History of William Wilberforce: Champion of British Slavery Abolition
187 years ago today, on July 26, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act passed its third reading in the House of Commons, ensuring the end of slavery in the British Empire. It was authored by William Wilberforce.
August 24 marks the birthday of British statesman and England’s greatest abolitionist William Wilberforce. He was a man well known to the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution and became not just a politician, philanthropist, and abolitionist, but also a writer of such popularity (in his own day) as C.S. Lewis was in the 20th century. As I mentioned in my first article on the History of Amazing Grace, Wilberforce’s mentor was the song’s author John Newton. The popular film “Amazing Grace” tells, in brief, the life of Wilberforce.
William Wilberforce was born in 1759 to privilege and wealth in 18th century England and though physically challenged, worked for nearly 20 years to push through Parliament bills for both the abolition of the slave trade as well as the emancipation of enslaved people in the British Empire, almost 200 years ago.
Early Life of William Wilberforce
Born in Hull in Yorkshire, he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Wimbledon, following his father’s death in 1768. While there, he came into contact with the great evangelist George Whitefield. He was also influenced by the former slave-trading sea captain, pastor John Newton. However, he was returned to Hull because his mother and grandfather wanted him away from Newton’s influence, which they thought was too evangelical and “Methodist,” much too enthusiastic for respectable Anglicans.
Following private school, Wilberforce took both his B.A. and M.A. at St. John’s College in Cambridge where he began a lasting friendship with the future Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. But Wilberforce was not a serious student, and he was given to late nights of drinking, gambling, and card playing. At the age of 21, the youngest age at which one could be elected, he was elected to Parliament. He was noted for his charm and eloquence; indeed, his phenomenal rhetorical skill caused the young Prime Minister William Pitt later to challenge Wilberforce with a considerable undertaking — abolition.