July 30 – William Wilberforce

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

William Wilberforce, renewer of society

Born on 24 August, 1759 in Hull, Wilberforce was the son of a wealthy merchant, who died in 1768. Brought up by an aunt, he attended Hull Grammar and then St John’s College Cambridge in 1776.  In 1780, he became member for Kingston upon Hull. He was a close friend of William Pitt and an important independent, because of his eloquence and membership of networks. In 1784 he moved to the influential constituency of Yorkshire and travelled round Europe during 1784-85 in the company of Isaac Milner, who guided him into a deeper commitment to Christ and persuaded him to see a parliamentary career as a Christian vocation. He had two priorities – the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners, setting up a society for that purpose in 1787.

Wilberforce married Barbara Spooner in 1797. They had two daughters and four sons, brought up in Clapham, where he was part of an influential network of Christian activists. Concerned about the nominal commitment of many Christians, he wrote a best- selling book of 500 pages in 1797 to challenge their limitations. Entitled A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians of  the higher and middle classes of this country contrasted with real Christianity, it went through many editions.  Wilberforce wrote passionately about the need for recognition of humanity’s sinful nature, the need for redemption and the importance of holiness, based on total commitment to the crucified and risen Lord. He thus outlined the main features of 19th century British Evangelicalism and its implications.

In addition, Wilberforce actively supported bodies such as the Church Missionary Society and the Bible Society, as well as assisting Hannah Moore’s work. He worked with Thomas Clarkson to achieve the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, after a wide-ranging combination of debate and publication. Initially supportive of Catholic Emancipation, he became more cautious on this after observing the results of the French Revolution. He helped to open India to Christian missions and was a strong ally of those working for comprehensive Sunday observance.

From 1823, he and his allies worked diligently for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, a goal achieved just three days before his death, 29 July, 1833. Not always sensitive to social injustice in Britain and becoming more conservative in his later years, he nevertheless contributed to many changes which benefited the poor. His example continues to inspire Evangelicals worldwide to work for spiritual renewal and social justice.

by Rev Dr Ian Breward