On Sunday, October 28, 1787, a year and a half after William Wilberforce’s Christian conversion, he wrote on a blank page in his diary: “God Almighty has placed before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals].” Wilberforce’s decades-long battle to help bring an end to slavery throughout the British Empire is well known. His equally-determined endeavors to promote a broad range of other social reforms and philanthropic causes are little known today so are well worth recalling.
Wilberforce (1759-1833) had a long and influential career as a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. In addition to the abolition of slavery, Wilberforce championed some seventy other legislative causes for the welfare of both people and animals. Several of those causes included: small pox inoculation; public relief of poverty; popular education; injustices of the penal code; prison reforms; child labor laws (protecting child factory workers and chimney sweeps); eliminating bear baiting and other forms of cruelty to animals.
Besides the anti-slavery issue, another twenty-year political battle that Wilberforce was part of (from 1793 to 1813) was to gain the right for Christian missionaries to minister in India. The powerful British East India Company fiercely opposed missionary activity in its trading domain, claiming (without an evidential basis) such efforts would cause agitation among non-Christian people groups and would adversely affect EIC financial profits. Significantly, Wilberforce himself always declared that gaining the right for missionaries to serve in India was the greatest cause he had lived for, not even excepting the emancipation of the slaves. He doubtless thought that due to the eternal benefits that came to countless people through the passage of the missionary legislation.
Wilberforce generously used much of his personal wealth to help support many individuals and charities. Before marrying, he donated 2,000 pounds per year (fully one-fourth of his annual income) to charity. Wilberforce personally supported nearly every charitable institution in London and Yorkshire (England’s most powerful county and the one he represented in Parliament). He also financially supported numerous young men training for pastoral ministry, as well as many other young people preparing for other careers (including the Bronte sisters who eventually gained literary fame). Wilberforce helped keep many individuals out of debtor’s prison and assisted in funding the erection of a number of churches. He was instrumental in founding the forerunner of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Britain’s National Gallery of Art, London University, and the British and Foreign Bible Society.
Rather ironically in light of his tremendous generosity, and through no fault of his own, Wilberforce lost his fortune near the end of his life. By the time Wilberforce was seventy years old, his oldest son had run the large dairy farm in which Wilberforce had invested much of the family fortune deep into debt. Over 50,000 pounds were owed. Wilberforce decided he needed to lease the estate and mansion where he had been living in retirement years to generate income. The final three years of his life he lived with two of his other sons, both of whom served as ministers.
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