The Washington of Humanity

That good and great man, William Wilberforce.
THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY

In March 1818 the Italian statesman Count Pecchio was visiting Britain. He was in London on the day Parliament opened its new legislative session. During the day’s proceedings, he witnessed Wilberforce’s entrance into the House of Commons. He never forgot the scene.

“When Mr. Wilberforce passes through the crowd,” he wrote, “every one contemplates this little old man, worn with age, and his head sunk upon his shoulders, as a sacred relic; as the Washington of humanity.”

What was it about Wilberforce that moved everyone in the room to contemplate his arrival? Why would someone like Count Pecchio take note of this?

The answer lies in a unique fact: from the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 until his death, Wilberforce was accorded a measure of personal and moral influence without precedent in British political life. Sir Winston Churchill once said that Wilberforce, in the early years of his political life, was “the keeper of Pitt’s conscience.” After 1807 Wilberforce had in many ways become the nation’s conscience.

His contemporaries knew that the struggle against the slave trade had required great fortitude and perseverance. Many also understood that Wilberforce’s faith had imbued him with a willingness to stay the course in the face of great physical debility, vitriol, and threats against his life. His service to something larger than self, amidst all of these circumstances, was the reason why he came to be venerated as “a sacred relic.”

 

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.

 

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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).

 

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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.