William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner,
by William Hague, Harper Collins, 2007, 582 pp.
by William Hague, Harper Collins, 2007, 582 pp.
Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Many men and women campaigned against the slave trade, but the acknowledged leader of the anti-slavery movement was William Wilberforce. William Hague has put us in his debt with this well written and compelling biography. He evidently does not share the reformer's evangelical convictions, but he evidences a sympathetic understanding of his subject. The author's political background (he was a Conservative Cabinet Minister, then Leader of the Opposition and is currently Shadow Foreign Secretary) give him a valuable insight into the political aspects of Wilberforce's life.
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 Wilberforce 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 a degree by the skin of his teeth. With his ready wit, easy charm and beautiful singing voice Wilberforce was a popular, but directionless young man. He became a Member of Parliament together with his old friend from Cambridge and one day Prime Minister, William Pitt. Wilberforce frequented the London Genteman's clubs where gambling was rife. He was ambitions and hoped to cut a dash in Parliament. But 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.
Hague endeavours to identify psychological causes for Wilberforce's conversion experience. But he does not try to explain away his turn to the evangelical faith. The writer recognises that becoming a Christian was the key event in the reformer's life. His faith gave him the moral conviction and gutsy perseverance needed to spearhead the anti-slavery campaign. But at first, conversion made him consider abandoning politics to enter the Christian ministry. He discussed his thoughts with the preacher John Newton, whom Wilberforce had known from childhood. Newton, an ex-slave trader urged him to continue in Parliament 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)”. Hague demonstrates that Wilberforce's Christian faith impacted on every area of his life. Believing in Christ gave him deep joy and contentment amid the hectic business of his life.
Politics is a messy business even for a person of faith and conviction like Wilberforce. The man who dedicated his life to liberating poor slaves also supported the suspension of habeas corpus and during the time of the Napoleonic wars. Some in his own day (and since) accused Wilberforce of hypocrisy because he appeared to be more concerned for African slaves than for the poor, downtrodden British worker. But Wilberforce supported various campaigns to help and educate the poor in his own land. Hague is at his sympathetic best in trying to understand how his subject related the political complexities of the day. He argues that Wilberforce's Christian faith gave coherence to his seemingly contradictory political decisions. The great liberator attacked slavery because the vicious trade undermined Christian faith and virtue. For the same reason he accepted that civil rights had to be suspended in wartime. He was concerned lest the anti-Christian fervour of the French Revolution spread across the English Channel.
Wilberforce realised that politics is the “art of the possible". Change cannot simply be foisted on people. He 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 characters like Charles James Fox and his close friend William Pitt. After many reversals and set backs, the slave trade was abolished in 1807 with Parliament voting 283 to 16 in favour of Wilberforce’s Bill. In 1833, shortly before his death, slavery was totally abolished in the British Empire.
But Wilberforce was involved in much more than the abolition of slavery. He was a best selling author. His A Practical View of Christianity exposed the nominal religion of the upper classes and set forth the evangelical faith in a provocative and winsome manner. He was an active philanthropist, involved in many good causes including the improvement of working conditions in the factories, the RSPCA. He advocated the work of overseas mission. In a three hour speech to Parliament, he successfully argued against the East India Company’s ban on evangelistic work in India.
Wilberforce was a devoted family man. He married Barbara Spooner at the age of thirty seven. Together they had six children. Hague paints a wonderful picture of Wilberforce at home, struggling against an ever mounting burden of correspondence against the backdrop of noises off from his beloved children. Wilberforce's vivacious, witty personality and generous disposition made his home a magnet for guests of all kinds. Politicians sought his advice. Campaigners tried to enlist his support. Those fallen on hard times begged for his aid. The constant stream of visitors drove domestic staff to distraction, as they could never be sure how many people to cater for at meal times. But such was life in the Wilberforce household. With an income of £8,000 a year Wilberforce was quite a wealthy man. But he 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. But he bore his losses with good grace, acknowledging the Lord's good hand in his plight. As Hague comments, "For forty-five years he had believed in providence; he was not going to stop now." (p. 495).
William Wilberforce served in public life not out of personal ambition, but for 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. Hague is probably right that Wilberforce would have been a disastrous Cabinet Minister. His determination to see all sides of every question made him somewhat indecisive. While always clear on the big issues, he could flip flop back and fore on lesser matters before finally making up his mind. His approach would have been a recipe for departmental paralysis. But his winsomeness, independence of spirit and gift for parliamentary oratory made him a formidable campaigning politician. William Hague has given us a convincing and engaging portrait of William Wilberforce. If you haven't yet decided on what to read on your summer holidays, then get this inspiring book!