A few years ago a video titled Amazing Grace and a companion book, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas, were published to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. I saw and enjoyed the film, but somehow was not aware of the book until this year.
Wilberforce did not accomplish abolition single-handedly, of course, but he was the driving force behind abolition and a host of other social causes.
William was born into a well-to-do family. He was always small, with poor eyesight and stomach issues (modern historians think he suffered from ulcerative colitis all his life). But he had a sparkling wit, an entertaining personality, and loads of ambition.
As a boy he stayed for two tears with an aunt and uncle to attend school nearby. Unbeknownst to William’s parents, these folks were Methodists whose frequent guest was John Newton. Methodists were thought at the very least to carry religion too far, as evidenced by the nickname used for them, Enthusiasts. Others thought they were radicals. Newton and Wilberforce seemed quite fond of each other, but William’s mother whisked him away as soon as she became aware of the religious climate of her relatives’ home.
Before long William forgot his early religious leanings and became the life of many parties. If he wasn’t hosting, he was a frequent guest. Deaths of his grandfather and uncle had left him wealthy. His friend William Pitt, who was planning to enter into politics (and eventually became Prime Minister), urged William to enter politics as well. William became a Member of Parliament (MP) as an independent at the age of 21. Then he set his sights on “the most coveted seat in all of Parliament” (p. 42), Yorkshire, and was elected to it at the age of 24.
That same year, William was on a holiday with friends and spent most of the journey with the brilliant Isaac Milner. As they traveled, they read and discussed The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Phillip Doddridge. William had a tendency to think through every aspect of a decision before making it. He came to an intellectual agreement of Christianity’s doctrines first, then heart and will yielded to what he thereafter called “the Great Change.”
At first he thought such a change would necessitate his leaving government. John Newton encouraged him to “stay his post” and assured him God could use him where he was. Newton wrote to his friend, William Cowper, of Wilberforce: “I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide!! But they are not incompatible” (p. 61).
As William began to be convicted with how he used his resources and time, his attention was drawn to those in need. Slavery was just a given fact in Britain then. The entire economy was built upon it. Because most of the slaves were in the West Indies, they were hardly thought of. But as word began to get out of their harsh and inhumane treatment, various individuals began to call for action on their behalf. Writers and poets like Hannah More and William Cowper used their pens. Artist and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, of Wedgwood pottery fame, produced medallions with a cameo of a slave kneeling and asking, “Am I not a man and a brother?” People who had been aboard slave ships reported their findings. Others circulated and signed petitions. They thought Wilberforce should be their voice in Parliament, and after giving the matter his characteristic thorough consideration, he agreed.
They thought it would be an easy victory. Who, after all, would disagree with their cause? The ones who benefited from the slave trade, first of all, not only opposed any reforms but used lies and other tactics to sway public opinion. Then when the French Revolution broke out, anything smacking of liberty and equality was decidedly unpopular.
It was twenty long years before legislation passed to outlaw the slave trade. But even then there was still work to be done in enforcing it, dealing with smugglers who would fly other countries’ flags so as not to be stopped, etc. Those fighting for abolition realized they could not stop there: they needed to fight for emancipation.
Abolition of slavery was one of two main objectives in Wiliiam’s life: the other was the “reformation of manners.” By “manners” he did not mean etiquette and politeness. The Clapham Sect or society was a group of people who want to change some of the cruelties common in society then, like hangings for small offenses, public dissection of criminals’ bodies, and even bull-baiting and bear-baiting. Wilberforce financed schools for the poor run by Hannah More and her sisters even though society at large thought their education would either be fruitless or would upset “the order of things.” He was involved in penal reform, improving conditions for laborers, and a host of other causes. Yet he felt he had not done enough. He wrote to a friend:
I am filled with the deepest compunction from the consciousness of my having made so poor a use of the talents committed to my stewardship. The heart knows its own bitterness. We alone know ourselves the opportunities we have enjoyed, and the comparative use we have made of them…. To your friendly ear… I breathe out my secret sorrows. I might be supposed by others to be fishing for a compliment. Well, it is an unspeakable consolation that we serve a gracious Master, who giveth liberally and upbraideth not…. I always spoke and voted according to the dictates of my conscience, for the public and not for my own private interest…. Yet I am but too conscious of numerous and great sins of omission, many opportunities of doing good whether not at all or very inadequately improved.
In his later years he turned his attention to India and the East India Company’s abominable practices like keeping underage mistresses (what we would call a child sex trade today, only it was legal at the time) and the country’s inhumane practices like burning widows at their husband’s funeral pyres.
By the end of his life, most of his wealth was gone. He had heavily invested in his oldest’s son’s business venture, which failed. But before that he had given much to various causes and needs. He had to sell his home and take turns living with his two other sons.
Though most of the book focuses on Wilberforce’s public life, the author gives us glimpses into his private life as well. William married later in life, but was absolutely smitten once he found his wife. Visitors to the Wilberforce home would find the family in the midst of mild but happy bedlam with children and animals running around indoors and out.
Wilberforce was sometimes called the moral conscience of the nation. He did not ask for that position nor think of himself that way, but his character was such that, when he saw a wrong he could help to right, he felt obligated to do so.
My only complaints with the book were with some aspects of the author. Though Wilberforce is an admirable man, and even Lincoln and Frederick Douglass cited him as inspiration, Metaxas laid the praise on a little thick at times. Plus I felt too conscious of Metaxas as the author: usually in a biography the author does not insert himself into the subject’s story so much. Part of that insertion was evidenced in seeming attempts to be witty and clever. Plus, everything I have ever read about writing encourages using recognizable words, not in an attempt to “dumb down” the text, but to make it more accessible to the average reader. But this author sprinkled his narrative with words like uxoriousness that did increase my vocabulary but interrupted the text while I looked them up.
Oddly, Metaxas does not have a list of footnotes or endnotes with citing the sources he used, though he does close with a list of other worthy Wilberforce biographies.
However, overall I thought this was a very good book. I knew a bit about Wilberforce from the Amazing Grace film, Hannah More‘s biography, and assorted other references, but I was glad to hear about the rest of his life and to have a fuller picture of the character of the man himself. He is an example for all of us to use our resources and influences to help others.