William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was the grandson of a British merchant who had made his fortune trading with the Baltic nations. William's father died when William was nine, and his temporarily overwhelmed mother sent him to live with an aunt and uncle who were Methodists. At the age of 17, William was sent to study at Cambridge, and the deaths of his grandfather and uncle in the next couple of years left him independently wealthy while still a teenager. In those days, wealthy gentlemen students pursued cards, drinking and theater more avidly than studies, and young Wilberforce was no exception. He excelled socially, however, and became friends with William Pitt, the younger, who was to become prime minister just a few years later (at age 24!) and who talked Wilberforce into a career in politics. Wilberforce stood for parliament at age 20, while still at Cambridge, and obtained his seat, as was the custom, by spending a princely sum of money buying votes. His political career did not impinge on his primary activities of cards, drinking and socializing in circles appropriate to a man of his standing. The influential salon hostess Germaine de Staël called Wilberforce “the wittiest man in England,” and he must have had a fine singing voice, as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, remarked that the Prince of Wales would go anywhere to hear Wilberforce sing.
In 1785, while on a tour of the European continent, Wilberforce read, “The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul” by a leading non-conformist minister, Philip Doddridge. He resolved to give his life to Christ. He began to rise early in the morning to pray and study the Bible, and he began keeping a journal. The upper classes of Wilberforce's England considered religious fervor a faux pas, and stigmatized it. Wilberforce wondered if he should even continue in public life, and sought advice from John Newton, a former slaver and the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Both Newton and William Pitt advised Wilberforce to remain in parliament and allow his religious convictions to inform his legislative work.
In the previous article, we saw how slavery gradually withered away in Christendom and was replaced by the feudal system. Unfortunately, a few centuries later the nations of Christendom became involved with slavery in the “New World.” It soon became apparent to the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English and Dutch colonizers of the Americas and “West Indies” that the best opportunity for gain came from growing sugar cane and other warm weather crops not grown in Europe. It was believed that Africans would be best suited to the back-breaking labor necessary to operate the plantations, and more resistant to the tropical diseases that took a heavy toll on Europeans. Slavery was well established in Africa; the Islamic ummah had been buying African slaves for several centuries. Europeans found many localities, especially in West Africa, where they could purchase slaves from African slave-dealers. A triangular trade route developed in which British ships took manufactured goods from Britain to Africa to be traded for slaves, then delivered the slaves from Africa to the West Indies for sale to plantation owners—the infamous “middle passage” of the triangular route—and finally delivered sugar, rum, molasses, or tobacco from the Americas and West Indies to Europe. This terrible triangular traffic was to continue for centuries.
By the late 18th Century, the stark inhumanity of the trans-Atlantic slave traffic was becoming widely known. In 1787, many of the drafters of the United States Constitution wanted to outlaw the traffic, but southern slave-holding interests negotiated a compromise which postponed any ban until 1808, at the earliest. (Article 1, section 9) On March 2, 1807, congress passed a bill that was signed into law the next day by President Thomas Jefferson (a southerner and slave owner) forbidding the importation of slaves into the United States, effective January 1, 1808, the first constitutionally permissible date. The disdain for the slave traffic was so great, however, that by 1808 every state except South Carolina had already banned the importation of slaves.
The year 1787 marks the beginning of William Wilberforce's campaign to outlaw the slave traffic in the British Empire. He wrote in his journal, “God almighty has set before me . . . the suppression of the slave trade.” He met with Thomas Clarkson, a Christian abolitionist who had been studying and researching the slave trade for many years, and who was to provide the witnesses and other evidence supporting Wilberforce's legislative efforts. Wilberforce met with the newly formed “Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” a group of Quakers and like-minded abolitionist Anglicans. He met with Prime Minister William Pitt and future Prime Minister William Grenville, and both encouraged him to introduce a bill banning the slave trade. In 1788, however, Wilberforce became seriously ill and had to leave London to convalesce at Bath. During his absence, Pitt ordered the privy council to investigate the slave trade and report to parliament. In 1789, a recovered Wilberforce gave his first major speech against the slave trade, and introduced his first anti-slave trade bill. Opponents sidelined the bill with two years of absurdly drawn out hearings, after which the bill was defeated, 163 to 88.
Wilberforce would annually re-introduce the anti-slave trade bill every year through 1799. In 1793, his measure failed by only 8 votes, but the radical phase of the French Revolution and war between Britain and France put the cause on the back burner. In 1796, the measure failed by only 4 votes; at least six abolitionist members chose that day to see a new Italian comic opera playing in London. Wilberforce wrote in his diary: “Enough at the Opera to have carried it. I am permanently hurt about the Slave Trade.”
William's lack of success in ending the slave trade was ameliorated by happiness in his personal life. In 1797, Wilberforce was introduced to Barbara Ann Spooner as a possible wife. Wilberforce was instantly infatuated, and proposed marriage only 8 days later. The couple were married six weeks later, and had six children over the next 10 years.
In 1804, Wilberforce introduced his bill for the first time since 1799; this time it passed the House of Commons but died in the House of Lords, as Wilberforce mistakenly trusted men not as committed to the cause as he was. Thanks to constant, unflagging efforts of Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and many other Christian activists, the slave trade was a prominent issue in the Parliamentary election of 1806, which returned a good number of abolitionists to the House of Commons. In 1807, Lord Grenville introduced the anti-slave trade bill, it again passed the House of Commons, and Grenville guided it through the House of Lords, which approved it and returned it to Commons for final passage. On February 23, 1807, after many members of parliament rose to speak and salute Wilberforce's tireless efforts, the bill to ban the slave trade was overwhelmingly passed, 283 to 16. Wilberforce's face streamed with tears as the final tally was taken.
After at last winning the two-decades-long fight to ban the slave traffic, Wilberforce did not immediately call for abolition of slavery, feeling that the slaves were ill-prepared to fend for themselves. In 1816, however, Wilberforce began to denounce slavery itself. In 1823, Wilberforce at last lent his considerable prestige to the cause of total abolition of slavery within the British Empire. He published a tract entitled, “Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies.” In June 1824, Wilberforce gave his last speech in Parliament, calling for the abolition of slavery. Declining health forced his resignation from Parliament in 1825, although he continue to be active in the anti-slavery movement. The bill to abolish slavery in the empire passed one month after Wilberforce's death on July 29, 1833; he died knowing it would pass. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, near his good friend William Pitt.
Christianity was the animating force behind the movement to abolish the slave trade, and also behind the incomparable career of William Wilberforce. “A man who acts from the principles I profess,” he said, “reflects that he is to give an account of his political conduct at the judgment seat of Christ.”