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William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce

The English statesman and humanitarian William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a prominent antislavery leader. His agitation helped smooth the way for the Act of Abolition of 1833.

William Wilberforce was born to affluence at Hull on Aug. 24, 1759. He attended Hull Grammar School and St. John's College, Cambridge. He was elected to Parliament from Hull in 1780 and from Yorkshire in 1784. In 1812 he moved his constituency to Bramber, Sussex. He retired from the House of Commons in 1825.

Wilberforce was a friend and lifelong supporter of William Pitt the Younger, the great British prime minister and war leader. Like his leader, Wilberforce moved toward a more conservative position following the French Revolution and Britain's involvement in the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars. His antislavery ideas arose not out of a background of secular liberalism but out of his religious beliefs. England in the late 18th century experienced a powerful religious revival, and in 1785 Wilberforce was converted to Evangelical Christianity.

In 1787 Wilberforce was approached by the antislavery advocate Thomas Clarkson, who was already in touch with the abolitionist lawyer Granville Sharp. The three formed the nucleus of a group ridiculed as the "Clapham sect" (after the location of the house where they held their meetings). They were joined by such slavery opponents as John Newton, Hannah More, Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay, E. J. Eliot, and James Stephen. Clarkson organized a propaganda campaign throughout the country, while Wilberforce represented the group's interests in the House of Commons. Wilberforce created two formal organizations in 1787: the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Society for the Reformation of Manners.

The Claphams won a growing number of converts to their cause, but they were unable to make any legal headway against the West Indies slave traders and planters. Pitt personally supported the petitions presented to the House by Wilberforce; yet the slave trade was regarded as essential to economic health, and the West Indies interests were an important component of Pitt's Whig coalition. The 1790s witnessed some reform of the worst practices of the slavers and a resolution supporting the gradual abolition of the slave trade.

However, Wilberforce held firm in his views. His persistence was finally rewarded in 1807, when, following Pitt's death, a temporary Radical government coalition led by Charles James Fox united liberals and Evangelicals behind passage of an act prohibiting the slave trade. This act represented the culmination of Wilberforce's active participation in the movement.

In 1823 younger followers of Wilberforce founded the Antislavery Society, of which Wilberforce became a vice president. Once again a prolonged period of agitation produced results. Wilberforce, however, had been dead for a month when the Emancipation Act became law in August 1833.

Further Reading

The most authoritative volumes on Wilberforce are Reginald Coupland, Wilberforce (rev. ed. 1945), and Oliver Warner, William Wilberforce and His Times (1963). The struggle over slavery and the slave trade is examined within the framework of British imperial history in Charles E. Carrington, The British Overseas: Exploits of a Nation of Shopkeepers, vol. 1 (2d ed. 1968). J. H. Parry and P. M. Sherlock deal with the colonial aspect of the question in A Short History of the West Indies (2d ed. 1963).

Additional Sources

Catherwood, H. F. R. (Henry Frederick Ross), Sir, The difference between a reformer and a progressive, London: Shaftesbury Society, 1977.

Everett, Betty Steele, Freedom fighter: the story of William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who fought to free slaves, Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1994.

Furneaux, Robin, William Wilberforce, London, Hamilton, 1974.

Lean, Garth, God's politician: William Wilberforce's struggle, Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1987.

Ludwig, Charles, He freed Britain's slaves, Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1977.

Pollock, John Charles, Wilberforce, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978, 1977. □

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Wilberforce, William

William Wilberforce, 1759–1833, British politician and humanitarian. He was elected to Parliament in 1780 and during the campaign formed a lifelong friendship with William Pitt, whose measures he generally supported in the House of Commons. In 1785, during a tour of the Continent, he became converted to evangelicism—a decision that affected his entire outlook and caused him to withdraw from fashionable society. He pressed unsuccessfully for more humane criminal laws and, joining with Thomas Clarkson and others in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, was for 20 years parliamentary leader of this movement. He also organized (1802) the Society for the Suppression of Vice and took part in other evangelical activities for social improvement. Abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament was achieved in 1807. When it became apparent that the measure would not cause the natural demise of slavery, Wilberforce directed his efforts to the suppression of the institution throughout the British Empire. A bill to this effect was passed a month after his death. Wilberforce wrote A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians (1797), a work that enjoyed wide popularity both in Britain and on the Continent.

See his correspondence (1840); biographies by R. I. and S. Wilberforce (1835), R. Coupland (1923, repr. 1968), and O. M. Warner (1962); study by G. Lean (1988).

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Wilberforce, William

Wilberforce, William (1759–1833). Evangelical philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner. Born in Hull, the son of a merchant, and educated at St John's College, Cambridge, he was MP for Hull (1780), Yorkshire (1784–1812), and Bramber (1812–25). Following his conversion (1784–85) he became a leading evangelical, helping found the Proclamation Society to prosecute blasphemy and vice (1787), the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor (1796), the Church Missionary Society (1799), and the Bible Society (1804). His Practical View of Christianity (1797) went through 15 English and 25 American editions by 1825. In 1787 he joined the campaign against the slave trade, which he promoted in Parliament through his friendship with Prime Minister Pitt, though his inept tactics may have delayed success, which came only in 1807. In 1823 he joined the anti-slavery Society, though ill health forced his retirement from public life in 1825.

Edward Royle

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"Wilberforce, William." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Wilberforce, William

Wilberforce, William (1759–1833). Evangelical Anglican and reformer. Born in Hull, he became MP for the city in 1780. He later took the county seat for Yorkshire and worked tirelessly in Parliament for the abolition of the slave-trade. His Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians (1797) exposed the nominal Christianity of many in ‘the Higher and Middle Classes’ and became a religious best-seller for forty years. He is recognized in the Lesser Festivals of the Church of England, 29 July.

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"Wilberforce, William." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Wilberforce, William." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved July 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/wilberforce-william

Wilberforce, William

Wilberforce, William (1759–1833) English social reformer. He was elected to Parliament in 1780. In 1785, he converted to evangelicalism. Wilberforce led the abolitionist cause in Parliament for more than 20 years. His campaign led to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, but Wilberforce continued to work for abolition throughout the British Empire. His works include A Practical View (1797).

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