Prelude to the Task

O gentlemen! the time of life is short;
To spend that shortness basely were too long.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

Wilberforce’s neglect of his studies bothered him more than anything else about his years at Cambridge.

“I was a good [classicist],” he later recalled, “and acquitted myself well in college examinations; but mathematics, which my mind greatly needed, I almost entirely neglected. . . . Whilst my companions were reading hard and attending lectures . . . [my] tutors would often say within my hearing that ‘they were mere saps, but that I did all by talent.’ This was poison to a mind constituted like mine.”

Wilberforce had changed from a boy who had largely been a sensitive, thoughtful youth. On his own for the first time, he was carving out a life for himself among young men of his own age and trying things for the first time. Instead of getting or seeking good advice and counsel, he was using his wealth to grease the skids toward social prominence. There was a real possibility of his taking the wrong fork in the road and living a spendthrift life.

One aspect of Wilberforce’s years at Cambridge that he thoroughly enjoyed – and for which he retained a love throughout his life – was walking and riding tours through the countryside, particularly England’s celebrated Lake District. His love of the country probably developed while he was staying with his aunt and uncle because their Wimbledon home was in what was then a beautiful rural setting. They took him for long carriage rides through places that would catch the eye. They traveled to hear John Newton preach in Olney, a region surrounded by pastoral scenes that had for years enchanted and inspired the poet William Cowper.

In time Cowper became Wilberforce’s favorite poet, and Wilberforce would later take special pains to retrace Cowper’s steps and visit places that had captivated him. Visits to John Thornton in the then idyllic village of Clapham, with its rolling common, fed his growing love of nature. When, starting in his Cambridge years, he was able to command his own time, he indulged this love. For the rest of his life, whenever he could, he went away into the country, taking his family or going by himself. He rented homes or secured lodgings for long periods of time. Rest, renewal, and exercise amid natural beauty – all of these were a tonic to him.

 

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


A NOTE ON SOURCES

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.