William Wilberforce

1759-1833. Slave trade abolitionist. Born in Hull, where his house still stands as a museum to him, he was educated first at Hull Grammar School where he came under the influence of Joseph Milner,* the headmaster, and his brother Isaac. The latter used to lift the small boy onto the table so that the other scholars could hear him read with his beautiful voice. When he had been less than two years at the school, his father died; he went to live at Wimbledon with an aunt who was a staunch Methodist. His mother wanted to remove him from religious influences of this kind and brought him back to Yorkshire, where he went as a boarder to Pocklington School. At the age of fourteen he wrote a letter to a York paper about the evils of the slave trade. He largely wasted his time at St. John's College, Cambridge, but when he was twenty-five he met Isaac Milner* at Scarborough and invited him to come to Europe with him. He was converted through their conversation and study of the NT together on this trip. In 1780 he had been elected member of Parliament for Hull, after laying out a great deal of money on the election, and in 1784 he was again returned for his native city, but took instead the county seat for Yorkshire to which he had been chosen without a contest, and he was unopposed for that seat for twenty-three years. At this election James Boswell records how his smallness of stature was forgotten in the midst of his eloquence—“the shrimp grew and grew and became a whale.”

Wilberforce became associated with the Clapham Sect,* a group of Evangelicals who were active in public life. Through his friendship with John Newton* and Thomas Clarkson* on one hand, William Pitt on the other, he was persuaded to put most of his energies into the abolition of the slave trade. The intellectual climate of the time was favorable to ideas of human liberty and happiness, and it was on the grounds of economics or national policy that slavery was defended. By a brilliant use of all the weapons available to them, he and his friends gradually undermined both the main grounds of defense, and in 1807 the slave trade was abolished. The complete abolition of slavery was not achieved until just before his death in 1833.

He was involved in many other good causes. In 1787 he founded a society for the reformation of manners, and ten years later published his Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country contrasted with Real Christianity, which was a best seller for forty years. He and his friends sought to evangelize the upper classes as Wesley had the lower classes, and also to use their wealth and influence in a multitude of good causes. He helped in the formation of the Church Missionary Society (1799), and the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804).

R. Coupland, Wilberforce (2nd ed., 1945); R. Furneaux, William Wilberforce (1974); R.T. Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760-1810 (1975).

See R. Coupland, Wilberforce (2nd ed., 1945).