Wilberforce’s Hope: Abolition, Faith, and the Good Society

The United States Constitution – Amendment 13 | December 18, 1865
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


Some of you’ve seen Amazing Grace, the film about William Wilberforce. But for those who haven’t, here’s an introduction to him…

Harriet Beecher Stowe praised him in the pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[1] The novelist E.M. Forster compared him to Gandhi.[2] Abraham Lincoln invoked his memory in a famous speech. In the houses of Parliament, Nelson Mandela spoke of his tireless labors for the sons and daughters of Africa, calling Britain “the land of William Wilberforce—who dared to stand up to demand that the slaves in our country should be freed.”[3]

Wilberforce led the 20-year fight against the British slave trade—a victory called “one of the turning events in the history of the world.”[4]

But beyond his abolitionist work, he was active on many other fronts—humane child labor laws, and education of the blind and the deaf. He sponsored hospitals and schools, and was a founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the R.S.P.C.A.)—as well as one of Britain’s great cultural treasures: the National Gallery. In all, he supported some 70 philanthropic initiatives.

“Good causes,” it’s been said, stuck to him “like pins to a magnet.”[5]

*   *   *

And yet this legacy nearly never was. It was only after his “great change,” or embrace of Christianity, that Wilberforce became a reformer.

This transformation is the heart of the true story behind the hymn Amazing Grace. For it was John Newton, the hymn writer and parson who’d once been a slave ship captain—a man guilty of crimes against humanity—who became Wilberforce’s spiritual counselor and set him on the path of service to humanity.

Citing deliverance language from the Old Testament Book of Esther, Newton told Wilberforce it was for “such a time as this” he’d become a powerful Member of Parliament, It was there he could fight to abolish the slave trade. It was there he could serve God—and serve others.

Wilberforce took Newton’s words to heart. Over time, he became a man much like Martin Luther King, Jr.—someone whose passion for social justice flowed from the place of faith. Where Dr. King had spoken in his timeless “I Have a Dream” speech of “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”—Wilberforce had, 155 years before, spoken of a “concert of benevolence” to Thomas Jefferson.

In words Dr. King would have understood well, Wilberforce had written:

in the Scriptures no national crime is condemned so frequently, and few so strongly, as oppression and cruelty, and the not using our best endeavours to deliver our fellow-creatures from them.[6]

In service to something larger than self, Wilberforce devoted his life to ending the British slave trade. Later, he fought for emancipation throughout Britain’s colonies. In 1833, as he was gravely ill, he learned that 800,000 slaves in the West Indies would be freed. He died three days later, and the world lost one of the great souls of history.

*   *   *

It was Abraham Lincoln who spoke of Wilberforce in notes for a speech given in 1858. Lincoln’s notes are now a treasured relic at Yale’s Gilder-Lehrman Center. “I have never failed,” Lincoln said, and

do not now fail—to remember that in the republican cause there is a higher aim than that of mere office.

I have not allowed myself to forget that the abolition of the Slave Trade by Great Britain was agitated [for many] years before it was a final success….School-boys know that Wilberforce…helped the [abolitionist] cause forward; but who can now name a single man who labored to [oppose] it?”[7]

A statue of Lincoln graces Parliament Square in London—a powerful, enduring symbol of Anglo-American relations. In return, America’s debt to Wilberforce has been expressed by several other presidents—among them John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Adams wrote of the “subjects so interesting to humanity” for which Wilberforce’s efforts “been so long and so earnestly employed.”[8] Wilberforce and his “Clapham circle” friends had, Adams said, pursued these humanitarian works “with the ardour and perseverance of saints.”[9] Jefferson, for his part, stated: “no good measure was ever proposed, which, if duly pursued, failed to prevail in the end. We have proof of this in the history of the endeavors in the English parliament to suppress” the slave trade.[10]

For me, though, the most moving tribute to Wilberforce is from Benjamin Hughes, the pioneering African-American educator who eulogized Wilberforce at “the request of the people of color in New York City” on October 22, 1833.

“There is a spectacle more glorious,” Hughes said, “than the transient blaze of a meteor; or the triumphant entry of a conqueror. It is the benign manifestation of those nobler feelings of our nature in behalf of the oppressed….

[It] is that species of love to man, [called] philanthropy—[which is] not circumscribed within the narrow precincts of country, restricted to religion or party;—it is co-extensive with the world. Hence, of all men, it is to the Philanthropist that we are chiefly indebted; it is upon his disinterested deeds that we are to stare;—and his is the memory for which we should cherish the fondest recollections.”[11]

*   *   *

America and Britain have always shared a special relationship, one Wilberforce cherished. They were, as he saw it, “two nations, who are children of the same family, and brothers in the same inheritance of common liberty.”[12]

Even as Wilberforce revered this common inheritance, he had the hard-won wisdom of a politician who spent 44 years in public service. And for 20 long years, starting in 1787, he led the fight to abolish the British slave trade.

But what’s often lost sight of, is that for 18 of the 20 years of the abolition fight, Britain faced the specter of revolutionary France—followed by the ever-present threat of invasion by troops under Napoleon.

Wilberforce called this “the twenty-five years’ drama since 1789.”[13] It was a dark, forbidding time—a time of world war. Financial scandals rocked Britain. Food scarcities, social unrest, and mutinies in the armed forces were just some of the trials the nation faced. No one knew what tomorrow might bring.

It seems incredible that against such a backdrop, any great legislative or philanthropic victories could be achieved. But that is what happened. Wilberforce and his friends among the Clapham circle—many of them fellow Members of Parliament—persevered. Their faith had taught them one central duty, to always ask: “who is my neighbor?”

In answer, Wilberforce cited the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Based on this, he concluded:

It is evident we are to consider our peculiar situations, and in these to do all the good we can.[14]

And so it must be said that like Martin Luther King, we can’t fully understand who Wilberforce was without knowing what his religious beliefs were. I can do no better than cite his words. Writing to a friend in June 1795, he said:

It is scarce too strong to say, that I seem to myself to have awakened about nine or ten years ago from a dream, to have recovered, as it were, the use of my reason…

In fact, till then I [lacked] first principles; those principles at least which alone deserve the character of wisdom, or bear the impress of truth…Ardent after the applause of [others], I quite forgot that I was an accountable being…that if Christianity were not a fable, it was infinitely important to study its precepts, and when known, to obey them…[It was] in the highest degree incumbent on me to examine into its authenticity diligently…and without prejudice. I know, but too well, that I am not now what I ought to be. Yet I trust I can say, “Non sum qualis eram [I am not what I was].”[15]

One author deeply important to Wilberforce during his “great change” was Blaise Pascal. Diary entries show he read Pascal’s Pensées (or, Thoughts on Religion) for hours at a time. It meant so much to him that when a friend wrote, asking for spiritual counsel, Wilberforce said:

I think I have recommended to you Pascal’s Thoughts on Religion. It is a collection of fragments—but they are the fragments of a master, like the study of Michelangelo. I know no book whatever which appears to me to contain such deep views of Christianity.[16]

What were these “fragments”? Here’s one:

We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is from this last that we know first principles.[17]

Here’s another:

The conduct of God, who disposes all things gently, is to put religion into the mind by reason, and into the heart by grace.[18]

And it has been famously said that Wilberforce knew

the reality of a reasonable faith. It was to a gradual work that he looked forward…A real change passed over all his feelings and principles…[19]

Later, he said:

By degrees, the promises and offers of the gospel produced in me something of a settled peace of conscience. I devoted myself for whatever might be the term of my future life, to the service of my God and Saviour…”[20] Last of all, he had written: “It is my constant prayer, that God will enable me to serve Him more steadily, and my fellow-creatures more assiduously—and I trust that my prayers will be granted.[21]

*   *   *

Now while it’s true that Wilberforce’s faith was a sacred source of first principles, he strove constantly to speak about religion, and morality, in ways promoted consensus among those of other faith-traditions, or no faith tradition at all. He sought common ground wherever he could.

And so he achieved great things in a political climate often hostile to his faith. Whether in the House of Commons, writing letters to royalty, or in published articles, he constantly quoted widely respected figures in literature and philosophy to contend for the vital role of religion and morality in society. Some were figures from classical antiquity, like Cicero[22]—others closer to his own time, such as Locke and Rousseau.[23] In 1808, he cited Machiavelli and Montesquieu when he declared:

It is a truth attested by the history of all ages and countries, and established on the authority of all the ablest writers, both ancient and modern…that the religion and morality of a country, especially of every free community, are inseparably connected with its preservation and welfare; that their flourishing or declining state is the sure indication of its tending to prosperity or decay.[24]

And here it must be said that Wilberforce was far from a politician who went from strength to strength. His career in public life demanded a great cost. He suffered one, possibly two nervous breakdowns, and was plagued by life-threatening illness. There were threats against his life. History remembers him as a great reformer, but during his lifetime, vitriol was constantly poured upon him. He was laughed to scorn for his “perennial resolution” to abolish the slave trade. Year after year he proposed it, year after year it was defeated—for nearly 20 years. Still, he kept on.

How he responded says everything.

He understood only too well that despite his best efforts, others would misunderstand his motives—or bring hate-filled, hurtful accusations against him. One political cartoon (and such cartoons were the television or internet of his day) showed him smoking opium with a topless slave woman in a brothel. He received death threats, and was once challenged to a duel by a slave ship captain. He knew what a troubled, violent business politics can sometimes be.

Yet faith helped him place things in perspective.

“Calumnies and misconceptions will gradually die away,” he wrote, “overborne by the course and conduct of my life.”[25] Later he said: “Our character and conduct must be both our defenders and advocates.”[26]

Ultimately, Wilberforce drew great consolation from knowing he could only do his best with the light he’d been given. “Act from a pure principle,” he said, “and leave the [result] to God.”[27]

For this, Wilberforce was willing to become an object of ridicule. One American in London venomously referred to slavery as “that old fool Wilberforce’s infatuation.”[28]

Choosing this path often meant hardship. But Wilberforce believed, before God, that his deepest obligation was to follow the dictates of his conscience. He wrote of this in a letter from 1793:

In the case of every question of political expediency, there appears to me room for the consideration of times and seasons. At one period, under one set of circumstances, it may be proper to push, at another, and in other circumstances, to withhold our efforts…But in the present instance, where the actual commission of guilt is in question, a man who fears God is not at liberty…Be persuaded then that I shall never make this grand cause the sport of caprice, or sacrifice it to motives of political convenience or personal feeling.[29]

We live in a time when people speak of religion “intruding into public life.” But we should recognize and value someone like Wilberforce. For if—like Martin Luther King—he didn’t intrude into public life, the terrible abuse of human rights known as slavery might have continued in Britain far longer—as it did in the United States. It could have become more entrenched. In Britain, slavery could have lasted as long as it tragically did here.

Wilberforce’s belief in the equality of all was a first principle that flowed from his faith. He believed, as the New Testament said:

God hath made of one blood all nations of men (Acts 17:26).

Based on his understanding of the golden rule, he felt it his duty to “follow peace with all men, and look upon them as members of the same family.” Every person, also, was “entitled to the debts of justice, [and] the liberal claims of fraternal kindness.”[30]

Wilberforce was willing to be thought a fool—even run the risk of death—to secure the abolition of the slave trade. Indeed, he showed most powerfully that he didn’t consider his reputation as something his work created. It ought to flow from faithfulness to the path he was called to follow. His love for his “fellow-creatures,” as he called them—shaped by the golden rule—was the guiding principle of his life. “I ought to do,” he said, “as I would be done by.”[31]

It says much that Wilberforce inspired many African-Americans in the early 19th century. He was cited by prominent leaders in their community, among them William Wells Brown, Paul Cuffe, and Benjamin Hughes. But seldom has a tribute from Africa’s sons and daughters ever been more eloquently given than by Frederick Douglass, who wrote:

[M]en have in their own hands the peaceful means…of making this world a healthy and happy dwelling place, if they will but faithfully and courageously use these means. The world needed…a revelation of the power of conscience and of human brotherhood…

The friends of freedom in England saw in the Negro a man, a moral and responsible being…[T]hey, in the name of humanity, denounced the crime of his enslavement. It was the faithful, persistent and enduring enthusiasm of…William Wilberforce…and [his] noble co-workers, that finally thawed the British heart into sympathy for the slave, and moved the strong arm of that government in mercy to put an end to his bondage.

Let no American, especially no colored American, withhold a generous recognition of this stupendous achievement. What though it was not American, but British…[I]t was…a triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil, and victory for the whole human race.[32]

That Wilberforce was a source of inspiration to people like Douglass, Emerson, Thoreau and Harriet Beecher Stowe says much about the “abiding eloquence of a Christian life”—as Lord Macaulay wrote for a memorial inscription to Wilberforce in Westminster Abbey. People called him “the Washington of humanity” in his own lifetime.[33]

People like Abraham Lincoln understood this. He drew inspiration from Wilberforce, though he lived an ocean away.

In closing, I’d like to say that since we began this evening with words from President Lincoln, it seems fitting to close in the same way.

These words were written in 1862, during some of the darkest days of the Civil War. It was a time of profound uncertainty—a time when the nation had come apart at the seams.

The power of Lincoln’s words is undiminished. They are watchwords for anyone who takes up the high calling—and the burden—of public service. At the same time, they beautifully compliment the ideals that Wilberforce held to.

Indeed, Wilberforce could well have spoken words like these.

Certainly, they were words he deeply understood, and tried to live by—

“I can only say,” Lincoln explained, “that I have acted upon my best convictions…and that, by the help of God, I shall continue to do so.”[34]


John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was  with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.



[1] Stowe praised Wilberforce in a letter to Lord Macaulay, dated March 20, 1852. Here Stowe spoke of “your father, Clarkson and Wilberforce, and all those brave men who began the great conflict for God and humanity.” See page xxii of The Fireside Edition of Novels and Stories: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1890).

[2] “the cleverness and astuteness which are evident in [Wilberforce’s] public life, and sometimes remind [me] of Gandhi.” E.M. Forster, as quoted a review of his book, Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography, by Eudora Welty in the 27 May 1956 edition of The New York Times Book Review. See page 112 of A Writer’s Eye, ed. by Pearl Amelia McHaney, (Jackson: Mississippi: The University Press of Mississippi, 1994).

[3] http://db.nelsonmandela.org/speeches/pub_view.asp?pg=item&ItemID=NMS399&txtstr=Joint+houses

[4] From page 51 of British History in the Nineteenth Century, by G.M. Trevelyan, (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1922).

[5] From page 139 of Wilberforce, by John Pollock, (London: John Constable, 1977).

[6] From page 374 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 4, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[7] The text from Lincoln’s remarks comes from the document “Abraham Lincoln, Speech fragment concerning the abolition of slavery, c. July 1858,” and is taken from a digital scan of the speech featured in the online exhibit “Wilberforce, Lincoln, and the Abolition of Slavery,” hosted by the Gilder-Lehrman Center at Yale University, accessed on Wednesday, 6 January 2010, and posted online at:


[8] See John Quincy Adams’ 5 June 1817 letter to William Wilberforce, housed in the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

[9] See Allan Nevins, ed., The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794-1845, 2nd printing, (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1929).

[10] See Thomas Jefferson’s 25 August 1814 letter to Edward Coles, which appears in the Library of America collection of Jefferson’s writings. Jefferson concluded this letter Coles by quoting the very same biblical passage John Wesley had quoted to Wilberforce in 1791 when urging him to perseverance in seeking the abolition of the slave trade. Jefferson told Coles: “And you will be supported by the religious precept, ‘be not weary in well-doing.’”

[11] Benjamin F. Hughes, Eulogium on the life and character of William Wilberforce, Esq., by Benjamin F. Hughes. Delivered and published at the request of the people of color of the City of New York, 22d of October, 1833, (Philadelphia : Rhistoric Publications, 1969).

[12] From page 518 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 3, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[13] From page 171 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 4, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[14] From page 106 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 4, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[15] From pages 107-108 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 1, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[16] A letter from Wilberforce to Arthur Young, 20 July 1799, a manuscript held at The Wilberforce House Museum, Hull, England.

[17] From page 102 of The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, translated by C. Kegan Paul, (London: George Bell and Sons, 1905).

[18] From page 253 of The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, translated by C. Kegan Paul, (London: George Bell and Sons, 1905).

[19] From page 107 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 1, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[20] From page 112 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 1, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[21] from page 106 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 1, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[22] See Wilberforce’s letter of 8 October 1818 to King Henry Christophe of Haiti in Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, eds., The Correspondence of William Wilberforce, vol. 1, (London: John Murray, 1840), pp. 373-374.

[23] In a House of Commons speech given on May 5, 1808, Wilberforce stated: “Toleration as explained both by Mr. Locke and Rousseau, was to leave to others the right of professing and teaching their own religious principles in their own way, as far was compatible with the peace and security of society.” See Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, from the Year 1803 to the Year 1830, vol. 11, [1808], (London, 1832), cols, 124-25.

[24] William Wilberforce, A Review of Charles Fox’s History of the Reign of James the Second, an article published in several installments of the Christian Observer during the years 1808 and early 1809. For pages from the issues comprising the 1808 volume, see 660-670; 712-732; 792-803. For pages from the issues comprising the 1808 volume, see pp. 41-50.

[25] William Wilberforce, as quoted in Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, eds., The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 3, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 322.

[26] William Wilberforce, as quoted in The Autobiography of William Jay, (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), p. 348. Here Jay recalled: “I remember, owing to some occurrence, Mr. Wilberforce gave me an admonition never to notice any thing concerning one’s self in the public prints. ‘If you do,’ said he, ‘you must notice everything; or what passes unnoticed will pass for truth, which cannot be refuted;’ adding, ‘our character and conduct must be both our defenders and advocates.’”

[27] William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, ed. Kevin Belmonte, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), p. 203.

[28] See page 307 of Edward Ball’s memoir, Slaves in the Family, (New York: Random House, 1999).

[29] See page 22 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 2, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[30] All quotes in this paragraph are from page 293 of A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce, (London: Fisher, Son & Co., 1834).

[31] From page 504 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 3, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[32] See pages 485-486 of The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, written by himself, and edited by John Lobb, (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).

[33] From page 373 of The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 4, by Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, (London: John Murray, 1838).

[34] Abraham Lincoln, in a letter to Agénor de Gasparin, August 4, 1862. See volume 2 of The Library of America collection of Lincoln’s Writings.

Published by

Kevin Belmonte

Kevin Belmonte holds a BA in English from Gordon College, an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second master’s degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He has twice been a finalist for the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and in 2003, his biography, “William Wilberforce,” won that award. On several occasions, he has served as a script consultant for the BBC, and also for the PBS documentary, “The Better Hour.” For six years, he was the lead script and historical consultant for the critically-acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace.” He has spoken in a wide array of noteworthy settings, from the Houses of Parliament in London, and gatherings of legislators in Washington, D.C., to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. For several years, his biography of Wilberforce has been required reading for a course taught by David Gergen on leadership and character formation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.