Wilberforce’s steadfast dedication to fostering cultural renewal and seeking social justice flowed from a Christian faith commitment as all-consuming and seminal as that which had transformed Pascal, whose writings he deeply admired and read for hours at a time. Where Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken in his timeless “I have a dream” speech of “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” – Wilberforce had, 155 years before, written of a “concert of benevolence” in an abolition letter to President Thomas Jefferson.
In words that Dr. King would have understood well Wilberforce had also 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.”
William Wilberforce has been called “the greatest reformer in history.” In the pages that follow, I have sought to chronicle the life of a man who was also one of the great souls of history. It has been a profoundly rewarding task.
FOREWORD BY CHARLES COLSON
Had William Wilberforce remained content with the life that Providence had given him, he might easily have become prime minister of Great Britain and, consequently, the most powerful political leader of his day. He was wealthy, well educated, witty, a fine singer and brilliant speaker, with no peers at having fun or attracting a crowd, as Kevin Belmonte’s carefully researched and well-written study reveals. But his life, at one pivotal moment, took a very different turn. For God, it seems, had other plans for William Wilberforce.
The Great Change in his life was brought about in part by an “accidental” encounter with the young scholar and evangelical Isaac Milner, whose “clear grasp of the intellectual heart of Christianity” had a profound effect on the young politician. On their long travels together in Europe during the summer of 1785, the two men debated the claims of Christianity. Together they read an influential treatise written by Philip Doddridge, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, which had a transforming effect.
Wilberforce had long been skeptical of religion. More comfortable with Unitarians, he had attended church irregularly but with a serious aversion to those who took the Christian faith too seriously. Over time, however, and with the steady encouragement of Milner and other friends, including the hymn writer and former slave trader John Newton, Wilberforce was persuaded to give himself fully to Jesus Christ. It was no casual commitment.
Wilberforce feared that his close friendship with Prime Minister William Pitt would be damaged by his conversion, and he met with Pitt to discuss the change. For a time Wilberforce considered giving up his seat in Parliament, fearing that his newfound beliefs would be incompatible with the rowdy and often dirty business of politics, but Pitt and others persuaded him to stay. Where else, they reasoned, could he do more good or have more influence than in government service?
Conflicts did, of course, come in abundance, particularly when the young statesman took on the ultimate challenge of his life: the eradication of slavery in the British colonies. Ultimately, he was deserted by many who once called him friend. His health failed repeatedly, and on four occasions he came within a whisper of death. If it had not been for the support and prayers of the small circle of believing friends who met with him faithfully for many years at Clapham, this small, frail man would not have survived to achieve his life’s work. But survive he did, learning of the abolition of slavery in the British colonies just days before his death.
From beginning to end this is a remarkable and powerful story. In his deep convictions, his perseverance, his industry, and his imagination, William Wilberforce provides an unparalleled example of true Christian service in a fallen world. Despite the allurements of power and position, of friends and family, and of every sort of distraction the world could offer, Wilberforce gave himself to his cause and became for us a model of selfless endurance against every sort of adversity. In later years he would be acknowledged as the greatest and most influential figure of his time and “the Washington of humanity.”
In Kevin Belmonte’s compelling narrative of the life and times of Wilberforce, we are challenged not only to remember the achievements of this illustrious man but also to recognize the call that his example still has upon us today. How often we’re tempted to give up when the task is too hard. But the life and example of William Wilberforce take away our excuses, and the inspiring story in these pages gives courage and character a face we can recognize.
Sadly, Wilberforce has until recent decades been a figure all but lost to history. Our forefathers knew this man. His name was on the lips of America’s founding fathers. In America’s struggles with this very issue – the question of slavery and the tragedies that would befall the nation in the Civil War – it was the words and wisdom of Wilberforce that would ultimately prevail. This generation needs to be reminded of the heroic saga of William Wilberforce, and we have Kevin Belmonte to thank for bringing it so vigorously to the fore. Today, wherever people struggle for freedom from bondage and the tyranny of compromise, they will have this model and this example of compassion and tireless endurance.
It was, in fact, the determination, compassion, and wisdom exemplified by Wilberforce that prompted me to name our public policy institute in Washington, D.C., the Wilberforce Forum. But it was also this spirit that has motivated me for more than twenty-five years in my work at Prison Fellowship, bringing the love of God to those who are incarcerated in America’s prisons, to their families, and to the victims of crime.
This volume, William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity, is an important and worthy achievement, not only profound but thoroughly enjoyable to read. It is a book that will help to spread the story of a remarkable man far and wide. I am grateful to Kevin Belmonte for his own perseverance and industry in getting it all, getting it right, and getting it out, for the benefit of readers everywhere. Wilberforce would be duly proud.
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.
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.
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).