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 Issues | Church History | William Wilberforce


William Wilberforce by Michael Hennell
Early Years and Conversion

Such a man Wilberforce became after his conversion in 1785. He was born in 1759, son of a wealthy Hull merchant, who died in 1768 when his son was 9 years old. His mother was determined to keep him from any “serious” Christian influence. When William was twelve she ordered him home from his school at Putney on hearing that he was in danger of becoming “a Methodist”, through his aunt, Mrs. Wilberforce of Wimbledon, a sister of that ‘dangerous ‘ Evangelical merchant, JohnThornton of Clapham. William was therefore sent to school in Yorkshire. When he was seventeen he went up to St. John's College, Cambridge, and might have gained academic distinction if the dons of his college had not encouraged sloth rather than industry, asking him “why in the world should a man of your fortune trouble himself with fagging?” Only “saps” attended lectures; a man with his talents would better employ himself playing cards with them in their rooms.

At Cambridge William Wilberforce met William Pitt, who was his own age, but it was not till both men had gone to London, bent on a political career, that they became firm friends, often meeting in the gallery of the House of Commons. They belonged to a group of young politicians who used to dine at Goosetree’s and remain there till the early hours, talking, drinking, gambling and “foyning” (their own word for their witty banter). Both soon gave up gambling, but the evenings together continued, greatly enlivened by Wilberforce's imitations and songs. He had a good voice, which he later learnt to employ in some of the finest oratory heard in an age of great oratory, earning for himself the title of “the nightingale of the House”. In the autumn of 1783, with Pitt's brother-in-law Eliot as a third, they went to France for a holiday which was cut short by Pitt's being summoned to London to become Prime Minister at the age of twenty-four. In the following spring Wilberforce shared Pitt's triumph over the Fox-North Coalition in the General Election by being returned as M.P. for Yorkshire. Wilberforce now determined to go abroad again, planning a much more extensive tour this time. In August he was in York for the races and asked a friend to join the party. He unexpectedly refused. Soon afterwards he met Isaac Milner at Scarborough and transferred the invitation to him; Milner accepted. Milner had been usher at Hull Grammar School where Wilberforce had been as a boy for a year or two. He had since been to Cambridge, where he had distinguished himself academically. In 1776, the year Wilberforce went up, he was elected Fellow of Queen's College, becoming its President twelve years later. Milner was uncouth in his manners and a great talker; he has been compared with Dr. Johnson, whom he resembled both in size and wit. It was probably his “bonhomie” that made Wilberforce ask him to be his companion; he was certainly unaware of his Evangelical opinions.

Wilberforce's mother and sister and two female cousins completed the party, which left England for France in October, 1784. They travelled by coach to the Riviera, where they attended all sorts of social functions, including Sunday parties in which, to Wilberforce's later surprise, Milner fully joined. On the journey out, at Milner's suggestion, they read through the New Testament together. One day Wilberforce casually picked up a copy of Doddridge's Rise and Progress of Religion, and asked Milner what kind of book it was. Milner replied, “Book, it is a capital book, one of the best of books.” In consequence they read it together on their return to England, which was occasioned by Pitt sending for Wilberforce in a parliamentary emergency. Although, on arrival in London, Wilberforce continued the same gay round of social activities as he had when Pitt and he were free to enjoy themselves together, he found it now gave him considerably less pleasure because of the new conscience awakening within him. In July, 1785, he and Milner rejoined the ladies at Genoa and continued their tour into Switzerland. The New Testament readings were continued on this second journey and so absorbed did he become that Wilberforce was reproved for the infrequency of his visits to the other carriage.

The fact that religion was the one subject on which the jovial Milner never jested made a deep impression on Wilberforce, who gradually imbibed his companion's religious views. By the end of the tour he was keeping a very early morning watch, which was to become a lasting feature of his devotional life. He also started a private journal as an aid to self-examination, and began a regular reading of the Bible and Pascal. The entry in the diary for November 28 reads: “Began this night constant family prayer, and resolved to have it every morning and evening, and to read a chapter when time.” Deep conviction of sin took all the joy from life. “Nothing which I have ever read in the accounts of others, exceeded what I then felt.” “Often while in the full enjoyment of all that this world could bestow my conscience told me that, in the true sense of the word, I was not a Christian. I laughed, I sang, I was apparently gay and happy, but the thought would steal across me, ‘What madness is all this; to continue easy in a state in which a sudden call out of the world would consign me to everlasting misery, and that, when eternal happiness is within my grasp.’ For I had received into my understanding the great truths of the gospel, and believed that its offers were free and universal; and that God had promised to give His Holy Spirit to them that asked for it. At length such thoughts as these completely occupied my mind, and I began to pray earnestly.”

His new “seriousness” made him feel the necessity of examining old friendships and making new ones. He therefore wrote to many of his old associates telling them of his altered views. Pitt took Wilberforce's letter completely seriously, replying at once and insisting on calling on him the wry next day to discuss a subject which Wilberforce desired to reserve for correspondence. “What I would ask of you,” Pitt wrote, “as a mark both of your friendship and of the candour which belongs to your mind, is to open yourself fully and without reserve to one, who believe me, does not know how to separate your happiness from his own.”

Of the interview itself the diary records, “Conversed with Pitt near two hours, and opened myself completely to him. He tried to reason me out of my convictions, but soon found himself unable to combat their correctness, if Christianity were true. The fact is, he was so absorbed in politics, that he had never given himself time for due reflection on religion.” In the years that followed Pitt became even more “absorbed in politics”, and it seems unlikely that Wilberforce was ever able to renew a discussion which Pitt himself had begun. However, from this tête-á-tête they parted better friends than ever.

His new faith made him consider retiring from Parliament, but a conversation he had that same week with the Reverend John Newton immediately put such thoughts from his head. Newton, who was now Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, had been a slave-ship captain. He was now the leader of those Evangelicals who were to remain within the Anglican fold after the secessions of the Methodists, and was greatly sought after as a spiritual counsellor by those who were impressed by his story and his character. Since his return to England Wilberforce had felt that Newton was the one man in London who could help him through his difficulties and after much hesitation he made an appointment, calling at St. Mary Woolnoth Vestry two days after his talk with Pitt. Newton was not only able to give him spiritual comfort and advice: he saw also, and helped his new friend to see, a vision of a public life given to God with untold possibilities of “blessing to the church and nation”. Newton himself wrote to Wilberforce a year later, “The joy that I felt and the hopes I conceived when you called on me in the vestry at St. Mary's, I shall never forget. From that hour you have been particularly dear to me ; and the seeds of regard for you which were then sown in my mind, have been flourishing and strengthening ever since, and I trust will continue to flourish while I am capable of remembering anything.” To the nature of those hopes many of Newton’s letters bear witness ; and none clearer than one written ten years after that first meeting:

“You say true, my dear sir: I seem to myself to stand upon a cliff, from whence I contemplate with compassion and thankfulness the many whom I see tossed about upon the tempestuous sea of public life. But you have no claim to my pity, though you have a just right to my prayers, and a frequent place in them, because I believe you are the Lord's servant, and are in the post which He has assigned you ; and though it appears to me more arduous, and requiring more self denial than my own, I know that He who has called you to it can afford you strength according to your day, and I trust He will, for He is faithful to His promise.

“I answered for you in my own mind, that if, after taking the proper steps for your continuance in parliament, you had been excluded, it would not have greatly grieved you…. But I hope that it is token for good that He has not yet dismissed you.
“…You meet with many things that weary and disgust you, which you would avoid in a more private life. But then they are inseparably connected with your path of duty: and though you cannot do all the good you wish for, some good is done, and some evil is probably prevented by your influence and that of a few gentlemen in the House of Commons like-minded with yourself. It costs you something-many hours, which you could employ otherwise to your own personal satisfaction, and exposes you to many impertinences from which you would gladly be exempted; but if, upon the whole, you are thereby instrumental in promoting the cause of God and the public good, you will have no reason to regret that you had not so much leisure for more retired exercises as some of us are favoured with. Nor is it possible at present to calculate all the advantages that may result from your having a seat in the House at such a time as this. The example, and even the presence, of a consistent character, may have a powerful, though , unobserved effect upon others. You are not only a representative for Yorkshire, you have the far greater honour of being a representative for the Lord, in a place where many know Him not, and an opportunity of showing them what are the genuine fruits of that religion which you are known to profess.
“Though you have not, as yet, succeeded in your persevering endeavours to abolish the slave trade, the I business is still in train; and since you took it in hand, the conditions of the slaves, in our islands, has undoubtedly been already meliorated. I believe likewise that it is wholly owing to you that Johnson and Marsden are now in New Holland (Australia); and I trust that, notwithstanding all discouragements, the seed sown and sowing there will yet spring up to the glory of God. These instances, to which others with which I am not acquainted, might, I suppose, be added, are proofs that you have not laboured in vain.”

As we shall see, Newton’s vision came true. As a result of the influence of Wilberforce and his fellow “Saints” in the House of Commons, its moral atmosphere was transformed and new standards of integrity expected. After another ten years' campaigning the Slave Trade was abolished, and within three years of Newton's letter the Church Missionary Society was founded to take the Gospel not only to Australasia (for Marsden went on to New Zealand) but to Africa and the East.

The new friends who were associated with Wilberforce in these enterprises were made through Newton, and a renewed I friendship with Aunt Wilberforcc of Wimbledon and her brother John Thornton. Thornton's youngest son, Henry, was apparently not at home, but when Wilberforce did meet him he found a man of his own age and outlook whom he came to love almost as much as Pitt. The clouds had begun to lift. On Good Friday, 1786, he received Holy Communion for the first time, and on Easter Sunday the diary says: “At Stock with the Unwins - day delightful, out almost all of it – communicated - very happy.” Wilberforce's religion was never again to have a depressing effect on his friends and seldom on himself; the sparkle of his personality became more apparent than ever. The former society favourite had become the laughing cavalier of Christ.


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