Dying Wilberforce Gets Good News
WILLIAM WILBERFORCE was dying. He had become ill on the sixth of July, and on this day, 26 July 1833, he had only three days left in this world. That evening friends brought him good news: a bill for the abolition of slavery had passed its second reading in Parliament. This assured its passage. “Thank God, that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the abolition of slavery!” Wilberforce exclaimed. For four decades, he had fought hard to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire until his retirement in 1825.
Wilberforce had not always been an opponent of slavery. In his youth, he was a frivolous man given to partying. His attitude changed in 1784 after he won the election in Yorkshire and he went with his sister for a few weeks to the Riviera for her health. His friend Isaac Milner rode with him. Milner, who had become an evangelical Christian, urged Wilberforce to commit his life to Christ.
Wilberforce had always thought of himself as a Christian. But after speaking with Milner, he realized he was not. He knew he needed to commit himself totally to Christ, but he struggled to do so. During this period, he read Philip Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. This described a faith deeper than anything he had been taught. Finally, he yielded.
Conversion precipitated a crisis of conscience in him. He began to doubt if it was proper for him to hold a seat in Parliament. He confided his concern to his good friend Prime Minister William Pitt. Pitt urged Wilberforce to keep his seat. He needed his vote. Still doubtful, Wilberforce unburdened his soul to John Newton. Newton, best remembered as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” had converted to Christianity while a blasphemous sailor and slave trader and afterward become a Church of England rector. Like Pitt, he counseled Wilberforce to remain in Parliament and to use his seat to champion good causes.
Friends pointed to slavery as the issue Wilberforce should tackle. Pitt agreed. Believing this was God’s leading, Wilberforce took up the anti-slavery cause. A week before his own death in 1791, evangelical leader John Wesley wrote to Wilberforce urging him, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
Slavery was by no means the only issue Wilberforce took on. With influential and wealthy friends, he championed a number of moral and social causes. Among these were education of the common people, support of Bible societies and orphanages, creation of Sunday schools, and the emancipation of chimney sweeps. He also wrote Real Christianity, a book that called followers of Christ to “boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many, who bear the name of Christians, are ashamed of Him.”
Through these endeavors, Wilberforce and his friends transformed England for the better. However, the abolition of slavery remains their greatest achievement to this day.