MARCH / APRIL 2017: BY VERONICA LEIGH
To call William Wilberforce a man of faith might be a bit of an understatement. Wilberforce was a force not to be reckoned with. Born in 1759, he was sent to live with his uncle and aunt after the death of his father, to receive a proper education and have a more privileged upbringing. In the late 18th century, the majority of English population belonged to the Church of England. However, more evangelical movements had begun to crop up, such as the Methodists and Quakers; even within the Anglican Church certain members became more evangelical. Influenced by George Whitefield, Wilberforce was initially drawn to the movement. His mortified family deterred him from becoming more devout in his faith. By the time he was at Cambridge, like many young men, he embraced a more worldly lifestyle. He adopted the customary gambling and drinking shenanigans that went hand in hand with life as a student. Wilberforce purportedly had an excellent singing voice and loved to entertain others. Even so, he remained a good and conscientious individual.
Following the deaths of his grandfather and uncle, Wilberforce became financially independent and though he could have lived the life of a gentleman, he was a thinker and at the age of twenty-one he became a member of parliament. As a wit, he became a great orator. His quick mind and sharp tongue cut his opponents down to size. His friend William Pitt the Younger (who would later become the Prime Minister of England) also entered the political arena and despite their inexperience, they were determined to make their mark on the world.
Wilberforce had one plan, God had another. The Lord began to draw Wilberforce back into the fold. It began with daily prayers, Scripture reading, church attendance and led to more dramatic statements of faith such as forsaking alcohol, dancing, and gambling. His spiritual awakening made him question his purpose; he wondered if he should leave politics and forsake public life. Perhaps the Lord could use him in a different manner. His friend William Pitt and John Newton (the same John Newton who had originally been involved in the slave trade, came to Christ and became a minister, and wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”) convinced him that he was exactly where he needed to be and that God was using him and would continue to.
Wilberforce’s calling came when he met Thomas Clarkson. A radical abolitionist, Thomas showed Wilberforce the evidence of the evils of the slave trade and slavery. Wilberforce’s new Christian faith challenged him, leading him to believe that he had to oppose slavery and use his position as a politician to end it. He decided to target the slave trade itself, knowing that once that was abolished, slavery would eventually cease. Wilberforce and an eclectic group of evangelicals gathered firsthand accounts, evidence, they lobbied, made speeches, and enlisted the help of former slaves for a campaign against slavery. Thousands of signatures poured in, but that was not enough. The bill he put forth was defeated and thus was the beginning of Wilberforce’s unwavering commitment to the cause.
Every year that followed, Wilberforce would bring forth a bill to end the slave trade and every year he faced failure. During his crusade, Wilberforce battled with his own demons. He had a number of health problems, many gastrointestinal issues, which he treated with opium. Addiction was not understood in those days. It destroyed his eyesight and caused him debilitating depression. He later kicked the habit, likely from God’s health.
The French Revolution and its unrest affected politics overseas and there was a lull Wilberforce’s campaigning. It was during that time he was introduced to Barbara Spooner and their courtship lasted all of eight days. Always passionate, for Wilberforce that was enough, therefore he and Barbara married. It wasn’t long before they had children and he became a very devoted father.
Following the loss of his friend William Pitt the Younger, Wilberforce and his ragtag group of evangelicals resumed the campaign against slavery. In collaboration with many, a bill was put forth which would ban British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to the French colonies. It passed with very little opposition. The slave trade petered out overnight.
Wilberforce never ceased fighting against slavery, and continued to support various causes, including children’s rights, reform for workers and animal rights. Everything he did, his actions and his crusades, stemmed from his faith in Christ. He resigned from politics in the 1820s and in 1830 lost much of his fortune via a business venture by his son. His last years were spent coping with ill health and staying with various friends on long visits. Wilberforce died in 1833, three days after hearing that the Bill for the Abolition passed.
One has to wonder would the world would have been like had Wilberforce not heard the call of God. But then again, everything happens for a reason.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh is an aspiring novelist, who lives in Indiana with her family and six furbabies. Her obsessions range from Jane Austen to the Holocaust to Once Upon a Time. She has published two short autobiographical pieces and hopes to see more in print. She also lurks on her blog.