The Child is the father of the Man.

I never saw anyone who touched life at so many points,” a friend once said of William Wilberforce. So, fittingly, can commence the story of a man of whom it was also said, “Not one nation, but the whole human family participated in the benefit he conferred on his fellow men.”

William Wilberforce was born in the English port city of Hull on August 24, 1759. His family was an ancient and respected one that could trace its ancestry back to the reign of King Henry II in the twelfth century.

The family patriarch was Wilberforce’s paternal grandfather, also named William, and known as Alderman Wilberforce. Born in 1690, he had built a great fortune in the Baltic trade and inherited a considerable landed property from his mother. His holdings included a red-brick Jacobean mansion on High Street in Hull, land in three regions around Hull, and the estate of Markington near Harrowgate. The Markington estate contained tenant farms but no great country estate.

The merchant house run by Alderman Wilberforce imported hemp and timber from Latvia and Russia and iron ore from Sweden. In return, he exported Yorkshire products of all kinds, from Sheffield cutlery to ponies.

Aside from his business interests, Alderman Wilberforce was known for his intelligence, talent, and integrity. In 1722 he was elected mayor of Hull at the relatively young age of thirty-two. He was elected again in 1745.
He was also a forceful man who had seen much of life. He charmed his young grandson with tales of his travels and career. On one occasion he met the Duke of Marlborough, the hero of the Battle of Blenheim, in which Britain defeated France and Bavaria. Marlborough, then commander of the British army on the continent, invited Alderman Wilberforce to witness an approaching battle from a neighboring hill.

In 1745 the celebrated Jacobite rebellion against the English monarchy was led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, the heir of the only recently deposed Stuart royal line. Alderman Wilberforce displayed a good deal of military ardor and made sure that Hull was ready for any military threat. He raised volunteers and armed them with muskets. Ramparts built in the reign of Charles I – one hundred years before – were repaired and manned.

William Wilberforce, the Alderman’s grandson and namesake, was the third child and only son in his family. Sadly, of the four children born to his parents, Robert and Elizabeth, only he and one of his three sisters – Sarah (called Sally) – survived to adulthood. Wilberforce recalled:

The eldest [Elizabeth] died at about fourteen, when I was about eight. . . . She was at one of the great boarding schools of London. . . . The youngest, Ann, was I think one of the sweetest children that ever was born. . . . She was quite born, I know my mother thought, to be a comfort to her, for she lived with her all the time my sister . . . Sarah was [away] for her education. [Ann] was only born just before my father’s death, and she lived only about eight years.

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 anything 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.


Dig Deeper


For complete documentation of all sources consulted for this book, readers should consult the first edition (published by NavPress in 2002). Suffice it to say, I have drawn a great deal on the massive five-volume Life of William Wilberforce (1838), written by Robert Isaac and Samuel Wilberforce. John Harford’s classic work, Recollections of William Wilberforce (1864), has also been of great utility, as has Sir James Stephen’s most valuable Edinburgh Review essay.

For other books that have been helpful in the writing of this book, refer to the list in the bibliography that follows.

Lastly, I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to John Pollock, who allowed me permission to quote extensively from his authoritative biography, Wilberforce (London: John Constable, 1977). I am honored by this mark of friendship and kindness.


Belmonte, Kevin. Travel with William Wilberforce: The Friend of Humanity. Leominster, England: Day One Publications, 2006.

Belmonte, Kevin, ed. 365 Days with Wilberforce: A Collection of Daily Readings from the Writings of William Wilberforce. Leominster, England: Day One Publications, 2006.

Colquhoun, John Campbell. Wilberforce: His Friends and Times. London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1866.

Cormack, Patrick. Wilberforce: The Nation’s Conscience. London: Pickering, 1983.

Coupland, Reginald. Wilberforce: A Narrative. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923.

Furneaux, Robin. William Wilberforce. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1974.

Gurney, Joseph John. Familiar Sketch of the Late William Wilberforce. Norwich: Josiah Fletcher, 1838.

Harford, John Scandrett. Recollections of William Wilberforce. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864.

Hague, William. William Wilberforce. (Forthcoming, June 2007). Lean, Garth. God’s Politician. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1987.

Newsome, David. The Parting of Friends: The Wilberforces and Henry Manning. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993.

Patten, John A. These Remarkable Men: The Beginnings of a World Enterprise. London: Lutterworth Press, 1945.

Pollock, John. Wilberforce. New York: St. Martin’s, 1977.

Stephen, Sir James. “William Wilberforce” and “The Clapham Sect,” in Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, 2 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1850.

Stephen, Sir Leslie. “William Wilberforce,” in The Dictionary of National Biography.

Stoughton, John. William Wilberforce. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1880.

Warner, Oliver. William Wilberforce and His Times. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1962.

Wilberforce, A. M. ed. Private Papers of William Wilberforce. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897.

Wilberforce, Robert and Samuel. The Life of William Wilberforce, 5 vols. London: John Murray, 1838.

Wilberforce, Samuel. The Life of William Wilberforce. London: John Murray, 1868. A one-volume abridgement of the five-volume Life.

Wilberforce, William. A Practical View of Christianity, ed. by Kevin Belmonte. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2006.

Wilberforce, William. The Correspondence of William Wilberforce, ed. Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1840.

Wilberforce, Yvette. William Wilberforce: An Essay. Foreword by C.E.

Wrangham. Privately printed, 1967.

Wolffe, John. “William Wilberforce,” in The New Dictionary of National Biography.

Kevin Belmonte, William Wilberforce (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).


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.