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."

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