Saturday, January 03, 2009

William Wilberforce: Statesman and Saint

For Christmas I was given a copy of the book Statesman and Saint: The Principled Politics of William Wiberforce. It is surprising how many Americans have never heard of this great reformer. In this post I will give a brief biography of this remarkable man and discuss the impact that he had in British politics.

Background to William Wilberforce

Britain was the commercial and military capital of 18th century Europe. However, national success was purchased at a heavy price. The utilitarianism of the Enlightenment had made England efficient but cruel, productive but heartless. In the crowded cities, efficient factories worked both adults and children to exhaustion with 16-hour days and unsafe conditions. In the colonies, production was achieved through the forced labour of millions of slaves captured from Africa.

The slave trade had been accepted as a basic fact of life for Britain ever since the 16th century. Both the state and the church refused to acknowledge the problem of slavery. Part of the reason for this is that the aristocracy, who controlled both the government and the church, were the ones who most directly benefited from the colonial revenues wrought by the slave trade.

That was the England of 1759, when William Wilberforce was born into a wealthy mercantile family in the port town of Kingston upon Hull, England.


Although he was a sickly child, the young Wilberforce excelled at his studies, entering St John's College, Cambridge, when he was seventeen.

In 1776 and 1777, Wilberforce’s grandfather and uncle died, leaving him independently wealthy. With so much money on his hands, the young man turned away from serious study to the lively university social life, pursuing the pleasures of cards, gambling and late-night drinking.

As a result of his outgoing personality and natural wit, Wilberforce made many friends, including the aspiring William Pitt. Pitt, who was intent on a career in government, urged Wilberforce to enter politics with him. He didn’t require much persuading. With a personality that could easily rally people to his side, a wit that few could match and a voice well crafted for eloquent speeches, Wilberforce was a born politician.


Thus it was that at the age of twenty-one, while he was still a student, Wilberforce ran for MP for Hull and was elected.

At that time, the two major parties were the Whigs and the Tories. Rather than identifying himself with either group, Wilberforce preferred to be a ‘no party man.’ He voted according to his conscience, while trying to work closely with whatever party happened to be in power.

In December 1783, Pitt became the youngest prime minister in British history, at the age of 24. The following year, Wilberforce decided to stand as a candidate for the county of Yorkshire and was elected.

Later the same year, Wilberforce went on a tour of Europe with his mother and sister, as well as a friend named Isaac Milner.


Having been brought up in the faith, Wilberforce was only a nominal Christian whose habits and thinking simply reflecting the prevailing culture. It was during his tour of Europe that this would change. As a result of long discussions and study with Milner, Wilberforce decided to embrace the faith for his own. He repented of his sinful habits and began to rise early in the morning to pray and study the scriptures.

When he returned to England, Wilberforce faced a dilemma: should he continue to pursue a life of politics or should he go into the ministry? At the time, ‘religious enthusiasm’ could spell the end to one’s political career since it was looked down upon by ‘polite society.’ Wilberforce was also struggling to discern how his faith should inform public life.

To help with his vocational decision, Wilberforce sought the advice of John Newton, the former slave trader and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Newton, like Prime Minister Pitt, urged Wilberforce to remain in politics as a force for good, saying: ‘It is hoped that the Lord has raised you up to the good of His church and for the good of the nation.’

Through the guidance of his friends, the Holy Spirit convinced Wilberforce to remain in politics as a Christian voice. ‘It is evident’ wrote Wilberforce, ‘that we are to consider our peculiar situations, and in these to do all the good we can. Some are thrown into public, some have their lot in private life. It would merit no better name than desertion if I were thus to fly from the post where Providence has placed me.’


From then on, Wilberforce began to do politics very differently. Prior to his conversion, Wilberforce had been known as the ‘pit bull’ of Prime Minister Pitt because of the way he was used to viciously attack the opposition. After his conversion, Wilberforce became kind without losing any of his firmness, eloquence or political savvy. He earned a new nickname for himself: ‘the conscience of Parliament.’

Before his conversion Wilberforce had been exposed to the problems of the slave trade while having dinner with James Ramsay. Ramsay, a former ship’s surgeon and medical supervisor of plantations in the West Indies, was able to give first-hand details of the horrific conditions endured by slaves both on board ships as well as at the plantations. Ramsay’s descriptions gave teeth to the anti-slavery movement which had begun in the 1780s.

It was only after his conversion that Wilberforce followed up on his meeting with Rev. Ramsay. At first, Wilberforce’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement was reluctant, since he felt himself unequal to the monumental task at hand. However, through the continual urging of various anti-slavery campaigners and also because of his own desire to put his Christian principles into practice, Wilberforce began studying the issue. It was his friend, Prime Minister Pitt, who finally urged the hesitating Wilberforce to bring the issue before Parliament. ‘Wilberforce,’ said Pitt in May 1787, ‘why don’t you give notice of a motion on the subject of the Slave Trade? You have already taken great pains to collect evidence, and are therefore fully entitled to the credit which doing so will ensure you. Do not lose time, or the ground will be occupied by another.’

So Wilberforce set the matter before Parliament for the first, but not the last, time.

While an increasing number of Christians began to support Wilberforce’s cause, he also gathered many enemies. The pro-slavery lobby was extremely powerful and well-funded. Roughly 80% of Britain’s foreign income was derived from ships travelling the ‘triangular route’, in which merchants would take British-made goods to sell the Africans in exchange for slaves, then travel on to the West Indies to trade the slaves for slave-grown products such as sugar, tobacco and cotton, and then travel back to Britain to sell those products for a hansom profit.


Accused of being a fanatic, Wilberforce replied: ‘If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.’

At this time, Wilberforce wrote in his diary: ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.’ By ‘manners’ Wilberforce meant moral values. He believed that morality could only flourish in a society when the principles of Christianity were applied to every area of public and private life. Without an underpinning in Christian morality, Wilberforce believed that the abolition of slavery would fail to achieve any long-term effect, and other injustices would rise up instead.

In 1973, Wilberforce began writing a book titled A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity. When the book was finally completed and published in 1797, it became a best-seller and remained so for the next fifty years. In it, Wilberforce points out that where true Christianity has flourished, it has raised the moral standards of society to the particular benefit of the poor and the weak. Over and against that is a cultural landscape scarred by the ‘fatal and widespread effects of...not considering [Christianity] as a principle of universal application and command for all of life.’ Although the book did not mention slavery, one of its side-effects was to cause more Christians to become involved in the anti-slavery movement.


Although Wilberforce is most remembered today for his campaign to abolish the slave trade, he was far from being a single-issue politician. He campaigned against pornography, gambling, illegal lotteries, prostitution, dishonest business practices, in addition to many other injustices. He achieved hard-fought victories in prison reform, improved factory conditions and the humane treatment of animals.

Wilberforce’s work was not limited to the political arena. He worked to raise general bible literacy, he helped to pioneer the field of philanthropy, he organized the Society for the Suppression of Vices and started or was closely involved in 69 different charities including the Bible Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

A cunning tactician, Wilberforce formed a coalition that involved former political rivals, in addition to gathering to himself other Christians who were committed to bringing their faith into the public square.

Wilberforce gave much of his own money to help the poor, but did so anonymously because he sought no credit. He personally paid for African children to come to England and be educated so that he could demonstrate to those of his day that Africans were just as intelligent as anyone else.


Though Wilberforce had never shown interest in women, his friends were anxious for him to marry. When he was in his late thirties and his health was declining, Wilberforce’s friend Thomas Babington urged him to meet twenty-year-old Barbara Ann Spooner. Wilberforce and Barbara met on 15 April 1797 and immediately fell in love. He proposed eight days later and they were married the following month.

Barbara was a devoted wife, attending to her husband’s needs while showing little interest in his political activities. Wilberforce was a committed husband and father, always finding time to play with the six children Barbara bore him.


Without television and photographs, few people knew of the horrific conditions on slave ships and on plantations in the West Indies, and those who did know were normally those with vested interests. Wilberforce set out to correct this general ignorance by presenting evidence against slavery. Gradually, one person at a time, Wilberforce built a base of support within Parliament.

Year after year Wilberforce put forward anti-slavery legislation but failed. All the time, however, his base of support within Parliament was gradually expanding. Support was also growing among the general populace. England was inundated with pamphlets, rallies and petitions (one petition had 800,000 signatures on a scroll that Wilberforce dramatically rolled out on the floor of Parliament).

For 20 years Wilberforce doggedly campaigned for Parliament to outlaw the slave trade. Each year, he came a little closer. Finally, in 1807, as a result of help from his friend, Prime Minister Pitt, he was finally successful. Parliament passed the ‘Slave Trade Act’ which criminalized the slave trade.


For Wilberforce, abolishing the slave trade was just the beginning of the battle. The next step was to free those who were already slaves. Although the stress of years in politics had taken its toll on Wilberforce’s health, he began campaigning for emancipation, though not with the same energy as his earlier battles.

When ill health forced a weary Wilberforce to retire from politics in 1825, emancipation still had not passed.

Eight years later, on July 26, 1833, Wilberforce received word that the Emancipation Bill had gone through. The slaves were now free. Wilberforce said: ‘Thank God that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery.’

Three days later, at the age of 74, Wilberforce died.


Unlike in America where abolition was primarily the work of social liberals who were prepared to use violent force to achieve their goals, in England abolition remained a primarily evangelical movement. Wilberforce steadfastly refused to pursue revolutionary means to achieve his goals. He and his Christian colleagues realized that the slave trade was not the root problem but merely a symptom of a society that had rejected God’s laws. Because of this, Wilberforce knew that spiritual weapons were needed in the fight for justice. As Regis Nicoll notes,

‘Wilberforce realized that the spiritual dimensions of a slave economy required spiritual weapons. He devoted himself to prayer, meditation, and bible study and submitted himself to the counsel of brothers and sisters who shared his faith and vision. Together they exemplified the "Body Model" of the Church.’

In Wilberforce’s day, as in our own, it was fashionable to believe that there is a political solution to each of society’s ills. Wilberforce was never so naive. He taught that a nation founded on human wisdom is a nation that will eventually end in tyranny even if it has the correct forms of government. As he put it in his book on the reformation of manners:

‘I must confess boldly that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies, or on the wisdom of her rulers, or on the spirit of her people, as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ.’

In Wilberforce we see a firm belief in God’s sovereignty. Wilberforce believed that His efforts could only be effective to the degree that they were blessed by the Almighty.

During his career Wilberforce faced times of tremendous discouragement. Yet he kept going, believing that faithfulness and not success, is what truly mattered to the Lord.

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