« continued from previous page
Through all this, Wilberforce drew spiritual and intellectual strength from the Bible and the Puritans (such as Richard Baxter, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards), and built his evangelical faith on a mildly Calvinist foundation. Philip Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul continued to shape his spirituality: daily self-examination, and extended times of prayer, regular Communions and fasting, morning and evening devotions, and times of solitude. He also paid careful attention to God’s providential provision in his life, the needs of others, and his own mortality.
For all of Wilberforce’s appeal to “real” and “vital” Christianity, especially in his best-selling A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System…Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797), he did not embrace a dull, joyless legalism. His personality alone was too lively for that. As he once wrote to a relative, “My grand objection to the religious system still held by many who declare themselves orthodox churchmen…is that it tends to render Christianity so much a system of prohibitions rather than of privilege and hopes…and religion is made to wear a forbidding and gloomy air.”
Vocal Until Death
It is hard to comprehend the extent of Wilberforce’s labors and scope of his achievement. He contributed to the Christianization of British India by securing chaplains to the East India Company and missionaries to India. He worked with Charles Simeon and others to secure parishes for evangelical clergy, thus shaping the future of the Church of England. He helped form a variety of “parachurch” groups: the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor (1796), the Church Missionary Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1806), the Africa Institution (1807), and the Anti-Slavery Society (1823).
But his greatest legacy remains his fight against the slave trade, which frustrated him for years. As early as 1789, he achieved some success in having 12 resolutions against the trade passed—only to be outmaneuvered on fine legal points. Another bill to abolish the trade was defeated in 1791 (by 163 to 88) because a slave uprising in Santo Domingo made MPs nervous about granting freedom to slaves. Further defeats followed in 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.
But Wilberforce persisted, and finally, on February 23, 1807, a political ruse by Lord Grenville’s more liberal administration (pointing out that the trade assisted Britain’s enemies) secured its abolition by 283 votes to 16. The House cheered. Wilberforce wept with joy.
Wilberforce became a national hero overnight, and his opponents sharpened their knives. Lord Milton Lascelles spent no less than £200,000 to fight (unsuccessfully) against Wilberforce in the election in 1807.
The next issue was ensuring that the abolition of the slave trade was enforced and that eventually slavery was abolished. This last goal took another 26 years, and Wilberforce’s health prevented him from continuing to the end. At age 62, he turned over parliamentary leadership of emancipation to Thomas Foxwell Buxton.
But Wilberforce continued to play a role. In 1823 he published An Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire on Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. Three months before his death he was found “going out to war again,” campaigning for abolitionist petitions to Parliament. He declared publicly, “I had never thought to appear in public again, but it shall never be said that William Wilberforce is silent while the slaves require his help.”
On July 26, 1833, the final passage of the emancipation bill was insured when a committee of the House of Commons worked out key details. Three days later, Wilberforce died. Parliament continued working out details of the measure, and later Buxton wrote, “On the very night on which we were successfully engaged in the House of Commons in passing the clause of the Act of Emancipation…the spirit of our friend left the world. The day which was the termination of his labors was the termination of his life.”
Parliament overruled family preference and designated Westminster Abbey as the place for both his funeral and memorial. Parliamentary business was suspended. One MP recalled, “The attendance was very great. The funeral itself, with the exception of the choir, was perfectly plain. The noblest and most fitting testimony to the estimation of the man.”
It is right that Wilberforce is remembered in a church; he was a churchman through and through. But the places where his portrait hangs in Cambridge are in their own ways also fitting. His walk was indeed in the world, though not of it.
The Very Revd. Dr. Chris Hancock is the Director of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Christianity in China (CSCIC). Educated at Oxford, Dr. Hancock has been a UK Cathedral Dean, a Cambridge University academic, U.S. professor of theology, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, and for a number of years an international teacher of Christian theology in China and India.