This blog is about legacy and living a life worth imitating. I’m inspired by the lives of people who went before me. William Wilberforce is one of them. You may already know that he was a driving force when England eliminated the slave trade. But there’s much more to the story and his example.
William Wilberforce was the only son of a prosperous merchant in the Yorkshire port city of Hull. When he was born, in 1759, his family probably hoped that his destiny was to increase the family wealth. That would have been appropriate for what we would call today an “upper middle class” family in Britain at the time.
Those hopes must have risen as Wilberforce showed great talent in school. After his father died, when William was 10, they must have become more desperate.
When he was 17, William went to Cambridge University. He was very popular, had a grand social life, and made many friends including future Prime Minister William Pitt. But after he received his inheritance, at 18, his studies became less important to him. It appeared that popularity and the social whirl would be his great interests.
At Pitt’s urging, he became a member of Parliament representing Hull in 1780, even though he was still a student. In 1784, Pitt won a large majority and became Prime Minister, Wilberforce took the more influential seat for Yorkshire. He decided to tour Europe with his family and friends to celebrate.
One of Wilberforce’s traveling companions was Isaac Milner who was a member of the Royal Society and an evangelical Anglican. Their conversations sparked a deep Christian faith in Wilberforce that would characterize the rest of his life.
When he returned to London in 1785, though, it was with more questions than answers. Wilberforce avoided his friends while he studied the Bible and books on religion. He kept a spiritual journal. He decided to give up his former lifestyle and devote himself to something more significant.
Wilberforce considered giving up politics to become a priest. But his spiritual adviser, John Newton, persuaded him to stay in Parliament and live out his faith there. Newton was a former slave ship captain. If his name is familiar, it’s probably because he was also the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Wilberforce chose to remain in Parliament and devote himself to the cause of abolishing the slave trade.
The Long Road to Abolishing the Slave Trade
Wilberforce spent three years researching the evils of the slave trade. Thomas Clarkson and others helped him compile details of the slave trade and how slaves were treated. Wilberforce and Clarkson were both members of the “Clapham Sect.” That name was a journalistic tag for a group of people committed to man’s betterment and in effect for God’s glory. They supported each other for decades.
In 1789 Wilberforce gave a three-hour speech detailing the horrors of the trade and demanding an end to it. Many newspapers of the day said it was among the most eloquent speeches ever given in Parliament. But there was a powerful slavery lobby in Parliament and his motions failed.
Many people might have called it quits then. Instead, Wilberforce gathered more research. He brought a motion to Parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1791. It was defeated, 163 to 88. He tried again in 1792, this time supported by petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of British subjects. He was defeated by some slick legislative maneuvering.
Over the next 15 years, Wilberforce brought motion after motion to abolish the slave trade with no success. Then, in 1807, his bill to abolish the slave trade in the British West Indies won by 283 to 16.
The 1807 bill was an amazing achievement, but it was only a partial step. Wilberforce turned his attention to enforcing the law and to abolishing slavery itself. He continued that quest as his health became more fragile until it forced him to resign his seat in Parliament in 1825.
Wilberforce kept supporting the work of others to abolish slavery. As he lay on his deathbed, unable to lobby Parliament to pass the final bill, his allies and friends “worked the hall of Parliament,” making the pleas on behalf of Wilberforce and against slavery.
On July 26, 1833, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. Three days later, William Wilberforce died.
The story of William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery is inspiring. I can’t think of another such example of tenacity and staying true to values over decades. It’s even more amazing when you know that Wilberforce was living out his faith in other ways. He gave his time and treasure to other causes including prison reform and better working conditions for people working in factories. He supported free schools and hospitals. He gave the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars to people in need.
What did you take away from the life of William Wilberforce?
Who do you admire and why?
Terry Moore, CCIM, is the author of Building Legacy Wealth: How to Build Wealth and Live a Life Worth Imitating. Read his “Welcome to My Blog.”