Know Your Evangelicals:
William Wilberforce

Name: William Wilberforce (August 24, 1759 – July 29, 1833)
Why you should know him: Wilberforce was a social reformer and politician who helped bring an end to the British slave trade.
Position: Member of Parliament representing Kingston upon Hull (Yorkshire, England)
Organizational Associations: Church Missionary Society (founding member); Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; African Institution (founder); Clapham Sect; Society for the Suppression of Vice; Association for the Better Observance of Sunday
BA, St John’s College, University of Cambridge (1781),
MA, St John’s College, University of Cambridge (1788)
Books: A Practical View of the Prevailing religious system of professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797); A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807); Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (1823);
Background: On October 28, 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his journal, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation Manners.” Two years later he made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons, appealing to his colleagues “cool and impartial reason” to in seeing the slave trade as a moral evil. In April 1791 Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade, which was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. Undaunted, he introduced a motion in favor of abolition during every session of parliament and moved bills for its abolition again in April 1792 and February 1793 — both of which were defeated. It was not until 1807–sixteen years after his initial introduction of legislation–that the slave trade was ended. Wilberforce continued to fight for another twenty six years to end slavery itself. In July 1833, while suffering from a severe attack of influenza, he received word that the bill for the abolition of slavery had finally passed its third reading in the Commons. On the following day Wilberforce died. One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. As the plaque at Wilberforce’s birthplace attest, “No Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people and to elevate and ennoble British life.”

(This is #34 in the Know Your Evangelicals series.)

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • JohnW

    If Wilberforce were alive today, I am sure he would likely be speaking out against the Iraq war and the “War on Terror”/Policy of Never-Ending war. Certainly, both he and William Jennings Bryan would be attacked on this blog as being soft-headed liberals, members of “The Left”, proponents of the “social gospel” and not real Christians.

  • Pizzaman

    Unfortunatly Hollywood has glossed over much of Wilberforce’s Christianity:

  • Jeremy Pierce

    If Wilberforce were alive today, many on the left would (if they were to be consistent) have to decry the extent to which his religion influenced his politics. He had no qualms about opposing slavery merely because it is wrong, and the only reason he believed it to be wrong is that God created human beings in the image of God. His reasoning is exactly parallel to that of current conservatives who get labeled as theonomists merely for wanting to vote their conscience.
    There’s no way someone like Wilberforce would ally himself with a party that has committed itself to allowing abortion on demand. It’s possible that he would oppose some things Republicans do, but he would be no standard liberal, and he would not be a Democrat in the U.S.
    As for his views on war and what would count as a reason for initiating a just war under the threat of global terrorism and immediate attacks without military buildup that anyone can detect, we can only guess as to what he might have thought. I for one will not take such guessing into the realm of being sure what his views would have been.

  • John Salmon

    “If Wilberforce were alive today, I am sure he would likely be speaking out against the Iraq war and the ‘War on Terror’/Policy of Never-Ending war.”
    Also, he would eat Count Chocula for breakfast, prefer cricket to soccer, and drive a Lexus.

  • J. J.

    While it’s true that the “social gospel” is an aberration of the gospel (what are adjectives for, if not to modify the noun?), it’s not true that those who believe in the real gospel should not and do not have a positive effect on the society around them. Wilberforce is a great example and most assuredly would have been at the forefront of the pro-life movement if he were alive today. The parallels between the abolitionists and anti-abortionists should be obvious. They were people who put their faith into action in the political arena, standing up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, and taking a stand against the idea that certain individuals were less than human and could be considered merely as property and not fully human (not to mention all the related arguments…”economic necessity”, “personal choice”, etc.). If Wilberforce were still alive today, the arguments and attitudes of the pro-choice movement would surely sound eerily similar to those he fought against over 200 years ago.

  • Don

    “If Wilberforce were alive today, I am sure he would likely be speaking out against the Iraq war and the ‘War on Terror’/Policy of Never-Ending war.”
    Or perhaps he would have decried Saddam’s brutal enslavement of Iraqis and praised the US-led and UN-authorized coalition for its actions.

  • joshMshep

    This film is actually Very accurate to William Wilberforce’s life and faith… an inspiring portrait of a man who took his personal beliefs into the arena of public policy.
    There’s some anti-war sentiments in ‘Amazing Grace’, some animal rights ideas–all pieces of what Wilberforce stood for. But his primary cause, the Abolition of the Slave Trade, takes center stage. It’s a movie about justice, equality and the value of life.
    I’ve seen it twice, and will be going again.

  • bruce

    A thought. Why did America have a bloody civil war? Because American Christianity failed to produce a William Wilberforce.

  • Janice

    If he were alive today, Wilberforce would be pro-life, fighting embryonic stem cell research, and still a lonely voice crying in the wilderness against these borrific sins of our world. What about Sudan? What about AIDS?
    Where is oue Wilberforce?

  • ?

    This site is good but i wanted to know what exactly William Wilberforce had to do to abolish the slave trade. However this is the best site on William wilberforce i have seen so far.