The Great Change

Acquaint thyself with God. . . .
Admitted once to his embrace,
Thou shalt perceive that thou wast blind before.

When Wilberforce had extended his invitation to Milner, he was unaware that Milner had any deeper principles. He did not learn that this was so until the two dined together in Scarborough before leaving England. The conversation turned to an evangelical, the Reverend James Stillingfleet, the rector of Hotham. Wilberforce spoke of him as “a good man, but one who carried things too far.” “Not a bit too far,” Milner replied.

“This declaration greatly surprised me,” Wilberforce recalled, “and it was agreed that at some future time we would talk the matter over. Had I known at first what his opinions were, it would have decided me against [t]aking him [abroad]. . . . Yet . . . a gracious hand leads us in ways that we know not, and blesses us not only without, but even against, our plans and inclinations.”

Wilberforce himself proved to be the catalyst for this discovery. He recalled,

“Milner was a sincere believer, and when I let loose, as I sometimes did, my skeptical opinions, or treated with ridicule the principles of vital religion, he combated my objections, and would say, ‘Wilberforce, I don’t pretend to be a match for you in this sort of running fire; but if you really wish to discuss these topics in a serious and argumentative manner, I shall be most happy to enter on them with you.’ ”

Wilberforce’s tendency to condemn evangelical beliefs had probably been increased by his attendance at Lindsey’s chapel. He said he went there

“not from any preference for [Lindsey’s] peculiar doctrines, for in this, except on some great festivals, his preaching differed little from that which was then common amongst the London clergy, but because he seemed more earnest and practical than others.”

Moreover, Wilberforce’s recollections now of the years spent with his aunt and uncle had left in my mind a prejudice against their kind of religion as enthusiastic and carrying matters to excess. It was with no small surprise I found [Milner’s] principles and views were the same with those of the clergymen who were called methodistical. This led to renewed discussions, and Milner (never backward in avowing his opinions, or entering into religious conversation) justified his principles by referring to the word of God.

Before leaving Nice, Wilberforce noticed a book his cousin Bessy Smith had left lying on a table in their quarters. It was Philip Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. He picked it up and asked Milner what he thought of it.

“It is one of the best books ever written,” Milner replied. “Let us take it with us and read it on our journey.”

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.