, he wrote, "[I] am still a close prisoner, wholly unequal even to such a little business as I am now engaged in: add to which my eyes are so bad that I can scarce see how to direct my pen."
He survived this and other bouts of debilitating illness with the help of opium, a new drug at the time, the affects of which were still unknown. Wilberforce soon became addicted, though opium's hallucinatory powers terrified him, and the depressions it caused virtually crippled him at times.
When healthy, however, he was a persistent and effective politician, partly due to his natural charm and partly to his eloquence. His antislavery efforts finally bore fruit in 1807: Parliament abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. He then worked to ensure the slave trade laws were enforced and, finally, that slavery in the British Empire was abolished. Wilberforce's health prevented him from leading the last charge, though he heard three days before he died that the final passage of the emancipation bill was ensured in committee.
Though some historians argue that Thomas Clarkson and others were just as important in the antislavery fight, Wilberforce in any account played a key role in, as historian G.M. Trevelyan put it, "one of the turning events in the history of the world."
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