William Wilberforce was born on August 24, 1759 in the seaport of Hull. He was the son of a rich merchant, but lost his father at the age of eight. He went to live with an uncle and aunt who had been influenced by George Whitfield and the early Evangelical Revival. They were friends of John Newton, the ex-slave trader who had become a much loved hymn-writer.
Newton became a hero to the young Wilberforce; but his mother, seeing him a fervent little "Methodist," took him away. She gradually scrubbed his soul, sending him to boarding school and to Cambridge University, until nothing was left of his boyhood faith except a more moral outlook than usual among carefree men of fashion.
At Cambridge he was popular and he became a close friend of William Pitt, the future Prime Minister. Wilberforce entered the House of Commons in 1780. Four years later, with Pitt already the Prime Minister, he won the important seat of Yorkshire. He was an outstanding parliamentary speaker.
The following winter of 1784-5, during a journey to the south of France and back, Wilberforce underwent a long, drawn out, but very deep conversion to Christ through discussions with Isaac Milner, his former schoolmaster. Inner conflict between ambition and the claims of Christ sent him nearly out of his mind until he sought John Newton again and received counsel. Newton also urged him to stay in politics, believing that God might have raised him up for a purpose. At that time there were only two other fervent Christians in the House of Commons.
Newton was one of the influences, in the next two years, which convinced Wilberforce that he must take up the cause of slaves - Newton was thoroughly ashamed of his own early part in the slave trade. Together with James Ramsay, Thomas Clarkson and others, he was trying to arouse the nation's conscience, but only Parliament could bring about an abolition.
In 1787 Wilberforce agreed to bring in a bill. He wrote in his diary, "God has put before me two great objects: the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners." He drove these two crusades in tandem; but abolition, as the greater evil, consumed most of his time thought and energy.
At first he expected quick victory. The evidence, amassed by Clarkson, Wilberforce and a committee of the Privy Council appointed by Pitt, showed overwhelmingly the evil effects of the trade on human lives and on the African continent. Wilberforce aimed at an international convention, but that proved impossible; he then planned for unilateral British abolition.
The strain induced a serious illness in 1788, and Pitt had to move the question in the House of Commons on his behalf. By 1789 he had recovered and made his first great parliamentary speech for abolition. The Commons, however, took the matter no further than appointing another inquiry. Less than a month later the French Revolution began, followed in a few years by the outbreak of war between France and Britain, and this dulled the will of some to pursue the issue vigorously.
The bill to abolish the slave trade was finally passed on February 23, 1807. His chief concern continued to be the slaves and the "sorrows of Africa." He helped to found and direct the African Institute to promote civilisation and offset the evil done by the slave trade; and he took a large share in establishing the Settlement of Sierra Leone for liberated slaves. But slavery and the slave trade did not wither away as he had expected, and in 1823 he launched his last great crusade © for emancipation and abolition of slavery forever, with the help of Thomas Buxton, a younger M.P. "if I am unable to finish it."
He retired from Parliament in 1825 and lived just long enough to hear that the Commons has voted to emancipate all slaves in the British Dominions. He died a few days later on August 6, 1833 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Wilberforce had been the "conscience of England" and was untiring in pushing for reform, directly or by helping other pioneers such as Elizabeth Fry, Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Romilly in their work for prisoners; Sir Thomas Bernard and Count Romford in care for the poor; or Hannah More in schools. He was involved in more than sixty societies working at home and abroad and was a co-founder of the Bible Society and of the Church Missionary Society.