Who Was William Wilberforce?

Inspired by his faith, Wilberforce, subject of the movie 'Amazing Grace,' waged a decades-long battle to end slavery in Britain.

William Wilberforce
Portrait of Wilberforce courtesy of Kevin Belmonte, lead historical consultant for "Amazing Grace"

William Wilberforce was born in 1759 into a prosperous merchant family in the North Sea port city of Hull, in England. His father, Robert Wilberforce, died when William was eight years old, and his mother, Elizabeth, sent him to live with an aunt and uncle in London. His aunt, Hannah, had become a devotée of George Whitefield, an Anglican minister who, along with the brothers John and Charles Wesley, is regarded as one of the founders of Methodism.

The Methodist Moment

The Methodists had begun as a group of divinity students at Oxford University during the late 1720s who were dismayed by what they perceived as a state of apathy and dryness in the mainstream Anglican Church. It was the 18th century, the Age of Reason, and leading Anglican theologians such as John Locke had sought to make Christianity as "reasonable" as possible, turning it into a mere ethical system that de-emphasized Jesus' divinity and the doctrine of salvation.

Meanwhile, large numbers of English Christians, especially among the working classes, had drifted away from religion altogether. The Methodists sought to change that, by advocating a Christianity that emphasized powerful preaching, close study of the Bible, a liturgy centered around communal hymn-singing, the mercy and love of God, and the fostering of an intimate, emotional relationship between individual believers and their Savior.

Methodism proved to be a powerful force in both British and American Christianity during the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century (Methodist preachers began emigrating to America as early as the 1760s). It led not only to the founding of independent Methodist churches but to the powerful revivalist movements known as the First and Second Great Awakenings. Methodism also strongly influenced the branch of Anglicanism that became known as "evangelical."

Works of charity and social reform were important components of the Methodist movement. One of the earliest Methodist causes was the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. In 1774, John Wesley, who had spent a stint pastoring a church in Savannah, Georgia, published an influential tract arguing that the brutal conditions to which slaves were subjected were incompatible with Christianity.

John Newton & the Birth of 'Amazing Grace'

During the two years he spent with his aunt and uncle during the 1760s, William Wilberforce was exposed to much Methodist preaching. One frequent visitor to his relatives' home was John Newton, a former seaman and captain of a slave-ship who had experienced a conversion from wild youth to evangelical Christian. Newton's newfound faith did not immediately lead him to abandon the slave trade (it was only later in life, under Wilberforce's influence, that he repented of his involvement with slavery and became an outspoken abolitionist), but he did eventually give up the sea to become an ordained Anglican priest in 1764.

Serving in parish churches in the town of Olney and, later, in London, Newton became famous for his eloquent preaching and his devotion to the poor. Working in collaboration with the poet William Cowper, another fervent evangelical, Newton composed a series of hymns. The most famous was "Amazing Grace," whose lyrics chronicled Newton's own transformation from wretched sinner to believer by the grace of God.

Young Wilberforce's Faith & Politics

Most upper-class Anglicans looked down upon evangelicals as overly emotional "enthusiasts," and Wilberforce's mother was among them. She and his grandfather took the boy back to Hull, where his newfound Christian fervor quickly withered. In 1776 William Wilberforce enrolled in St. John's College at Cambridge University, where he studied as little as possible, immersed himself in the college social scene, and began a lifelong friendship with William Pitt the Younger, the future prime minister.

In 1780, at the age of 21 and while still a student at Cambridge, Wilberforce was elected member of Parliament for Hull. As a Tory, he aligned himself with Pitt, who became prime minister in 1783. Wilberforce quickly gained a reputation for eloquence and integrity, and he was reelected to Parliament in 1784 as member for York, a large and populous northern city.

Continued on page 2: He became the leader of a group called 'the saints'... »

comments powered by Disqus