WILBERFORCE, WILLIAM (1759–1833), British statesman, philanthropist, and religious leader.
William Wilberforce led the campaign in the British Parliament against slavery and was an influential philanthropist and religious leader. He was born in Hull, Yorkshire, the son and grandson of merchants who had grown rich through the town's trade with the Baltic. Wilberforce was educated at Hull Grammar School, Pocklington School, and St John's College, Cambridge. Due to the early deaths of his father and uncle, he inherited considerable wealth while still a teenager. In 1797 he married Barbara Spooner and had two daughters and four sons, including Samuel Wilberforce (1805–1873), later Bishop of Oxford.
In 1780 Wilberforce became member of Parliament (MP) for Hull, and in 1784 was elected for Yorkshire, the largest constituency in England, which gave him an important political power base. He was also very well connected at Westminster, being a close friend of the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806), and of other leading figures. In 1785–1786, Wilberforce experienced a period of spiritual crisis, which resulted in his conversion to evangelical Christianity and his subsequent conviction that "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners" (Wilberforce and Wilberforce, vol. 1, p. 149). Wilberforce commenced his parliamentary campaign against the slave trade in May 1789. In January 1790 he secured a Select Committee to examine the evidence, and in April 1791 moved for leave to bring in an abolition bill. Insecurity arising from the context of the French Revolution made Parliament fear such a measure could have subversive consequences, and Wilberforce was initially decisively defeated. An extensive campaign of popular agitation and petitioning ensued, causing the House of Commons to vote in 1792 for gradual abolition, but this measure was blocked by the House of Lords. Wilberforce's efforts had to be maintained for a further sixteen years, until eventual victory was secured in 1807.
Meanwhile, Wilberforce was also pursuing his agenda for moral and spiritual reform. In 1787 he had helped to secure a Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and worked hard to disseminate and implement it. In 1797 he published A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity. This was a critique of nominal Christianity and a call to widespread conversion to evangelicalism, as a means of both personal and national salvation. The book was widely read and very influential in contributing to an ongoing process of religious revival. During the 1790s and 1800s, Wilberforce was a central figure in the so-called Clapham Sect of wealthy lay evangelicals that supported parliamentary campaigns on the slave trade and other matters and was instrumental in the formation of numerous religious societies.
After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Wilberforce continued to have a prominent independent role in Parliament, particularly as a kind of national moral arbiter. In 1813 he played a significant part in securing the admission of missionaries to India, and from 1814 campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade by other nations. He enjoyed only limited immediate success, but ensured that the matter would remain firmly on the diplomatic agenda.
In 1823 a parliamentary campaign for the abolition of slavery itself was initiated. Wilberforce gave it strong moral support, but he was aging fast and unable to take a significant active part. He retired from Parliament in 1825 and died in 1833, just three days after hearing that the abolition bill had passed its third and final reading in the House of Commons.
Wilberforce's career has given rise to controversy on two specific issues. First, there is debate regarding the real importance of his personal role in the campaign against the slave trade. It is generally agreed, however, that he provided crucial parliamentary leadership, although the wider extraparliamentary campaign was primarily the work of others. Second, there is an acknowledged tension between his advocacy of the abolition of slavery and other reforming causes, and his willingness to countenance repression of political radicalism, both in the 1790s and in the disturbed years following the restoration of peace in 1815. It was also alleged that his preoccupation with slaves in the West Indies blinded him to the sufferings of the poor at home.
Nevertheless, Wilberforce's achievements were undeniably substantial. In addition to specific legislation, he was important in demonstrating how an independent political campaign pursued with great consistency and integrity could eventually bring striking results, and in providing a moral and spiritual example that stimulated significant changes in cultural attitudes.
Wilberforce, Robert Isaac, and Samuel Wilberforce. The Life of William Wilberforce. 5 vols. London, 1838. A detailed account by two of Wilberforce's sons, containing much rich material, but stronger on religious than political aspects.
Oldfield, J. R. Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade 1787–1807. London, 1998.
Pollock, John. Wilberforce. London, 1977. A scholarly biography.
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.
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).
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.
Antislavery leader and philanthropist; b. Hull, England, Aug. 24, 1759; d. London, July 29, 1833. Wilberforce was educated at Cambridge where he began a lifelong friendship with William Pitt, later prime minister. Both entered parliament in 1780. At Pitt's suggestion, Wilberforce became leader of the antislavery campaign. He continued to champion this cause in and out of parliament until slavery was completely abolished in the British Empire—just a few weeks before his death. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Although famous chiefly as an emancipator of slaves, Wilberforce also exercised a profound religious influence. As a young man in London he moved in the privileged circles, light-hearted and self-satisfied, that dominated social and political life. After an intensive study of the New Testament, he was converted to Evangelicalism, abandoned worldly ambitions, and devoted himself to philanthropic works. His Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians won wide popularity, and argued convincingly that reform of society must begin with individual sanctification. His famous diary shows how sincerely he applied this to himself.
As leader of the Evangelical and antislavery movements, Wilberforce linked these two causes. With great skill he used Evangelicalism to help wage the antislavery campaign. At the same time, the Evangelical movement raised the debased public morality of the 18th century to the higher standards of the Victorian Age. After his death, the Evangelical movement began to lose ground, but it had contributed to the abolition of slavery and raised moral standards under Wilberforce's guidance.
During the oxford movement a generation later, three of Wilberforce's four sons were among the many followers of newman who entered the Catholic Church.
Bibliography: r. i. and s. wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, 5 v. r. coupland, Wilberforce. f. h. brown, Fathers of the Victorians: The Age of Wilberforce. a. and h. lawson, The Man Who Freed the Slaves (London 1962).