William Wilberforce (1759-1833) is best known as the extraordinary Member of Parliament whose tenacious efforts played a prominent role in bringing an end to the British slave trade. Wilberforce testified that his slavery abolition endeavors and his many other philanthropic works never would have come about without what he always called his “Great Change” – his Christian conversion.
Wilberforce was born in Hull, on the east coast of England, on August 24, 1759. The Wilberforces were a well-to-do merchant family, extravagant socialites who enjoyed lots of balls, lavish dinner parties, the theatre and card parties.
When William was just eight years old, his father Robert died at age forty. A short while later William’s sister Elizabeth died at fourteen years of age while at boarding school in London. Through that double shock William’s mother, also named Elizabeth, became gravely ill and only gradually recovered.
For two years during his mother’s recovery, while William was between the ages of 10 and 12, he was placed under the guardianship of his uncle and aunt, William and Hannah Wilberforce. William and Hannah were committed evangelical Christians and good friends of John and Polly Newton, whom they often visited in Olney, where Newton pastored an Anglican Church. Newton took an interest in young William Wilberforce, and a fond friendship developed between the pastor and the boy during that time.
Elizabeth Wilberforce, like the Newtons, belonged to the Church of England. But she strongly disapproved of Dissenters, Methodists and other evangelists with whom William and Hannah Wilberforce and the Newtons associated. So when Elizabeth regained her health, she brought her son, at age twelve, back home to live with her in Hull. There she worked hard to stifle the religious convictions he had gained from his guardians, viewing them as unhealthy and extreme. Instead she sought to help him acquire a taste for the world and its diversions. At first this seemed distasteful to William but gradually he came to relish it.
At age seventeen William Wilberforce entered St. John’s College, Cambridge. He loved to socialize with his fellow students and was the life of the party with his lively spirit, quick wit, entertaining conversation and wealth. He had a gift for classical languages and literature but partied so much that he largely squandered his college years.
Wilberforce desired to enter politics. Just days before his twenty-first birthday, he was elected as MP (Member of Parliament in the House of Commons), representing his hometown of Hull, one of England’s most important port cities. During his early years in parliament his primary concern was gaining the approval of others and prominence. He quickly became known as an eloquent speaker and powerful debater. He was not above bribing voters (buying votes was a common practice in that day) and bitterly attacking and humiliating political opponents with sarcasm.
Wilberforce belonged to five clubs made up of well-born young men with similar political convictions. Drinking and heavy gambling were part of those clubs. Wilberforce was pained to see some young men lose far more than they could afford through gambling.
In March of 1784, at age twenty-four, Wilberforce pulled off an unlikely political victory by being elected as the MP representing Yorkshire County, where he had few contacts. Yorkshire was the most powerful county and one of the most coveted political seats in all of England.
Wilberforce’s “Great Change,” his gradual process of coming to embrace Christian beliefs, began that same autumn and continued for a year and a half, through the spring of 1786. During that period of time Wilberforce became convinced of and personally embraced the truths of Christianity, including the Deity of Jesus Christ, His atoning death on the cross for sin and the Bible as God’s authoritative Word.
In December 1785, Wilberforce made a secret visit to John Newton who, at age sixty, was then pastoring in London. Newton affirmed Wilberforce’s newfound Christian convictions and encouraged him to serve God by remaining in Parliament. They had other visits, which were enormously reassuring to Wilberforce, that winter and the following spring.
There were several noticeable, positive results of Wilberforce’s conversion: (1) He became kind and forbearing rather than being irritable and employing biting sarcasm with family members and political opponents. (2) He dropped out of all five of the worldly clubs he had been a member in and gave up gambling. (3) He took greater care to be present for every debate in the House of Commons in an age when legislators were commonly absent, and did the thankless work of serving on countless committees. (4) For the next seven to eight years he devoted much of his free time to making up for the educational opportunities he had squandered in college. Ever after he was a diligent lifelong reader and student, with his coat pockets often being full of books. (5) Instead of using politics to further his own prominence, he used it to diligently serve God and his fellow human beings. (I plan to devote a future blog to the significant ways in which he did that.)
A number of beneficial biographies have been written on Wilberforce in recent years: William Wilberforce, A Hero for Humanity, by Kevin Belmonte (Zondervan, 2007); Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas (Harperone, 2008); Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce, by John Piper (Crossway, 2007). Belmonte’s and Metaxas’s works are full-length biographies while Piper’s booklet of sixty-four pages focuses more specifically on Wilberforce’s conversion and Christian convictions that were at the foundation of his remarkable career of public service.
Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie