The abolition of slavery. Women’s suffrage. Civil rights for black Americans. None of these reforms happened quickly. They only came about through years of dedicated efforts from people who refused to give up, despite overwhelming odds.
As we fight to protect life, family, and religious freedom, we can find inspiration in the lives of men and women who never gave up fighting for causes they believed in. One such individual was the great statesman William Wilberforce. Wilberforce played a central role in the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, but he did not see his reforms implemented within a few weeks or months. In fact, it took decades for Wilberforce’s ultimate goals to be accomplished. He experienced many crushing defeats yet remained steadfast in his pursuit. As we work toward reforms in the present, we can learn much from the life and example of William Wilberforce.
Born into an affluent British family, Wilberforce attended St. Johns College in Cambridge, where he became close friends with future prime minister William Pitt. Raised in a Christian home, Wilberforce drifted away from his religious upbringing as a young man. In 1780, at the age of 21 and while still a student, Wilberforce was elected to Parliament. Pitt followed his friend to Parliament, becoming the youngest prime minister in British history at the age of 24.
The first few years of Wilberforce’s parliamentary career were mostly uneventful, although he was known as an eloquent speaker who frequented bars with drinking and gambling. It wasn’t until 1785 that things began to change. Influenced by his friend Isaac Milner, Wilberforce rediscovered the Christianity of his youth. Over the next few years, Wilberforce’s newfound faith sparked a strong desire for humanitarian reform. Yet Wilberforce wrestled with whether he should leave Parliament and devote himself to full-time Christian ministry. He reconnected with his childhood pastor John Newton, a former slave trader who became an influential adviser to Wilberforce. Around this time, Wilberforce was also approached by Thomas Clarkson, co-founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, about taking up the cause in Parliament. Through the counsel of Newton, Pitt, Clarkson, and notable antislavery groups like the Clapham Sect, Wilberforce was persuaded that he could still do God’s work while remaining in politics. Around this time, he wrote the following in his journal: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners” [i.e., society].
At the time, calling for the abolition of the slave trade was deeply unpopular, given the strong economic interests many influential businessmen and members of Parliament had in the British West Indies. Over the new few years, Wilberforce and Clarkson embarked on an unprecedented public awareness campaign across Great Britain. Clarkson visited the ports where slave ships docked, taking detailed notes from crew members about the deplorable conditions slaves endured aboard ship. He also took measurements of the small quarters in which slaves were housed and gathered shackles and branding irons to demonstrate to the public how slaves were being treated. In 1787, Clarkson published a booklet titled A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition, detailing the horrific conditions slaves endured while aboard the ships. Clarkson began traveling the country, distributing leaflets describing these conditions. In 1789, Wilberforce used Clarkson’s evidence in a powerful speech before the House of Commons to present his first bill for the abolition of the slave trade. While Parliament did not act on his bill, public opinion was starting to change. In 1791, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade distributed leaflets calling upon the public to boycott sugar produced by slaves in the West Indies. Consequently, around 300,000 British citizens stopped buying the sugar, resulting in a significant loss of profit to companies that used slave labor in the West Indies.
Across the English Channel, trouble was brewing in France. Parliament was soon consumed with protecting Britain from the violent revolution engulfing France. That revolution resulted in an overthrow of the French government and eventually culminated in Napoleon’s rise to power. The British political establishment often viewed abolitionists like Wilberforce in the same light as the radicals leading the French Revolution. During this time, Wilberforce was slandered, libeled, and even received death threats. To compound his difficulties, Wilberforce battled an intestinal disease (believed today to be colitis) that prevented him from fulfilling his parliamentary duties from time to time. Despite these setbacks, Wilberforce remained resolute in his quest to end the slave trade.
Year after year, Wilberforce would present a motion in the House of Commons calling for the abolition of the slave trade. Although some of the margins were narrow, his motion was defeated every single time. Wilberforce’s motions were often defeated by fellow members of Parliament who had strong economic interests in the slave trade. In a 1791 speech, Wilberforce boldly reminded his fellow members: “Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” But Wilberforce remained unfazed by the defeats and continued his fight with public awareness campaigns, bringing to light the horrors of the slave trade. Wilberforce and Clarkson gathered thousands of petition signatures from enraged British citizens who demanded an end to the slave trade throughout the Empire.
By 1807, public opinion was squarely in his favor, and Wilberforce had persuaded many members of Parliament. After nearly 20 years of fighting, the Slave Trade Act was passed, and Wilberforce realized one of his two “great objects”—the end of the slave trade.
Because this bill did not free currently owned slaves, Wilberforce began calling for the immediate emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire. In 1825, Wilberforce resigned his seat in Parliament due to health reasons but continued his quest to abolish slavery. On July 26, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the House of Commons, effectively freeing all slaves in the British Empire. William Wilberforce died three days later with the satisfaction of knowing that the cause to which he had dedicated his life had finally been accomplished.
Wilberforce had also worked hard on his second “great object”—the “reformation of manners.” When Wilberforce began his Parliamentary career, British society was incredibly corrupt and immoral. Workers suffered poor conditions, animals were abused, and prostitution was rampant. Wilberforce had a special place in his heart for the poor and those rejected by society. By the time he died, Great Britain was a completely different place.
For more than 50 years, Wilberforce dedicated his life to building a better Great Britain. While advocating for Christians to be involved in politics, Wilberforce once said that “a private faith that does not act in the face of oppression is no faith at all.” As Christians, we are called to engage our culture and influence others for Christ. Wilberforce never attacked his opponents but instead appealed to their conscience.
Now, 187 years since Wilberforce’s death, we can draw many parallels between Wilberforce’s battles and our current ones over abortion, religious freedom, pornography, human trafficking, and many more. Since 1973, we’ve been fighting to correct the flawed decision in Roe v. Wade. While the pro-life movement has experienced many victories, hundreds of innocent unborn children are still killed every day. The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges undermines the sacred institution of marriage. And the religious liberty of Christian business owners and government employees is under increasing attack, most recently in Bostock v. Clayton County.
Despite recent setbacks, we must never give up. We can find inspiration in William Wilberforce, who faced crushing defeats and vicious attacks from his opponents but never relented his fight for what was right. We can learn much from Wilberforce’s tenacity and his unwavering commitment to the cause to which God had called him. The fight may be long and grueling, but the ultimate reward we are seeking is well worth any struggle we face now.