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Laws restricting drinking, swearing, and gaming on Sundays were enforced. “All loose and licentious prints, books, and publications” were suppressed, including Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. Wilberforce was criticized for his “priggish” concerns, yet John Pollock, a recent biographer, wrote, “The reformation of manners grew into Victorian virtues and Wilberforce touched the world when he made goodness fashionable.”
It has been estimated that Wilberforce—dubbed “the prime minister of a cabinet of philanthropists”— was at one time active in support of 69 philanthropic causes. He gave away a fourth of his annual income to the poor. He also gave an annuity to Charles Wesley’s widow from 1792 until her death in 1822. He fought the cause of “climbing boys” (chimney sweeps) and single mothers. He sought the welfare of soldiers, sailors, and animals, and established Sunday schools and orphanages for “criminal poor children.” His homes were havens for the marginalized and dispossessed.
Targeting the powerful as the agents of change, Wilberforce made common cause with Hannah More, the evangelical playwright, whose Thoughts on the Manners of the Great appeared in 1787. “To expect to reform the poor while the opulent are corrupt,” she wrote, “is to throw odors [perfume] on the stream while the springs are poisoned.”
Clapham, a leafy village south of London, became a base for a number of these influential people, who became known as the “Clapham Sect.” These bankers, diplomats, legislators, and businessmen shared a commitment to a godly life in public service. Their “vital” and “practical” Christianity expressed Wilberforce’s vision of an integrated evangelicalism committed to a spiritual and a social gospel. The group’s reputation for philanthropy and evangelical fervor spread. Warned one politician, “I would counsel my lords and bishops to keep their eyes upon that holy village.”
Wilberforce’s public struggles and success must be set against the background of his private joys and pains.
The Public Man’s Private Side
Wilberforce’s health was blighted by weak and painful eyes, a stomach prone to colitis, and a body that for many years had to be held upright by a crude metal frame. In his late 20s, he already wrote from his sickbed, “[I] am still a close prisoner, wholly unequal even to such a little business as I am now engaged in: add to which my eyes are so bad that I can scarce see to how to direct my pen.” His gloomy doctor reported, “That little fellow, with his calico guts, cannot possibly survive a twelve-month.”
He did, though in the process he became dependent on small doses of opium, the nearest thing to an effective pain killer and treatment for colitis known at the time. Wilberforce was aware of opium’s dangers and was not easily persuaded to take it. After taking it for some time, he noticed that omitting his nighttime dose caused sickness, sweating, and sneezing in the morning. Opium’s hallucinatory powers terrified him, and the depressions it caused virtually crippled him at times.
His notebooks contain anguished prayers: “I fly to thee for succor and support, O Lord, let it come speedily.…I am in great troubles insurmountable by me.…Look upon me, O Lord, with compassion and mercy, and restore me to rest, quietness, and comfort in the world, or in another by removing me hence into a state of happiness.” In his later years, he showed the longterm effects of opium use, particularly listlessness and amnesia.
His marriage to Barbara Spooner, in 1797, brought him much joy. On the other hand, the financial ineptitude of his oldest son in 1830 (reducing his parents to a peripatetic existence in their children’s homes) and the death of his second daughter in 1832 caused his final years to be overshadowed by grief and poverty. (In time, three of his four sons became Roman Catholics, one an adversary of Lord Shaftesbury, Wilberforce’s successor in many ways).
Wilberforce’s life was not without criticism. Some see in his sons’ five-volume Life muted praise of both his evangelicalism and his parenting. Opponents of abolition bitterly denounced both his character and his cause. A Wimbledon man, Anthony Fearon, attempted blackmail (causing Wilberforce to write, “At all events, he must not be permitted to publish”), but the precise grounds are not known.
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