William Wilberforce

Born: 1758

Place of Birth: United Kingdom

Died: 1833

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce became a voice of the abolitionists in the 1800s. He based his belief that all people are equal on his religious teachings that he received.

He was considered to be an evangelist, a philanthropist, and someone who made successful change in England during a time when slavery was an accepted way of life.

His influence extended beyond Europe as he also brought the topic of abolitionism to America.

  • Wilberforce was from a British merchant family and he was sent to live with his evangelist aunt after the death of his father when he was nine years old. His enthusiasm for being an evangelist began to slow down and by the time he entered John’s College at Cambridge he had changed to becoming eloquent, witty, and charming, showing elements of leadership.
  • Wilberforce met William Pitt in 1779 when he moved to London. Wilberforce was only 21 years old when he was elected to Parliament and Pitt became the Chancellor of the Exchequer and then later Prime Minister when he was 24 years old. The two were inseparable and retained their friendship for many years.
  • As one of England’s good debaters, Wilberforce took a European trip with the brother of a friend. Unaware that the gentleman was an evangelist and an intellect they spent their time reviewing a variety of religious books and philosophical doctrines. This experience changed Wilberforce as he embraced much of his former evangelical ideals. Upon his return Wilberforce considered entering the ministry but was convinced by Pitt and others to remain in Parliament.
  • His decision to stay was based on his belief that he had two main purposes: “God had set before me two objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morality].” He had become good friends with John Newton, who had reformed his life in the slave trade and eventually went on to write the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
  • The choice of anti-slavery wasn’t popular at this point and Wilberforce brought the topic into Parliament. He became the target of hate groups, threats, and accusations, but it didn’t stop him. Even his friends were attacked and yet he continued when he put a bill before the House of Commons in 1793 to abolish slavery. Members didn’t show up to vote and so the bill failed. He tried another bill that forbid British ships from carrying slaves to foreign territories and the same thing happened with absent members. He continued to bring bills forward every year but with little success.
  • Wilberforce turned his attentions to being involved in around sixty-nine philanthropic societies. Some included areas that involved his evangelical beliefs but many involved working with the poor, missionaries to Africa and India, fighting immorality, and improving conditions for children. He made large financial contributions to many that helped in reform as well as health and medical conditions. The list of his participation and financial help is incredibly long.
  • By the time of 1797 he published his book, then when he was 37 years old he got married, settled down, and had six children. He believed his devotion as a father was as important as his job of being a politician.
  • Wilberforce never gave up in his anti-slavery beliefs and by 1807 the House of Commons was starting to catch up with him. Many stood up and spoke about their position of favor for abolitionism and when the vote came in at 283 and 16 against, Wilberforce was greeted with cheers.
  • The success in his own country led Wilberforce to travel to other nations, including America, to try to gain strength for the abolitionist movement. He was critical in getting laws passed to stop the slave trade.
  • In 1833, just three days before he died, Wilberforce found out that the House of Commons passed the law for the entire British Empire, freeing all slaves.


How many philanthropic societies did Wilberforce become involved with?
Around 69

What religion did Wilberforce adopt when he was both younger and older?

How old was Wilberforce when he was elected to Parliament?
21 years

What were the two reasons that Wilberforce believed God sent him?
Anti-slavery and fighting immorality

Why did so many of Wilberforce’s abolitionist bills not pass in Parliament?
Members didn’t show up to vote

How did Wilberforce change slavery in other countries?
He traveled to other nations to help to get laws passed