The Best Biographies of William Wilberforce

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Today’s post is by Michael Morgan (DMin, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). Michael is researching a PhD on Wilberforce and the clergy at the University of Leicester, under the supervision of professor John Coffey. He works for William Tennent School of Theology (williamtennent.org) and is the author of Catalyst for Compassion: John Newton, Justice, and the Power of Friendship to Change the World (forthcoming, fall 2019, Acoma Press). He and his wife, Catherine, have three children.

Few people have leveraged their lives for the goodwill of humanity or the cause of the gospel to the extent that the British abolitionist William Wilberforce did for almost 50 years. Through his long tenure in Parliament, his support of various missions and ministries, and his lifelong campaign for abolition and eventually emancipation, Wilberforce, to an admirable degree, did justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with his God. Studying his life forces us to consider issues of our own day, including race, empire, missions, and how Christians intersect with the public sphere.

The place to begin any list of Wilberforce biographies is with the five-volume tome compiled by two of his own sons, shortly after their father’s death. Every biography since has relied heavily on this massive work, filled with copious extracts from Wilberforce’s diaries and correspondence. For the general reader, however, The Life of William Wilberforce (1838) is exceedingly tedious to slog through (not to mention expensive). It has little to no narrative arc, and only gluttons for punishment would read it for fun when there are other options on the table. Fortunately, for all of our sakes, there are.

Two older biographies needing mention include John Campbell Colquhoun’s William Wilberforce: His Friends and His Times (1866) and Reginald Coupland’s Wilberforce: A Narrative (1923). Both are out of print, though scanned reproductions can be found on Amazon (or downloaded for free at archive.org). Colquhoun’s work, though not scholarly, is helpful as it gives a reader a short sketch of a handful of those who ran in Wilberforce’s far-ranging circle. Coupland’s, while extremely well written and engaging, doesn’t delve deeply into the primary source material.

After Coupland, it would be some 50 years before any biography of note would appear on the scene. Robin Furneaux’s William Wilberforce arrived in 1974, and three years later, John Pollock would follow up that impressive act with one of his own, entitled simply Wilberforce (1977). Both are remarkable in their own ways. While Furneaux has a great sense of historical and political context, Pollock did extensive new archival research and wrote from the vantage point of an evangelical Anglican clergyman. Furneaux is fantastic, but less sympathetic to Wilberforce’s Christian convictions—just read their chapters about Wilberforce’s conversion side by side. Pollock’s analysis is insightful, nuanced, and familiar, while Furneaux’s leaves a Christian reader looking for something more.

Kevin Belmonte’s William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity (2002), while shorter and less researched, follows in Pollock’s sympathetic vein, and builds on it, rightfully giving John Newton, the former slave ship captain and author of “Amazing Grace,” a larger role in the narrative. (This lack, my primary complaint with Pollock, isn’t really his fault. He was not allowed access to the John Newton-William Wilberforce Correspondence, which at the time of writing, was in possession of the family.) To be sure, Belmonte’s is a great entry point for those interested in Wilberforce.

The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce (2002), from John Piper’s The Swans Are Not Silent series, is a compilation of three biographical messages, creatively packaged together in one slim volume, as Newton, Simeon, and Wilberforce were all collaborators and friends. Piper characteristically concedes, “If academic historians say, ‘Farewell,’ I don’t blame them. I only hope that what I write is true and helps people endure to the end” (11, footnote). To this purpose, his book is a valuable read.

Finally, several good biographies came out around 2007 as bicentenary commemorations of the passing of Britain’s Abolition Bill. Eric Metaxas’s Amazing Grace, is, as my PhD adviser describes it, “a rattling good read,” but rather simplistic (and, thankfully, not nearly as controversial as his Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy). In the same year, the future foreign secretary and Conservative Party leader William Hague (who already had written a biography of Wilberforce’s good friend, Prime Minister William Pitt), brought his expertise to the politician in the massive William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner. Perhaps the best of 2007 is Stephen Tomkins’s William Wilberforce: A Biography, who followed it up with The Clapham Sect: How Wilberforce’s Circle Transformed Britain (2010). Tompkins’s writing is well-researched, admiring, and yet honest.

Wilberforce biographies tend to divide in rather neat categories, written either with academic heft, or for popular appeal, written by those who share his Christian convictions, or those who admire his abolition work, regardless of faith. For those who want one book “to rule them all”—a biography that combines engaging storytelling with historical finesse, theological sensitivity with social and political acumen—for the Christian who has read George Marsden’s masterful Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and is looking for the Wilberforce equivalent, the closest comparison at present would be John Pollock’s Wilberforce.

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[The book links provided here are part of the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.]

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