August 06, 2014


Stephen Nichols


William Wilberforce was born in 1759 and he died in 1833. He came from a wealthy family who lived in the coastal port town of Hull, England. His father died when he was only nine years old. Later, he moved away from Hull to the big city of London to live with his extended family. His extended family had a home there in London, and they also had a home in a village that was a little bit outside of the city—a little village known as Wimbledon. These days, the city of London has grown and, of course, encompasses Wimbledon. But it was a little bit more pastoral in Wilberforce's day.

While he was staying with his extended family there, his aunt had a significant influence on him, and she, as we can understand, was likely led to Christ by the ministry of the great revivalist of the Great Awakening George Whitefield. She was a substantial supporter of Whitefield, and it was in this family that Wilberforce received early exposure to Christianity. He didn't seem to be receptive to the gospel at this point in his life, however. A few years later, in 1776—incidentally, while one of the colonies of Britain was beginning to assert its independence—William Wilberforce headed to Cambridge University. While he was at Cambridge, he was a fellow classmate with William Pitt II. Pitt's father was prime minister, and William Pitt II would go on to be prime minister himself.

In 1780, William Wilberforce took his first seat as a member of Parliament. He had finished his bachelor's degree, but he was still working on his master's degree at Cambridge. So for the next several years, he was engaged both as a student and as a Parliamentarian.

In 1784, he took a trip to the Continent, and the folks with whom he was traveling were all Christians. They recommend certain books to him. For example, he started reading the great Puritan Philip Doddridge, and as he read, Wilberforce began to understand the gospel. He started reading his Bible in the mornings, and it was during this trip and through all this reading that he was converted.

In 1787, another significant event occurred in Wilberforce's life. Thomas Clarkson, one of Wilberforce's Cambridge classmates, met with him. Clarkson had just published an essay against England's slave trade, and Clarkson was able to convince Wilberforce that this was a cause worth fighting for. In fact, it was in his journal about this time that Wilberforce wrote this: "God Almighty has set before me two great objects—the suppression of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners." Now, at the time, manners meant "moral reform" rather what we would understand as manners today. So, Wilberforce set himself to these two tasks.

By 1789, he was making speeches in Parliament, and he was also introducing bills to abolish the slave trade. This activity was not well received. But that did not deter Wilberforce. He kept at it. He labored for eighteen years, and finally in 1807, Parliament abolished the slave trade. Of course, Wilberforce wasn't done there. He next applied his energy to abolishing slavery itself, but he was not able to see the conclusion of his efforts. Slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire in 1834.

Looking back on Wilberforce's life, we understand that his is a well-known story—but it bears repeating. When Wilberforce was first converted, he came under the influence of John Newton, who was employed in the slave trade. However, Newton was gloriously converted, Newton being the author, of course, of the hymn "Amazing Grace."

William Wilberforce, when he was first converted, thought that he should perhaps become a pastor, and he thought that would perhaps be a better use of his efforts, and John Newton encouraged him to stay where he was, that God had gifted him and that God had put him there so that he could be of use in this time in His service. And so Wilberforce stayed; he stayed where he was and he served God where he was.