One hundred eighty-nine years ago today, on July 26, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act passed its third reading in the House of Commons, ensuring the end of slavery in the British Empire. William Wilberforce authored it.
August 24 marks the birthday of British statesman and England’s greatest abolitionist William Wilberforce. He was a man well known to the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution. He became not just a politician, philanthropist, and abolitionist but also a writer of such popularity (in his own day) as C.S. Lewis was in the 20th century. As I mentioned in my first article on the History of Amazing Grace, Wilberforce’s mentor was the song’s author John Newton. The popular film “Amazing Grace” tells, in brief, the life of Wilberforce.
William Wilberforce was born in 1759 to privilege and wealth in 18th century England and though physically challenged, worked for nearly 20 years to push through Parliament bills for both the abolition of the slave trade as well as the emancipation of enslaved people in the British Empire, almost 200 years ago.
Early Life of William Wilberforce
Born in Hull in Yorkshire, he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Wimbledon following his father’s death in 1768. While there, he came into contact with the great evangelist George Whitefield. He was also influenced by the former slave-trading sea captain, pastor John Newton. However, he was returned to Hull because his mother and grandfather wanted him away from Newton’s influence, which they thought was too evangelical and “Methodist,” much too enthusiastic for respectable Anglicans.
Following private school, Wilberforce took his B.A. and M.A. at St. John’s College in Cambridge, where he began a lasting friendship with the future Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. But Wilberforce was not a serious student and was given to late nights of drinking, gambling, and card playing. At the age of 21, the youngest age at which one could be elected, he was elected to Parliament. He was noted for his charm and eloquence; indeed, his phenomenal rhetorical skill caused the young Prime Minister William Pitt later to challenge Wilberforce with a considerable undertaking — abolition.
The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson influenced Wilberforce to become an activist on the issue of slavery, and together they proposed to Parliament a dozen resolutions against the slave trade. Wilberforce’s early optimism was met with one defeat after another. These did not dissuade him from the cause against slavery or other issues, for that matter.
Dramatic Change of William Wilberforce
What was the source of his motivation? At the age of 25, he heard very clearly the Gospel of Christ and converted in a way that changed his life. He would rise early in the morning to read his Bible, pray, and keep a journal. Within two years, he determined to serve God by serving the lowest and most ill-treated. But what of his blossoming career in Parliamentary politics? At this point, he decided to visit his old preacher, John Newton, who was now an influential Anglican clergyman installed as Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in London. Wilberforce considered retiring from public life to engage fully in spiritual life.
Newton helped Wilberforce understand that an awakened faith did not necessitate flight from society. He told him that just as Esther had been put in the palace of King Xerxes “for such a time as this,” Newton went on to say,
“…One may not be able to calculate all of the advantages that may result from your service in public life. The example, and even the presence of a consistent character, may have a powerful, though unobserved, effect upon others. You are in a place where many know Him not, and can show them the genuine fruits of the religion you are known to profess.”
At the age of 28, 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 [morals].”
Though he continued to be plagued by poor health that kept him bedridden for weeks at a time, he attended to his causes. All his life, he suffered chronic ill health that included a crooked spine, poor eyesight, and stomach problems. He wrote:
“So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”
William Wilberforce’s Activism
When in 1797, he settled in Clapham, he became a member of the so-called “Clapham Sect,” a group of devout Christians dedicated to correcting social ills. Wilberforce was himself dedicated to and helped found numerous parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Antislavery Society, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He championed the cause of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. In total, he supported 69 philanthropic causes, giving one-fourth of his annual income to the poor.
In the same year, Wilberforce completed writing his book “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity,” which he’d been working on for some four years.
He spoke against the decline of morality in the nation but, more than anything, his own personal testimony of his life following Christ and views. His book became a best seller and a strong and influential apologetic for a vital and living Christianity. The book sold widely for over forty years.
William Wilberforce’s Emancipation Bill
Though his previous Slave Trade Act passed in 1807 in Parliament called for the abolition of the slave trade, slavery itself continued. However, he always hoped for the emancipation of the slaves. He further campaigned that the emancipation of enslaved peoples was morally and ethically necessary and that British slavery was indeed a national crime that Parliament needed to legislate.
Compare this to the words 30 years earlier of Thomas Jefferson‘s well-known but unpublished portion of his Declaration of Independence — excised by the Second Continental Congress during debates between July 1 and July 3, 1776 — where Jefferson lays the blame upon Britain’s King George III:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.
As old age set in, Wilberforce lacked the vigor to work to its accomplishment, though he continued to attack it through speeches in public meetings and in the House of Commons. Finally, 46 years after he began his fight in Parliament, the Slavery Abolition Act gathered sufficient support and had its final commons reading on July 26, 1833.
It expanded the jurisdiction of the Slave Trade Act 1807. It made the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire with three exceptions: the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company, Sri Lanka, and Saint Helena (an island in the Atlantic.) The British West Indies would abolish slavery in 1849. All told, 800,000 slaves were freed, mainly in the Caribbean.
Wilberforce died just three days after the signing of his Act and was buried in the north transept of Westminster Abbey next to his friend William Pitt, Prime Minister. On the day of his being laid to rest, both Houses of Parliament took a recess out of respect.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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