The First Great Object

Wilberforce [is] one of the party called in derision the Saints . . . who under sanctified visors pursue worldly objects with the ardour and perseverance of saints.

The final catalyst for Wilberforce came when he met with John Newton on Sunday, October 28. The two friends talked for a long time. Wilberforce now saw his path clearly. After Newton left, he took up his quill pen, and wrote in his diary:

“God has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”

It was a great event in history, this meeting of unlikely friends. Newton was so many things Wilberforce was not. For many years he had led a rough, degenerate, and tempestuous life. He had known times of great destitution and want. He did not possess riches, nor could he ever hope to move in the social circles that Wilberforce did.

Once Wilberforce had looked upon Newton as a father figure. Yet they had been painfully parted, and neither thought he would ever see the other again. In time Wilberforce ceased to care if he ever did.

Nearly fifteen years passed before they were to meet again in December 1785. And it had been Wilberforce who sought Newton out – this man with whom he had so little in common, but who had so much that Wilberforce sensed he needed to hear. Then Newton’s counsel had helped him to see he needed to stay in politics. Now, two years later, it was Newton – the former slave ship captain – a man guilty of crimes against humanity – who proved instrumental in setting Wilberforce on the path of service to humanity.

Wilberforce now moved with deliberate speed. Using his influence, he wrote to friends in government and secured permission for Clarkson to examine custom house files and other records pertaining to the slave trade. Wilberforce then met frequently with Clarkson, receiving “detailed accounts of his progress in collecting evidence.”

Soon after Christmas 1787 Wilberforce gave notice in the Commons of his intention early in the next session to move for the abolition of the slave trade. In later life he recalled what must have then been immensely gratifying: upon hearing of Wilberforce’s notice, his one-time opponent Charles Fox said that

“he had himself seriously entertained the idea of bringing the subject before Parliament; but he was pleased to add, that it having got into so much better hands he should not interfere.”

Granville Sharp, the elder statesman of the abolitionist cause who served as the chairman of the London Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, sounded a note in unison with Fox.

“Mr. W.,” Sharp wrote, “is to introduce the business in the House. The respectability of his position as member for the largest county, the great influence of his personal connections, added to an amiable and unblemished character, secure every advantage to the cause.”


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.