William Wilberforce by Michael Hennell
“Mr Wilberforce is the best converser I have met with in this country. I have always heard that he was the most religious, but now I find that he is the wittiest man in England.” This was the comment of the brilliant and charming Madame de Stael to Sir James Mackintosh when both men had been among her guests. Mackintosh, a Radical and a free-thinker, was an Abolitionist and an advocate of many other humanitarian causes including penal reform. Out of the intimacy which grew from their working together he wrote in old age: “If I were called upon to describe Wilberforce in one word, I should say he was the most ‘amusable’ man I ever met with in my life. Instead of having to think of what subjects will interest him, it is perfectly impossible to hit one that does not. I never saw any one who touched life at so many points; and this is the more remarkable in a man who is supposed to live absorbed in the contemplation of a future state. When he was in the House of Commons, he seemed to have the freshest mind of any man there. There was all the charm of youth about him. And he is quite as remarkable in this bright evening of his day as when I saw him in his glory many years ago."
Little did Mackintosh realize that the source of his vitality and persistence in championing unpopular reforms lay in the disciplined hours of early morning devotion and in the quietness of a Sunday which alternated between the family circle and public and private worship. Here is the key to Wilberforce's character and achievement. It was this inner life that enabled this little man, suffering from a bad digestion and poor eyesight, to bring to victory one of the greatest campaigns of all history; it was this that enabled him to work long hours at the “slave business” after a full day at the House, and to father a hundred other causes which involved countless private interviews commencing before he had even finished breakfast. It was this too that purged him of worldly ambition and prevented him from seeking the high political office, which might surely have been his. “Often on my visits to Holwood,” he wrote in old age, “when I heard one or another speak of this man's place or that man's peerage, I felt a rising inclination to pursue the same objects, but a Sunday in solitude never failed to restore me to myself.” Solitude, especially Sunday solitude, was the means by which God restored his spiritual energy and enabled him to see his life in true perspective. “Entire occasional solitude,” he wrote in his Journal, “ seems eminently useful to me. Finding myself without support, I become more sensible to my wretchedness, and of the necessity of flying to God in Christ, for wisdom and righteousness and all I want here and hereafter.”
But Wilberforce's Sundays were not gloomy. He could write of respectable contemporaries for whom Sunday was a “heavy day, and that longer part of it, which is not relieved by the public offices of the church, dully drawls on in comfortless vacuity or without improvement is trifled away in vain and unprofitable discourse.” Again, “A quiet Sunday is a blessed thing; how much better than when passed in a large circle! My life is not spent without diligence, yet I hope I do some good by my conversation; and I thank God I this day enjoy a more heavenly frame than common.” It was a characteristic of Wilberforce to do good by conversation. Before going out to dinner or making a coach-journey with a worldly friend, he might spend as much as an hour preparing what he called “launchers” which might lead to “serious conversation” with Lady Y or Z. Of a dinner he attended in 1795 he wrote: “I grew out of spirits. I had not been at pains before I went to fit myself for company by a store of conversation topics, ' launchers,' etc." One might well imagine that a man who thus prepared his conversation and chose his victim would prove a prig or a bore, yet none of his contemporaries considered him such ; on the contrary, “when the little man came in late to a dinner party, bristling, maybe, with ‘launchers’, every face”, says a contemporary, “lighted up with pleasure at his entry.” “Fashionable hostesses were never afraid of his creating awkward moments ! He could refuse to conform without seeming to condemn-a rare gift.”
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