“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” These words of wisdom regarding slavery came from William Wilberforce, a British politician and philanthropist. Born on August 24, 1759, in Hull, Yorkshire, England, William grew up as the son of a wealthy merchant. He grew up in a world where slavery had become the “norm,” with approximately thirty-five-thousand to fifty-thousand Africans captured every year to be shipped across the Atlantic. Due to his family’s financial status, he was able to afford to attend St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge. There, he became good friends with the future prime minister of England, William Pitt the Younger. Together, Wilberforce and Pitt joined the House of Commons of Parliament in 1780, with Wilberforce representing Yorkshire.
In 1784-1785, Wilberforce converted to evangelical Christianity, and from there, his lifestyle changed dramatically. John Newton, the author of the song “Amazing Grace,” was the pastor at Wilberforce’s church as a child and later became his spiritual advisor. Due to his faith, Wilberforce soon changed his objective of politics from gaining popularity to creating social reform in Great Britain, especially regarding problems such as the improvement of factory conditions. In 1786, Thomas Clarkson published An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species; this led him to connect with Wilberforce among other abolitionists. Slowly, Clarkson influenced Wilberforce to become absorbed in the issue of slavery. In the late 1780s, he founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, also known as the Anti-Slavery Society. From there, he and a few other compatriots created the Clapham Sect in 1797, which was also dedicated to abolishing slavery. Unanimously, Wilberforce was elected the leader.
Around 1789, Wilberforce and possibly Clarkson introduced twelve resolutions against the slave trade to the Commons. William Pitt, who was currently the prime minister, Charles Fox, and Edmund Burke all supported the resolutions, but they kept being postponed until the next Parliament meeting. However, they were all turned down one at a time. Wilberforce continued to push for bills against slavery almost every year from 1791 until 1805. When people realized that he was not going to let go of the issue of abolishing slavery, pro-slavery forces targeted him.
Yet there was something that was largely hidden from the public then and now. Wilberforce had been a sickly person his whole life. He survived his bouts of illness with the use of opium. At the time, the effects were still unknown, and he soon became addicted. His addiction also caused him to have extreme hallucinations that terrified him and depression that virtually crippled him. As a result, he was often prevented from attending certain meetings in Parliament to present his bills. Despite this, he kept on pushing for success in his newfound purpose of life.
In 1807, William Wilberforce finally achieved a small success in the scheme of things. In the chamber of Parliament on February 23, a bill abolishing the slave trade in the British West Indies was approved with two-hundred-and-eighty-three to sixteen votes, and on March 25, it became law. Unfortunately, it did not change the status of slaves, and as a result, Wilberforce continued to press for slavery abolishment across the whole British Empire. Together with Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, William urged people to support the immediate emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire. In 1825, Wilberforce retired from the House of Commons, and Buxton took his place in “the parliamentary leadership of the abolition movement.” Three days before Wilberforce’s death on July 26, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the Commons, becoming law the next month. He was buried next to his friend William Pitt in Westminster Abbey. Luckily, Wilberforce knew before his death that he had accomplished his God-given purpose.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “William Wilberforce.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Aug. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/William-Wilberforce.
“History – William Wilberforce.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/wilberforce_william.shtml.
“William Wilberforce.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, Christian History, 8 Aug. 2008, www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/activists/william-wilberforce.html.