- Wilberforce, William
- (1759-1833)pioneering voice in the abolition of slavery in the WestWilliam Wilberforce was born into a relatively wealthy family in Hull, Yorkshire, England, in 1759. At the age of 17, he entered St. John's College at Cambridge University, where he made a valuable friend in future prime minister William Pitt. That friendship partially influenced his decision to enter politics.Wilberforce stood for Parliament in Hull in 1779. He entered the House of Commons to support the government of his college friend, William Pitt, which he did without much distinction.Meanwhile, in 1784, he experienced a conversion and became associated with the so-called Clapham Set, a zealous group of young Anglicans with Methodistlike sympathies associated with John Venn (1759-1813), the rector of Clapham Church in London. Wilberforce's new spiritual life led him to consider issues of social reform, and he responded favorably when Lady Middleton asked him to use his influence in Parliament to help end the slave trade. Pitt urged Wilberforce to become his point man on the slavery issue in the House of Commons. He delivered his first speech on the subject on May 12, 1789, and quickly emerged as one of the leading voices in the still relatively small antislavery movement. He found himself alienated from many of his Tory colleagues, who did not believe that ending slavery was economically feasible or desirable.The antislavery movement became a crusade for Wilberforce. After a stinging defeat of his bill to end British participation in the slave trade in 1791, he worked for 16 years until that vote was finally and decisively reversed. Having outlawed the slave trade, the next issue was granting freedom to those who remained in slavery. Wilber-force backed away from that step, as he believed the slaves were not yet prepared for freedom, needing education and training for the life ahead.in 1823, he joined in the work of the newly formed Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery. He died on July 29, 1833, just a month before Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that ended slavery throughout the vast British Empire.Further reading:■ Leonard W. Cowie, William Wilberforce, 1759-1833, a Bibliography (London: Greenwood Press, 1992)■ Garth Lean, God's Politician: William Wilberforce's Struggle (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980)■ Robert Isaac Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, Life of William Wilberforce, 5 vols. (London: John Murray, 1838)■ William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (London: Cadell Davies, 1797); , An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (London: J. Hatchard, 1823).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.