William WilberforceOur Christian who has made a difference this week is a man who was only just 5 foot tall, frail, weighed only 100 pounds in his last years, and was plagued with sickness and pain throughout his life.He often spent weeks in bed. His eyes gave him a lot of trouble. Yet he was the architect of "one of the turning events in the history of the world.” His name is William Wilberforce.
William Wilberforce was born in 1759 in Hull, on the coast of East Yorkshire, England. His father was a wealthy merchant. William was not an industrious student, preferring cards and drinking to study, but he obtained a bachelor degree from Cambridge University.He met William Pitt, a future prime minister of Britain, at university and a lifetime friendship developed. He and Pitt went into politics and Wilberforce became an MP for Hull at age 21, and later member for Yorkshire in 1784 at the age of 25.His dissolute lifestyle changed in 1785 at the age of 26 when he became more devout in his Christianity. To apply the Christian principle of caring for others he then devoted his life and parliamentary career to two causes.The first cause was the abolition of the British slave trade and the second was the moral and social reform of Britain. He was a popular figure and was known to be charming and witty and a great public speaker.
By the time Wilberforce entered parliament the economics of slavery in Britain were so entrenched that only a handful of people thought anything could be done about it. That did not stop Wilberforce.He and his friend Clarkson introduced many private members bills only to have them stopped by vested interests, parliamentary filibustering, and entrenched bigotry. International politics, slave unrest, personal sickness, and political fear also slowed their progress.Pro-slavery forces targeted him. He was vilified. The opposition became so fierce, that one friend feared that one day he would read about Wilberforces being broiled “by Indian planters, barbecued by African merchants, and eaten by Guinea captains."
However, after many years of defeats in parliament, Wilberforce finally achieved his goal of abolishing the slave trade by legislation on 25th March, 1807. Slavery itself was not stopped at this time, but the trading of slaves was stopped.British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found on board. For a while, if slave-ships were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by ordering the slaves to be thrown into the sea.Wilberforce married Barbara Spooner in 1797 at age 38, and they had 6 children. Wilberforce was a loving and devoted husband and father and was proud that three of his sons became Christian clergyman. He retired from politics in 1825 at age 66 due to ill health, but continued to campaign for the complete abolition of slavery and the freedom of slaves.
Finally, on 26th July, 1833, as Wilberforce lay on his deathbed at age 74, he was told that the Slavery Abolition Bill, granting freedom to all slaves within the British Empire, had been passed by Parliament. Wilberforce died three days later. It was agreed that as a mark of respect of his achievements, his body should be buried in Westminster Abbey, London.Although abolition of slavery was his momentous life-time achievement, it was not the totality of his achievements. He fought for legislation to improve the lives of the poor. He was passionate about education, prison reforms and ending child labour. He was one of the founders of the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).At one time he was active in support of 69 philanthropic causes. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor. He fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, orphans, juvenile delinquents and established Sunday schools to teach the poor reading and writing.
He was a key architect in ensuring that the first fleet to colonise Australia have a Christian chaplain and a Christian vision of converting Australia to Christianity and using Australia to spread Christianity to all the newly discovered south Pacific islands.He helped found groups like the “Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor”, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Antislavery Society.We salute William Wilberforce, a remarkable small man with a huge list of achievements who made the world a better place. He was a Christian who made a difference.