William Wilberforce was one of the most prominent Christian abolitionists in history.
His life story of standing up against the evils of slavery should serve as an example to every believer today.
And if you’ve never heard his story, you need to read this today:
William Wilberforce was born in Yorkshire, England in 1759. As the son of a wealthy merchant, he led a privileged life and enjoyed many social and financial advantages in his youth.
An intellectually gifted young man, Wilberforce studied at the University of Cambridge, but he was better known as “an amiable companion” than as a hardworking student.
Wilberforce flitted through his time at Cambridge as a social butterfly. “As much pains were taken to make me idle as were ever taken to make me studious,” he said regretfully, admitting that he squandered many opportunities at the university.
Other students described Wilberforce as “winning and amusing,” and they enjoyed spending time with him and conversing with him, despite his tendency to distract them from their own studies.
Because of his winning qualities, Wilberforce formed many important connections at Cambridge. He became close friends with the future prime minister William Pitt the Younger, who encouraged him to get involved in English political life.
Once he completed his studies, Wilberforce sought out a political career. Thanks to the relationships he had formed at Cambridge, he entered the House of Commons as a parliamentary representative in 1780.
But Wilberforce wasn’t interested in furthering one particular cause—at least, not yet. He admitted, “The first years in Parliament I did nothing—nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object.”
Focused on his own notoriety and fame, Wilberforce supported unusual ideas that earned him a reputation for radicalism in Parliament.
Despite his rise to fame, Wilberforce felt aimless and empty. He began searching for some meaning in his life without knowing exactly what he was missing, and he fell into a dissolute lifestyle, along with many of the politicians of his day.
After his first few years in Parliament, Wilberforce found himself in an existential crisis. He reflected deeply on his life, feeling “intense sorrow” over the emptiness of his existence.
“I am sure that no human creature could suffer more than I did for some months,” he later admitted, reflecting on the painful period of soul-searching. The emptiness became nearly unbearable.
But God had plans for William Wilberforce, and Wilberforce’s outlook changed dramatically on Easter Sunday in 1786.
He experienced a spiritual rebirth “amidst the general chorus with which all nature seems on such a morning to be swelling the song of praise and thanksgiving,” Wilberforce wrote. An encounter with Christ had transformed him.
Wilberforce immediately sought to change his lifestyle. He stopped drinking, recognized the temptations of life in politics, and began to wonder if he should step away from Parliament in order to serve God.
But God showed him that Parliament was his calling—even as a Christian!
“My walk is a public one,” Wilberforce realized. “My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.”
Knowing that his political life was meant to further the kingdom of God, Wilberforce focused his work on the abolition of slavery in England and its territories.
As a Christian living in the freedom offered by Christ, Wilberforce felt a new disgust for the slave trade.
“So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition,” he wrote. “Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”
With former slave trader John Newton as his spiritual advisor, Wilberforce began the fight to abolish slavery in England.
He formed the Anti-Slavery Society, introduced twelve Parliamentary resolutions against the slave trade, and gave stunningly eloquent abolitionary speeches that were reprinted in newspapers around the country.
Although his initial efforts failed, Wilberforce refused to give up. He quickly earned the opposition of pro-slavery forces, who called him “hypocritical” and threatened him and his allies with extreme violence.
But Wilberforce, now on a mission, was not to be stopped. He kept fighting, introducing new anti-slavery bills in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.
For eighteen years, Wilberforce strove to end the evils of the slave trade in the British Empire. Despite seeing resolution after resolution struck down by his adversaries in Parliament, he still persisted, knowing that God had called him to this work.
In 1807, Wilberforce finally achieved what he had been working toward for years: Parliament passed a bill to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire, and it soon became law.
But the fight wasn’t over. The new law didn’t free those who were already slaves.
Wilberforce, who had become gravely ill, knew he didn’t have the strength to lead the final charge to free these slaves. But, once again, his knack for relationships paid off.
After Wilberforce retired from public politics in 1825, he convinced his friends and allies in Parliament to take up the torch. They introduced new bills to free all slaves across England and its territories.
Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, just days before Wilberforce died. He had been instrumental in what many historians now call “one of the turning events in the history of the world.”
Wilberforce is buried in Westminster Abbey, close to his lifelong friend, Prime Minister William Pitt. His legacy lives on in all Christians who fight for the abolition of slavery around the world!