Name: William Wilberforce (August 24, 1759 – July 29, 1833)
Why you should know him: Wilberforce was a social reformer and politician who helped bring an end to the British slave trade.
Position: Member of Parliament representing Kingston upon Hull (Yorkshire, England)
Organizational Associations: Church Missionary Society (founding member); Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; African Institution (founder); Clapham Sect; Society for the Suppression of Vice; Association for the Better Observance of Sunday
Books: A Practical View of the Prevailing religious system of professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797); A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807); Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (1823);
Background: On October 28, 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his journal, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation Manners.” Two years later he made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons, appealing to his colleagues “cool and impartial reason” to in seeing the slave trade as a moral evil.
In April 1791 Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade, which was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. Undaunted, he introduced a motion in favor of abolition during every session of parliament and moved bills for its abolition again in April 1792 and February 1793—both of which were defeated. It was not until 1807—sixteen years after his initial introduction of legislation—that the slave trade was ended. Wilberforce continued to fight for another twenty six years to end slavery itself.
In July 1833, while suffering from a severe attack of influenza, he received word that the bill for the abolition of slavery had finally passed its third reading in the Commons. On the following day Wilberforce died. One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. As the plaque at Wilberforce’s birthplace attest, “No Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people and to elevate and ennoble British life.”
Other Posts in the “Know Your Evangelicals” Series: