Many people in Africa claim to be Christians but there is no fruit in society to prove the power of their presence. This is particularly true of those who walk in the corridors of power. We have seen again and again Christians getting into politics and other public offices only to behave in precisely the same way as heathens. Although they may not have been as corrupt as the non-Christians, it has been evident to all that they have not pursued any God-glorifying goals that would make the world a better place to be in. Instead, being in public office has been an opportunity to line their pockets and accumulate wealth.

This is why in looking at the theme of cultural reformation we have opted to look at the life of William Wilberforce. When he entered public office he was a typical non-Christian, living in the lap of luxury and merely wanting to have a good time. However, his conversion to Evangelical Christianity changed all that. He began to serve humanity, and the Lord enabled him to do what was humanly impossible. Wilberforce championed prison reforms, helped to establish Bible societies and missionary societies, campaigned for better morals in society, etc. Above all, his passion in life was to legislate against trading in African slaves. Most of these efforts were championed in Parliament. On many occasions his Bills were rejected, but he re-presented them and persevered because he believed his was a just cause. The year 2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Hence, it is only right that we should join the rest of the world in taking a fresh look at the life of William Wilberforce and being challenged by it.

WILBERFORCE’S EARLY LIFE & CONVERSION

William was born on 24th August 1759 in England. He was the third child and only son of Robert and Elizabeth Wilberforce. His parents were rich merchants and so he grew up in the lap of luxury. When William turned nine, his father died. He was handed over to his uncle and aunt, William and Hannah Wilberforce, to foster him. As he grew up, his interest in politics grew and he begun to entertain dreams of entering into public office. And so it was that on 31 October 1780 he entered politics.

Wilberforce’s life at this time can be summarised as living among the big names of his day, dining and wining with them literally everyday. It was during this period that Wilberforce’s conversion took place. He had travelled to Europe with Isaac Milner as a travelling companion. Milner was a clergyman, but worldly enough for Wilberforce to consider him as good company. As they travelled through Europe, Wilberforce and Milner argued over various religious issues. One of the books they went through together, apart from the Bible, was Philip Doddridge’s The Rise And Progress Of Religion In The Soul. By the end of this trip, in February 1758, Wilberforce had been convinced about the main doctrinal points of Christianity – the biblical view of man, God and Christ. The effect that this was having on Wilberforce was more than merely intellectual. He was beginning to lose taste for the selfish indulgence that previously characterised his life. He began to develop contempt for riches. He even began to rise early in the morning to pray. There was no doubt that he was entering into conviction of sin. Something for which he sought counsel from John Newton. The result of this counselling was that he finally found peace with God in April 1786 and could speak of himself as a forgiven sinner. This was the beginning of Wilberforce’s Christian life.

Wilberforce, who previously at Cambridge did not take studying seriously, now spent nine to ten hours a day reading. He covered history, economics, literature, philosophy and science. He literally educated himself. He worked hard not only in the secular but also in the spiritual realm. He read the Bible and memorised great sections of it. He sought to apply to himself all the demands of godliness despite the many times he failed to do so. Together with Milner they agreed that they should keep an eye on each other’s walk with God. In fact they were so serious about this that when one failed to keep to his rules he had to pay money for it. Wilberforce’s pockets were soon running dry because of this!

WILBERFORCE’S INITIAL ABOLITION LABOURS

The battle that led to the abolition of the slave trade begun before William Wilberforce got involved. A number of individuals and families had already begun to agitate for its abolition, seeking to sway the popular mind against it. In 1784, James Ramsey, a clergyman, had written some books against the slave trade which brought this subject to the centre-stage of the popular mind. Others had also written on the same. Soon a number of people were collecting together under this cause in England – Ramsey, Middleton, Clarkson, etc. But they soon realised that they needed someone inside Parliament to carry the cause in the place where laws are made. As they discussed various names, William Wilberforce seemed to be the best option. In the early months of 1787 Wilberforce begun to hold regular meetings with Clarkson, Middleton, Ramsey, Sir Richard Hill, Granville Sharp and others to discuss this subject. Those with data and facts were invited to bring them – and they did. The number of slaves that died en route to the colonies and whose bodies were thrown into the ocean was in itself disgusting enough. The result of this is best put in the words of Wilberforce himself, which he spoke in the House: “As soon as I arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, 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.”

When Wilberforce finally moved the motion against the slave trade in the House in May, he spoke for about three and a half hours. There were fears in the House. Largely these had to do with the possibility that if slave trading was banned in England and its colonies, then their economic competitors (e.g. France) may fill in the void and thus do better economically than England. So, Wilberforce did not champion the abolition of slavery in his speech but rather the abolition of the slave trade. He argued that if the trade was abolished, then the slave masters would care for the slaves they already have and thus continue to benefit economically from them. He appealed to Christianity. He appealed to the consciences of the Members of the House. Whereas there were those who moved in support of the motion, there were also those in the House who had interests in the slave trade and who therefore opposed Wilberforce’s motion, while others were very uneasy. Finally, as expected, the House adjourned without arriving at any decision beyond that of forming a committee to look further at the evidence presented by Wilberforce and his team. This continued until Parliament was dissolved, pending the next General Elections, which were held in June 1790.

Wilberforce was not the same man that had been elected into office in 1784. He had become a Christian and so had charted a new path for himself as a Christian politician. He had resigned from a number of clubs that he was previously a member of due to his new Christian principles, though he had maintained certain ones because he realised that his business involved some measure of mixing with the public. Also, he had espoused the cause of the abolition of slave trade and the reformation of manners, which were now a passion for him. Despite all this, he had kept in touch with his constituency, making sure that he dealt with various needs that were brought to his attention. Thus when he went back to the electorate in 1790, he went back a new man. Although his opponents tried to unseat him by using the various principles that the new Wilberforce stood for, it soon became clear that he was so popular that it was futile to even contest him in an election. Hence, Wilberforce retained his seat with very little struggle. He used the remainder of the time before the sitting of the new Parliament to work further on his publications showing evidence of the oppressive nature and cruelty of the slave trade. He spent about nine hours a day working on this.

On 18th April 1791, the debate on the slave trade recommenced. Wilberforce made it a matter of prayer. He asked God for wisdom and strength and the power of persuasion. Wilberforce’s own contribution to the debate lasted for four hours. Various members of the House presented arguments for and against the abolition of the slave trade. Finally, the vote was taken and the abolition team lost 88-168.

Wilberforce resumed the lost debate in the House of Commons, against Pitt’s advice, on 2 April 1792. The debate was fiery from both sides. Finally, the House settled for a compromise, which was that slave trade should be gradually abolished. After further debate, the “gradually” was defined as 1 January 1796. As unsatisfied as Wilberforce was with this compromise, since he wanted an immediate abolition, he was further disappointed because when this resolution was passed on to the House of Lords, it was returned with a request for more evidence. Wilberforce realised as never before that this battle was to be a very long one. A year later, in April 1793, Wilberforce tried to convince the House of Lord’s again to endorse the gradual abolition motion, but they threw it out again.

A month later, Wilberforce brought a Bill before the House to prohibit the carrying of slaves in British ships to foreign territories. Although he knew that this Bill might never go through the House of Lords, he still wanted it passed by the House of Commons. Why did he do this? It was in an effort to divide those who had interest in the plantations where the slaves worked and those who were merchants. It worked, and Wilberforce won by 7 votes. Thus a crack began to form between the planters and merchants. At the Second Reading stage, he won by an even larger margin of 18. He wanted it taken to the House of Lords but was prevented from doing so because attention was drawn to the French Revolution taking place at about that time.

WILBERFORCE’S OTHER AREAS OF CONCERN

It needs to be noted that the abolition of slave trade was not the only item on Wilberforce’s agenda. He was deeply exercised about the declining morals in the English community, which, according to him, was the nursery in which criminal elements were being hatched. As far as Wilberforce was concerned, there were too many hangings taking place. And the best way to deal with them was not merely to enact stiffer laws but to campaign for better morals in society. How did he go about this? To begin with he went around seeking the approval of various high ranking individuals in society, such as Pitt, the Archbishop (Dr Moore) and the Queen. He then went ahead to persuade King George III to re-issue the proclamation that he made when coming to the throne, with a view to emphasise his commitment to moral reformation. On 1 June 1787 this was gazetted and brought to the attention of the nation by the clergy who read it to their congregations four times a year and by the High Sheriffs of every county.

The second part of the plan was the formation of societies for the reformation of manners. So, Wilberforce went to notable individuals and sought to persuade them to form such societies. When Parliament was not in session, he went around the country seeking men of influence and rank so that they could take up this challenge. Of course, there was opposition. There were those who reacted badly and warned Wilberforce that he was merely encouraging hypocrisy. One man took him to a portrait of Christ on the cross and said to him, “This is what happens to those who want to be reformers.” This did not discourage Wilberforce, but merely sent him back to the drawing board to make sure that he sealed all the loopholes. He found that the best way to bring in the rich and the powerful was not to annoy them with condemnation, but to make goodness fashionable. He also made the reforming movement non-religious. Thus it was a grass-roots movement within society. To Wilberforce, the call of God on his own life was clear. On Sunday, 28 October 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.” Therefore, whether alone or with friends, the die was cast!

It needs to be stated here, that while all this was going on, William Wilberforce was also busy trying to bring his friends in the political realm to Christ. He wrote down their names in his diary and prayed for their conversion regularly. He also deliberately thought of ways to bring up the subject of religion during their normal conversation. He also advocated for regular family devotions. He was such an advocate for this that it can be safely stated that the popularity of family devotions, particularly among the upper class in England, was due to his influence. As a result of this effort, Wilberforce was soon surrounded by a number of disciples, who had come to Christ through him – directly or indirectly. He encouraged them to continue in politics and business, as John Newton had encouraged him earlier on. His greatest grief was his failure to win Pitt to Christ. Wilberforce also sought to win his relatives, wealthy as they were, to Christ – and he won a number of them.

The Christian principles of William Wilberforce were particularly visible in his efforts to help the vulnerable in society. Between 1786 and 1816, he had supported efforts to reform the prison system in Britain to make it more humane, and finally saw success. He had also laboured hard to ensure medical aid for the poor. He also took personal interest in the education of the children of the poor and the Sunday School movement. He also helped to train young men whom he thought had the potential of becoming pastors in the future. He was very generous with his money to the point where he gave one-quarter of his income to charitable causes up to the time of his marriage. He was also involved with the Society for Agricultural Improvement and thus played a very significant role in increasing the food supply in the country. He also supported financially a new organisation, which was founded in 1796 in his own house called, The Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor (better called, “The Bettering Society”). Its purpose was to scientifically investigate the problems of poverty, and circulate information about methods of relief, and improve living conditions. He fought hard in Parliament against child labour and for the limiting of working hours in the industries, and he supported many Bills that were for the good of the poor.

Wilberforce had been concerned with the empty religion that characterised those who were in high positions. He felt compelled to address the matter and help those who were guilty of this empty religion to find salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence in 1797 his book came off the press entitled, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious system of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, contrasted with Real Christianity. In short, it was referred to as A Practical View. It sold 7,500 copies and circulated all over England and America. It became so popular that it reversed the trend of empty religion in his day. Many individuals were brought to Christ through it. Many, who would not have read a book written by a minister of the gospel, read this book because a well-known politician wrote it.

On 15 April 1797 Wilberforce met Barbara Spooner and within one and a half months they were married. On 21 July 1798, their first son, William, was born after a very difficult pregnancy. He proved to be a source of much heartache to his parents. Then exactly one year later, on 21 July 1799, their first girl, Barbara, was also born. They had four more children after that. Just before Wilberforce got married, his abolition Bills of 1797 and 1798 were thrown out and instead another law was passed which purported to improve the working conditions of slaves. This Amelioration Bill was passed and became law in 1797, despite all protests by Wilberforce. And as he rightly predicted, this was just a delaying tactic by his opponents. No colony improved the conditions of service for its slaves. Yet, at this time he could not get another Bill past his opponents in the House, partly because attention was mainly on Britain’s war with France, which was going on then.

In the midst of these disappointments, Wilberforce had not been indifferent to the plight of Africa. He was called in for a meeting on 12 April 1799 where John Newton, John Venn and Thomas Scott were planning to form a mission society to send the gospel to Africa and the East. Wilberforce, who had already been financially supporting the newly formed Baptist Missionary Society that sent out William Carey to India, was excited about this Anglican equivalent. They asked him to be president of the society but he refused and took up one of the vice-president positions. Thus they began to send out missionaries to win the Africans to Christ.

Wilberforce also got involved in the establishment of a Bible Society. The British and Foreign Bible Society was born on 7 March 1804. Wilberforce was nominated to sit on its committee, and he served gladly on it as it struggled for recognition, survival and expansion in the next few years.

WILBERFORCE’S FINAL ABOLITION LABOURS

Wilberforce’s final victory came in 1807. The Prime Minister decided to change the order of movement for the Bill. Instead of it emerging from the House of Commons, he decided that it should commence from the House of Lords. Hence he took it up there beginning 2 January 1807. Wilberforce sat in the gallery while the House of Lords debated the Bill vigorously. The final vote surprised everyone. 100 were for abolition, while 36 were against. It was an overwhelming majority! On 10 February, the Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, Viscount Howick, introduced the Bill in the House of Commons. When Howick introduced the case for abolition in the House of Commons he did not mention Wilberforce despite the fact that it was Wilberforce who had put up a gallant fight against the slave trade for about 20 years. This was because Howick did not like Wilberforce. However, speaker after speaker who stood up to support the Bill referred to Wilberforce with affection and pride. The House rose and everyone turned to Wilberforce with a burst of cheers. Wilberforce bowed his head and wept. When the House finally voted, 283 voted for abolition while 16 voted against it. The result was finally beyond Wilberforce’s wildest imagination. Back at home, while basking in the victory, Wilberforce called out to one of his friends celebrating the victory with him, “Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?” Henry replied, “The lottery, I think.” The Bill finally became law on 25 March 1807.

Someone commented about Wilberforce’s role in Parliament thus, “Men might doubt about his vote on minor issues, but where the interests of morality, or humanity, or religion were involved, there Wilberforce’s perception of what was right appeared intuitive, and his vote was certain: neither rank, nor power, nor eloquence bewildered him for a moment then. All the honours, all the wealth, all the seductions that the world could furnish, would not have tempted him to offend his conscience by even a momentary hesitation; he at once rose above all infirmities of habit, firm as a rock upon the spiritual foundation on which he rested.” It was because of this that in the last years of Wilberforce’s stay in Parliament he exerted a lot of influence although he never occupied any government office. He was in many ways the conscience of the House and indeed of the nation. His own community involvement also continued to grow. It was estimated that he was president or vice president or committee member of about seventy societies. They continued to call on him for help, and he often used his connections to get them the help they needed. As said earlier, most of them also benefited from his personal funding—especially before he got married.

In 1812, Wilberforce resigned as Member of Parliament for Yorkshire and took up a smaller constituency in order to give more time to his children. As his children grew up, they needed the father figure around them a lot more than he was able to give with the burdens of York on his shoulders. He loved his children and often played with them and took walks with them. He also laboured to bring them very early to the Saviour. Yet, he was still painfully aware that he had not done enough. When word did its rounds that Wilberforce had resigned from his prestigious position as Member for York to take up a smaller constituency in order to give more time for his children, family life in Britain was given a real booster.

With this change, Wilberforce went to the House of Commons less, but never missed the big debates. In 1813, he participated in debates in favour of Roman Catholic Emancipation. Another debate that Wilberforce got very involved in was that of Christian missions in India. He argued, not for compulsory Christianity, but that no one should prevent those who want to engage in missions in India. Thus, he managed to persuade the House of Commons. The House of Lords did not object. And so in 1813 the East India Company guaranteed the freedom for Christian missions in India. So even India owes a lot to William Wilberforce!

Yet, back to the slave trade. It was evident to Wilberforce that nothing short of an international treaty for the abolition of slave trade would kill that accursed trade. Hence Wilberforce wrote a letter to the Tsar, who at that time was the great man of Europe, seeking his intervention to abolish the slave trade everywhere. In May the African Institution meeting resolved to petition its ministers who were to attend an international meeting in Paris to lay before the meeting the need for a ban on slave trading. However, this was not to be. At the next meeting of the African Institution, the meeting resolved to petition Parliament to change the clause in the treaty that gave France back her captured colonies without demanding an end to slave trading. Over 250,000 petitions were collected across the nation and presented to Parliament. Wilberforce argued for these petitioners and carried the House with him. The House of Lord’s did not object, and so on 25 March 1815 France also abolished the slave trade.

William Wilberforce’s life was now drawing to a close. Apart from difficulties that he had with his son, William, and the death of his daughter, Barbara, on 30 December 1821, theirs was in many ways a happy home. Wilberforce never lived to see the day when slavery itself was abolished. This only finally happened one month after his death on 29 July 1833. Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. Indeed his life had been worth living for the glory of God and the cause of humanity. Many of the liberties that we enjoy today, both socially and spiritually, are due to his indefatigable labours.