William Wilberforce – a biography
by Stephen Tomkins
200 years after his triumph in the House of Commons which saw the UK abolition of the slave trade, William Wilberforce is being particularly celebrated in the current movie Amazing Grace, which I recently enjoyed watching.
Having seen the film, I was very pleased to discover so much more about this great Christian hero from Stephen Tomkins’ biography. His extraordinary tenacity and courage in fighting the battle against slavery is well worth further study.
A close friend of William Pitt, at 24 England’s youngest ever Prime Minister, he himself entered the House of Commons aged 21 and never lost his seat throughout repeated elections until he resigned aged 75.
He lived through an extraordinary period of history. Against the background of the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, the rise of Napoleon in France and the Methodists in the UK, he fought repeatedly against entrenched commercial commitment in the UK to the horrors of slavery. Vast numbers of Africans were taken by force, cruelly treated on terrifying journeys across the Atlantic Ocean and then kept in unspeakable conditions and forced to work with total loss of human dignity.
Stephen Tomkins faithfully shows the intricacy of the political scene and the agonising setbacks and delays which Wilberforce had to endure before victory was finally celebrated. It is fascinating to read of his friendship with John Newton and the encouragement that he received from the 86-year-old John Wesley, who wrote:
Unless God had raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God is for you who can be against you? … Oh be not weary of well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, ’til even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
Tomkins demonstrates that Wilberforce was not only a brilliant parliamentarian but also a devoted Christian motivated by his commitment to Christ. He also covers other areas of political endeavour and conflict where Wilberforce sought to express his thoroughgoing Christian principles.
Though opposed throughout his nineteen years of endeavour in the Commons, he was ultimately applauded and celebrated in the House where Tomkins records, ‘They filled the chamber with their cheers – a display unprecedented in living memory – he sat there in a daze, tears streaming down his cheeks.’ After years of seeing the vote go against him this final Bill was carried by a majority of 283 votes to 16.
It’s recorded that following his triumph Wilberforce asked, ‘What shall we abolish next?’