No man in all of history fought as hard or as long to abolish slavery as William Wilberforce did throughout his life. A member of the British Parliament, he introduced anti-slavery measures year after year for 40 years until he retired in 1825.
On this day in 1833, as he lay dying, word was brought to him that the bill to outlaw slavery everywhere in the British empire had finally been passed. The dream for which he had struggled for decades was now within sight of fulfillment.
Wilberforce had not always been such a vigorous opponent of slavery, of course. As a youth he was a witty, somewhat dissipated man about town who had misspent his time at Cambridge and squandered his considerable talents on silly amusements. He was a member of the high society elite and he reveled in it.
A friend of William Pitt—who later became Prime Minister—and himself a member of Parliament, Wilberforce seemed assured of a bright political future. But then in 1784, after winning his election in Yorkshire, he accompanied his sister to the Riviera for her health. As an afterthought, Isaac Milner, a tutor at Queen’s College Cambridge and acquaintance from college days was asked along. Milner had become a deeply pious evangelical Christian. He began to share his testimony with the vacationers—particularly urging Wilberforce to commit his life to Christ.
Wilberforce had always thought himself a Christian. But it became evident to him that a total commitment to Christ was demanded by the nature of the Gospel itself. He struggled in anguish for several months. Part of that time he read Philip Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Here was a faith far deeper than anything he had known. Gradually he yielded.
After he returned home he had to wonder if it was proper for him to hold a seat in government. He confided his dilemma in Pitt. The ever-ambitious Pitt, wanting Wilberforce as an ally, urged him to remain. Still unsettled in his conscience, Wilberforce spoke to John Newton. Best remembered as the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, Newton had been converted while a blasphemous sailor and slaver. He counseled Wilberforce to remain in politics as the champion of good causes.
Several of his new evangelical friends suggested that he take up the slavery issue. Even Pitt requested it. After many doubts, Wilberforce decided it was what God wanted. He also felt he must tackle causes which would raise the standard of life and morals in England.
The friends who gathered around him became known as the Clapham Fellowship (or derisively by their critics as the Clapham sect) because most lived in the village of Clapham just outside London. Rarely in history have so many owed so much to so few. These dozen or so Clapham men and women not only fought against slavery but also against every other sort of modern vice. Many were wealthy—and they employed their worldly goods on behalf of godly causes. Everything from education for the poor masses, support of Bible societies, and private relief organizations to protection of day laborers, creation of Sunday Schools, and establishment of orphanages received their attention.
But it was the abolition of slavery which remains their greatest achievement—Wilberforce died content just days after his triumph.