Since we’re in a series about heroes from history, let’s talk about fame. Dictionary.com defines fame as “widespread reputation, especially of a favorable character; renown; public eminence”. Keep that in mind as you read this story of a man that you probably have never heard of, and consider whether he could be considered “famous” in the general sense. His name was William Wilberforce. (I confess that I call him Willy Wilby for short, but I promise not to use that absurd epithet here.)
William was born in 1759 to Robert and Elizabeth Wilberforce. You’d think that if he gets a post on this blog, William would be a very religious sort, wouldn’t you? Not this time. The Wilberforce family was ancient and highly respected, and they lived extravagantly for their own pleasure. Wilberforce later said that his parents were only “decently religious.” How then did William learn anything about God?
After the death of his father, Willy traveled to live with his Methodist uncle William and aunt Hannah. This couple had a profound effect on the boy, but just as young William began warming to the Christian faith, his mother quickly whisked him away from his uncle and aunt. Needless to say, she disliked Methodists. As he grew up with his mother, William seemed to forget all about Christianity. He never attended church. By the time he began college, he was, in his own words, as “thoughtless as the rest of [his family].” His college years flew by in a whirl of wasted time and partying. Yet his uncle and aunt had planted seeds in his heart that would one day sprout.
A friend, William Pitt the Younger, influenced Wilberforce to go into politics. He made a wonderful impression in the House of Commons. Still he was living for himself, but he found no satisfaction in this sort of life. During 1784-1786, however, he began what was called his “Great Change,” seemingly by accident. He planned a tour of the continent, and at the last minute one of his companions was unable to go. Wilberforce invited the religious Isaac Milner to take the friend’s place. All throughout their tour Wilberforce debated with Milner about religion. Intrigued, Wilberforce began examining Scripture himself to find out the truth.
Eventually Wilberforce felt convicted that Christianity was true. Feeling regret for his sinful past life, he began to pray. After his conversion he confided in his old acquaintance John Newton, first in a letter and then in a long encouraging conversation. People began to see a change in Wilberforce and began calling him “melancholy mad.”
The question was, what would Wilberforce do now? Coming from such a rich, prestigious family, he could have had anything he liked. God soon made His will clear, though, giving Wilberforce another conviction. Wilberforce said, “God Almighty has placed before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals].”
Wilberforce had hated slavery for years, another sign of John Newton’s influence. Now, in 1787, he began a long battle to abolish slavery, a fight that would last nearly forty-six years. He did not find many allies at first. Today we all know how evil slavery really is, but in those days few people liked to face the facts. The slave trade could only be described as lucrative. The slave owners were not willing to give up their easily-gained wealth.
Wilberforce did have friends, though, who encouraged him to stand up for abolition, Newton especially. Fighting a painful illness called ulcerative colitis, Wilberforce fought the government and the entire English culture in a battle to abolish the slave trade. Wars with France, bad harvests, and human selfishness stood in the way, but at last the tide began to turn. In 1802 Wilberforce learned that the House might at last agree to abolish the slave trade. He knew if it was, it would mean great prestige for himself. In an amazing act of selflessness Wilberforce offered the cause and all the fame that went with it to Addington, another politician. Addington declined.
Five years after this, the House of Commons voted decisively for abolition of the slave trade, 283 to 16. Emancipation of all slaves would follow in 1833. The elderly John Newton died only a few months after seeing this bill pass.
Was that the end of Wilberforce’s amazing story? Not at all. Wilberforce had already begun the second “great object”- the reformation of morals- the same year he began the fight against slavery. England was indeed in desperate need of reforming. Profanity, drunkenness, and immorality were all too common. Tobias Smollet, author of Roderick Random, summarized, “London is the devil’s drawing-room.”
Wilberforce believed that if Britain’s manners would change, the hearts of the people must change first. He gave away much of his own money to individuals and charities to make this happen. He believed that all Christians, not only clergymen, should share their faith. Wilberforce personally was once involved in sixty-nine different causes. He also worked for twenty years to allow missionaries into British-controlled India. Kevin Belmonte in William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity summarizes, “Ultimately, in concert with fellow reformers, Wilberforce achieved remarkable success in making goodness fashionable.”
He had achieved his two great objects. Despite all this, Wilberforce was no superhuman. Slowly he fell ill again in 1823. Finally, on July 29, 1833, William Wilberforce died, and all England mourned.
I know this has been rather a long story, but each part of it is so important. It’s a shame so few people know about William Wilberforce- or is it?
Do you remember the definition of fame? Wilberforce has no “widespread reputation.” But isn’t his story worth our attention? How can we classify this sort of remarkable person?
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
. . . And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
(1 Corinthians 1:20, 30-31, ESV)
Just after the House abolished the slave trade, a representative named Samuel Romilly contrasted Napoleon Bonaparte and William Wilberforce. Napoleon would return home tortured by memories of bloodshed and war, while Wilberforce would return home happy in the knowledge that he saved millions of people. As Wilberforce’s sons said of his bier, “His simple name was its noblest decoration.”
It’s safe to say that Wilberforce could “boast in the Lord.” I only have one question to ask before I end this post. Are you famous according to the world, or will you boast in the Lord?