Life + Culture

His Stubborn Joy Brought Slavery Down: William Wilberforce (1759–1833)

His Stubborn Joy Brought Slavery Down

Against great obstacles, William Wilberforce, an evangelical member of Parliament, fought for the abolition of the African slave trade and against slavery itself until they were both illegal in the British Empire.

The battle consumed almost forty-six years of his life (from 1787 to 1833). The defeats and setbacks along the way would have caused the ordinary politician to embrace a more popular cause. Though he never lost a parliamentary election from age twenty-one to seventy-four, the cause of abolishing the slave trade was defeated eleven times before its passage in 1807. And the battle for abolishing slavery itself did not gain the decisive victory until three days before he died in 1833. What were the roots of this man’s endurance in the cause of public righteousness?

Party-Loving Politician

Wilberforce was born August 24, 1759, in Hull, England. He had admired George Whitefield, John Wesley, and John Newton as a child. But soon he left all the influence of the evangelicals behind. Of his later school years, he said, “I did nothing at all.” That lifestyle continued through his years in St. John’s College at Cambridge. He was able to live off his parents’ wealth and get by with little work. He lost any interest in biblical religion and loved circulating among the social elite.

On a lark, Wilberforce stood for the seat in the House of Commons for his hometown of Hull in 1780 when he was twenty-one. He spent £8,000 on the election. The money and his incredible gift for speaking triumphed over both his opponents. Wilberforce began his fifty-year political career as a late-night, party-loving, upper-class unbeliever.

“The Great Change”

On the long holidays when Parliament was not in session, Wilberforce would sometimes travel with friends or family. In the winter of 1784, when he was twenty-five, on an impulse he invited Isaac Milner, his former schoolmaster and friend from grammar school, who was now a tutor in Queens College, Cambridge, to go with him and his mother and sister to the French Riviera. To his amazement, Milner turned out to be a convinced Christian without any of the stereotypes that Wilberforce had built up against evangelicals. They talked for hours about the Christian faith.

The next summer, Wilberforce traveled again with Milner, and they discussed the Greek New Testament for hours. Slowly his “intellectual assent became profound conviction” (William Wilberforce, 37). One of the first manifestations of what he called “the great change” — the conversion — was the contempt he felt for his wealth and the luxury he lived in, especially on these trips between parliamentary sessions. Seeds were sown almost immediately at the beginning of his Christian life, it seems, of the later passion to help the poor and to turn all his inherited wealth and his naturally high station into a means of blessing the oppressed.

Slavery and Manners

One year after his conversion, God’s apparent calling on his life had become clear to him. On October 28, 1787, he 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]” (The Life of William Wilberforce, 69).

Soon after Christmas, 1787, a few days before the parliamentary recess, Wilberforce gave notice in the House of Commons that early in the new session he would bring a motion for the abolition of the slave trade. It would be twenty years before he could carry the House of Commons and the House of Lords in putting abolition into law. But the more he studied the matter and the more he heard of the atrocities, the more resolved he became.

In May 1789 he spoke to the House about how he came to his conviction: “I confess to you, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its 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” (The Life of William Wilberforce, 56).

283 Ayes

Of course, the opposition that raged for twenty years was because of the financial benefits of slavery to the traders and to the British economy. They could not conceive of any way to produce without slave labor. This meant that Wilberforce’s life was threatened more than once. Short of physical harm, there was the painful loss of friends. Some would no longer fight with him, and they were estranged. Then there was the huge political pressure to back down because of the international political ramifications. These kinds of financial and political arguments held Parliament captive for decades.

But victory came in 1807. The moral vision and the political momentum for abolition had finally become irresistible. At one point “the House rose almost to a man and turned towards Wilberforce in a burst of parliamentary cheers. Suddenly, above the roar of ‘Hear, hear,’ and quite out of order, three hurrahs echoed and echoed while he sat, head bowed, tears streaming down his face” (The Life of William Wilberforce, 211).

At 4:00am, February 24, 1807, the House divided — Ayes, 283, Noes, 16, Majority for the Abolition 267. And on March 25, 1807, the royal assent was declared. One of Wilberforce’s friends wrote, “[Wilberforce] attributes it to the immediate interposition of Providence.” In that early morning hour Wilberforce turned to his best friend and colleague, Henry Thornton, and said, “Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?” (The Life of William Wilberforce, 212).

Never Silent

Of course, the battle wasn’t over. And Wilberforce fought on until his death 26 years later, in 1833. Not only was the implementation of the abolition law controversial and difficult, but all it did was abolish the slave trade, not slavery itself. That became the next major cause.

In 1821 Wilberforce recruited Thomas Fowell Buxton to carry on the fight, and from the sidelines, aged and fragile, he cheered him on. Three months before his death in 1833, Wilberforce was persuaded to propose a last petition against slavery. “I had never thought to appear in public again, but it shall never be said that William Wilberforce is silent while the slaves require his help” (William Wilberforce, 90).

The decisive vote of victory for that one came on July 26, 1833, only three days before Wilberforce died. Slavery itself was outlawed in the British colonies. “It is a singular fact,” Buxton said, “that on the very night on which we were successfully engaged in the House of Commons, in passing the clause of the Act of Emancipation — one of the most important clauses ever enacted . . . the spirit of our friend left the world. The day which was the termination of his labors was the termination of his life” (William Wilberforce, 91).

Happy as a Child

What made Wilberforce tick? What made him persevere in the cause of public justice through decades of failure, slander, and threats?

Of course, we must pay due respect to the power of camaraderie in the cause of righteousness. Many people associate Wilberforce’s name with the term Clapham Sect. The band that it referred to were “tagged ‘the Saints’ by their contemporaries in Parliament — uttered by some with contempt, while by others with deep admiration” (Character Counts, 72). Together they accomplished more than any could have done on his own. “William Wilberforce is proof that a man can change his times, though he cannot do it alone” (William Wilberforce, 88).

But there is a deeper root of Wilberforce’s endurance than camaraderie. It is the root of childlike, self-forgetting joy in Christ. The testimonies and evidence of this in Wilberforce’s life are many. A certain Miss Sullivan wrote to a friend about Wilberforce around 1815: “By the tones of his voice and expression of his countenance he showed that joy was the prevailing feature of his own mind, joy springing from entireness of trust in the Savior’s merits and from love to God and man. . . . His joy was quite penetrating” (William Wilberforce, 87).

Another of his contemporaries, James Stephen, recalled after Wilberforce’s death, “Being himself amused and interested by everything, whatever he said became amusing or interesting. . . . His presence was as fatal to dullness as to immorality. His mirth was as irresistible as the first laughter of childhood” (William Wilberforce, 185).

Here is a great key to his perseverance and effectiveness. His presence was “fatal to dullness . . . [and] immorality.” In other words, his indomitable joy moved others to be happy and good. He remarked in his book A Practical View of Christianity, “The path of virtue is that also of real interest and of solid enjoyment” (12). In other words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). He sustained himself and swayed others by his joy. If a man can rob you of your joy, he can rob you of your usefulness. Wilberforce’s joy was indomitable, and therefore he was a compelling Christian and politician all his life. This was the strong root of his endurance.

Peculiar Doctrines, Gigantic Truths

If his childlike, self-forgetting, indomitable joy was a life-giving root for his endurance in the lifelong fight for abolition, what, we might ask, is the root of the root? Or what was the solid ground where the root was planted?

The main burden of Wilberforce’s book, A Practical View of Christianity, is to show that true Christianity, which consists in new, indomitable spiritual affections for Christ, is rooted in the great doctrines of the Bible about sin and Christ and faith. “Let him then who would abound and grow in this Christian principle, be much conversant with the great doctrines of the Gospel” (170). “From the neglect of these peculiar doctrines arise the main practical errors of the bulk of professed Christians. These gigantic truths retained in view, would put to shame the littleness of their dwarfish morality. . . . The whole superstructure of Christian morals is grounded on their deep and ample basis” (166–67).

There is a “perfect harmony between the leading doctrines and the practical precepts of Christianity.” And thus it is a “fatal habit” — so common in his day and ours — “to consider Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines” (198).

Christ Our Righteousness

More specifically, it is the achievement of God through the death of Christ that is at the center of “these gigantic truths,” leading to the personal and political reformation of morals. The indomitable joy that carries the day in time of temptation and trial is rooted in the cross of Christ. If we would fight for joy and endure to the end in our struggle with sin, we must know and embrace the full meaning of the cross.

From the beginning of his Christian life in 1785 until he died in 1833, Wilberforce lived off “the great doctrines of the gospel,” especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone based on the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is where he fed his joy. Because of these truths, “when all around him is dark and stormy, he can lift up an eye to Heaven, radiant with hope and glistening with gratitude” (A Practical View of Christianity, 173). The joy of the Lord became his strength (Nehemiah 8:10). And in this strength he pressed on in the cause of abolishing the slave trade until he had the victory.

Therefore, in all our zeal today for racial harmony, or the sanctity of human life, or the building of a moral culture, let us not forget these lessons: Never minimize the central place of God-centered, Christ-exalting doctrine. Labor to be indomitably joyful in all that God is for us in Christ by trusting his great finished work. And never be idle in doing good — that men may see our good deeds and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

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