The talk began with a sketch of the period into which Wilberforce was born in 1759. The industrial revolution was launched 1760 with the building of the first iron bridge. Adam Smith argued for a capitalist economy in his The Wealth of Nations. John Payne argued for a new political culture in The Rights of Man. Alongside industrialisation and the world of new ideas, this was also a time of social disintegration, captured vividly by the artist Hogarth. The gin craze was at its height. Immorality, drunkenness, poverty and squalor were widespread.
Wilberforce was the son of a wealthy Hull merchant. As a child, he spent some time living with his caring uncle and aunt, who introduced Wilber to evangelical Christianity. But when his parents became aware of his interest in “Methodist enthusiasm”, they brought him back home and immersed him in the glitzy world of high society. William’s early religious impressions soon evaporated. At university, Wilberforce wasted much of his time playing around and gambling, only obtaining his degree by the skin of his teeth. With his ready wit, easy charm and beautiful singing voice Wilber was a popular, but directionless young man.
All this changed when William invited an old friend, Isaac Milner to join him on tour of Europe. Milner was a convinced evangelical. The two men often talked of religious matters and Wilberforce became increasingly serious about spiritual things. He read Philip Dodderidge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion, and the Lord used his to effect “a great change” in the young man’s life. He was converted to evangelical Christianity.
Career-wise, Wilberforce had decided to enter politics with his old friend from Cambridge, William Pitt. But his conversion made him consider abandoning politics to enter the Christian ministry. The preacher John Newton, whom Wilber had known from childhood, urged him to continue in politics where he could use his influence for the good of society.
Wilberforce now understood what he was to do with his life, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation Manners (or Morals)”. He realised that politics is the “art of the possible”. Change cannot simply be foisted on people. Wilberforce set about gathering support for his two great aims both in parliament and in the nation at large. He worked closely with a range of interested parties, including his close friend William Pitt, who became Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Wilberforce was a devoted family man. He married Barbara Spooner at the age of thirty seven. Together they had six children. His income of £8,000 a year made him a quite a rich man. By way of comparison, the income of Jayne Austen’s exceptionally wealthy Mr. Darcey £10,000. But Wilber ended his life in relative poverty and with no home of his own. He had to sell his property to pay off the debts incurred by one of his feckless children.
Here was a man who served in public life to the good of the people. His efforts alleviated the misery of countless thousands of slaves. He made goodness fashionable in the UK, and helped to reform society for the better. As a reflection of the nation’s esteem, Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey. The plaque on his monument says it all,
In an age and country fertile in great and good men,
He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of our times
because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour.
He added the abiding eloquence of the Christian life.
Eminent as he was in every department of public labour
And a leader in every work of charity.
Whether to relive the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow men
His name will ever be specially identified with those exertions
Which, by the blessing of God, removed from England
The guilt of the African slave trade,
and prepared the way for the Abolition of Slavery
in every colony of the Empire.