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.


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In 1785, Wilberforce began reading evangelical treatises, and he experienced his own Christian conversion. He called it "the Great Change." He reconnected with Newton, who was a prominent London preacher by then, and Newton helped him find his way back to faith. Wilberforce briefly considered abandoning Parliament in order to enter the Anglican clergy, but Newton, Pitt, and other friends persuaded him that he could serve God more effectively in public life.

Wilberforce Becomes an Abolitionist

Thus began a lifelong career devoted to social justice and what Wilberforce called "the reformation of manners"--an attack on vices such as drinking and gambling that afflicted and demoralized the poor. In 1787, he was introduced to Thomas Clarkson, another evangelical Anglican whose religious convictions had made him a lifelong antislavery activist. Clarkson introduced Wilberforce to the appalling conditions--the packed, filthy, fetid holds, the heavy chains--under which slaves were transported from Africa to the West Indies.

Clarkson's cause became Wilberforce's. He became the leader of a group called "the saints"--Anglicans, Quakers, dissenters and others devoted to the abolitionist cause. In 1789, Wilberforce made his first speech against the slave trade in Parliament. In 1791, he introduced a bill to abolish the trade altogether.

Wilberforce's battle was not an easy one. Powerful interests in the slave trade itself and in port cities such as Liverpool that had grown prosperous on the income the trade generated ensured the failure of his bill. Wilberforce did not give up. During every successive session of Parliament he introduced his bill, and it was defeated every time--although there were minor victories over the years, such as limits on the number of slaves who could be crowded into the ships' holds.

Sucess in the Long Battle

Britain's war with France in the aftermath of the French Revolution put Wilberforce's anti-slavery project on hold for more than a decade. During this time, he and Clarkson waged a long public-relations campaign to educate the public to the horrors of slavery and also built coalitions with abolitionists in the Whig party that came to power when Pitt died in 1806.

Finally, in 1807, the tide of public opinion had turned, and both houses of Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act by large margins, ending nearly four hundred years of slaving in the British Empire. America followed suit with its own law banning the slave trade in 1808.

Slavery itself remained a reality, of course, and Wilberforce continued to battle for complete abolition of the institution. He also devoted himself to other causes such as missionary work and helping to found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as well as to private works of charity.

Declining health obliged him to retire from Parliament in 1825. In 1833, he suffered a severe bout of influenza from which he never recovered. He lived long enough, however, to see the abolition bill that he had championed approach the very final stages in becoming law.

A month after his death on July 29, 1833, Parliament finally passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which provided that every slave in the British Empire was to be set free within four years. The battle was won.

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