William Wilberforce (1759—1833) was a Christian philanthropist, politician, and abolitionist in England. He is most famous for his leading role in abolishing the slave trade in Britain.
Born to Anglican parents in Hull, England, Wilberforce grew up privileged and wealthy. He lived with an aunt and uncle for a period after his father’s death in 1768, at which time Wilberforce was exposed to evangelical views. Being taken to hear the sermons of John Newton as a young boy undoubtedly influenced his later faith in Jesus. In college, William Wilberforce lost his religious interest and began to engage in self-pleasing behavior, including drinking and gambling.
At the age of 21, Wilberforce became a member of Parliament and started his political career. Around this time, clergyman Isaac Milner accompanied Wilberforce to France, and they discussed religious matters. Milner invited Wilberforce to study the New Testament with him, and in the course of study Wilberforce developed great sorrow over the condition of his soul. Soon after this, Wilberforce placed his faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Wilberforce experienced a radical change in his life: he stopped drinking and playing cards and seriously considered a life as a minister.
In talking to his friend John Newton, Wilberforce was dissuaded from removing himself from politics, since a Christian presence would be valuable in Parliament. At Newton’s urging, Wilberforce devoted himself to the abolition of slavery and what he called “manner reform,” as recorded in a journal entry from 1787: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners” (quoted at https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/wilberforce, accessed 9/16/2020). His strong belief that all people were made in the image of God compelled him to fight against the British slave trade (see Genesis 1:27).
Wilberforce married Barbara Ann Spooner in 1797, and they raised their children in the faith. The family engaged in prayer, Bible reading, and devotions. Sundays were set aside in the Wilberforce household as a special time to spend with the Lord.
While working fervently for the abolition of slavery in Britain, Wilberforce also started the Society for the Reformation of Manners based on his conviction that Christians should work at reforming culture. The purpose of the society was to influence piety and goodness among the leaders of Britain. Wilberforce was wealthy, as were the other members of Parliament, but sought to live a life in service to others due to his love for Christ. Not only did he persevere in fighting to end slavery, but he also founded a Bible society, regularly gave to charity, started a society ministering to the poor, founded a group focused on preventing animal cruelty, wrote tracts about the evils of slavery, and published a work on theology.
Wilberforce experienced repeated legislative defeats in his quest to end slavery, but he finally saw success. The Slave Trade Act was enacted in 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, just three days before Wilberforce died.
Although many people attempt to keep their “private” Christian faith separate from their “public” life, William Wilberforce did not see these distinctions. His personal faith in Jesus and his commitment to the standards of the Bible greatly influenced his career as a member of Parliament. The scriptural admonition of James 2:14–17 was clearly demonstrated in William Wilberforce’s faith, which moved him to fight the good fight against slavery and injustice in Britain.