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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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.

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