On the sixth of December, 1833, William Whipper, a free black American delivered a
eulogy at the Second African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. He started his comments by
stating, “To duly awaken and justly impress upon the feelings of an audience, the inestimable
worth of an individual whose purity of life and uprightness of character has imperishably
enrolled his name in the archives of nations, as one of the greatest earthly benefactors, is a duty
of such magnitude, that those who can call to their aid the most powerful of human requisites
might well in their appeal ask for indulgence.” Whipper was speaking of a man who had
successfully led the cause of freedom and abolition in the British Empire before many of the
great antebellum abolitionists in America were born. He went on to say, “We have met to pay a
tribute of respect to one of the best men that ever graced the earth, or ornamented history.” That
man was William Wilberforce, and Whipper also said that “no man ever lived who urged the
passage of a law with a more honest zeal, or with such a torrent of awakening eloquence as that
which he used in beseeching Parliament to quit her merciless invasions on poor, defenceless
Africa.” That is indeed high praise.
What had Wilberforce done to earn such praise? What was it that led Wilberforce to take
up the cause of Abolition? Those will be the primary questions, which this paper will attempt to
The people of Great Britain were among the first to seek an end to slavery and the slave
trade that brought Africans as slaves to the Western hemisphere from the sixteenth to nineteenth
centuries. Historians have noted many causes for the rise of opposition to slavery and the slave
trade that supported it. Philosophers began to question the logic of rational beings holding one
another in bondage, the belief in the virtue or ethic of human benevolence became popular, and
the influence of various Christian groups and movements. Both Quakers and Methodist were
vocal in their opposition to slavery.
The influence of the Methodist movement had a profound effect on the abolition of
slavery in general and the slave trade of Great Britain in particular. When looking at the
abolitionism in Great Britain, the lives and careers of two people in particular stand out. They
are John Wesley and William Wilberforce. The Christian beliefs of William Wilberforce had a
profound effect on the legislation affecting slavery and the slave trade. John Wesley and the
Methodist movement had a profound effect on the beliefs of William Wilberforce.
John Wesley was born in 1703 in Lincolnshire England. John’s father, Samuel Wesley,
was an Anglican clergyman his maternal grandfather was Dr. Samuel Annesley, a Presbyterian
rector of St Giles, Cripplegate. He entered Christ Church, Oxford and received his BA in 1724.
While at Oxford he was ordained a deacon by the Oxford bishop. After getting his BA at Oxford
Wesley became a fellow at Lincoln College getting his MA in 1727 and received priest’s orders
in the Anglican Church the following year. For the next few years his priestly behavior was
rather conventional. It was during his missionary trip to Georgia that Wesley’s spiritual journey
took a new path.
Wesley served as a missionary to Georgia from 1735 to 1738. On his trip to Georgia he
met Moravian missionaries and was greatly influenced by them. On his return to Europe he
spent four months in Germany. The Moravian influence is most plainly seen in the structure of
Methodist Societies. The Methodist as a Christian movement or denomination began with the
conversion of John Wesley from being a High Churchman and Anglican Minister to a believer
and preacher of salvation through faith, a doctrine overlooked by the Anglican Church.
Wesley became an Anglican Minister whose primary desire was now to clarify and
reform the Anglican Church, but the reforms and beliefs he expounded lead to the formation of
the Methodist Denomination. During his career, though conservative in many of his opinions on
issues of the day, (Wesley supported the British Government and the King in opposition to the
American Revolution.) was a firm abolitionist. Wesley’s essay entitled “Thoughts Upon
Slavery” was a strong statement in opposition to slavery and the slave trade.
In “Thoughts Upon Slavery” Wesley, greatly influenced by Anthony Benezet’s writing on
slavery and Africa, spoke out against slavery in this essay. The main thrust of Wesley’s is
contained in the following section of that essay.
May I speak plainly to you? I must. Love constrains me; love to you, as well as
to those you are concerned with. Is there a God? You know there is. Is he a just
God? Then there must be a state of retribution; a state wherein the just God will
reward every man according to his works. Then what reward will he render to
you? O think betimes! before you drop into eternity! Think now, "He shall have
judgment without mercy that showed no mercy."
The main theme of the essay can be boiled down to the Golden Rule as stated in Luke 6:31 “And
as ye would that men should do to you do ye also to them likewise.”
Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed?
What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as compassion there? Do
you never feel another's pain? Have you no sympathy, no sense of human woe, no
pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or
the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or
a brute?… When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when
you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not
one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast?… If you do not,
you must go on, till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the great God
deal with you as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your
hands. And at "that day it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than
Wesley makes it clear that Christianity and the institution of slavery are incompatible and that the
practitioner of one could not be a practitioner of the other. Wesley calls on the slave trader as
well as the slave owner to repent.
But if your heart does relent, though in a small degree, know it is a call from the
God of love. And "to-day, if you will hear his voice, harden not your heart." Today
resolve, God being your helper, to escape for your life. Regard not money!
All that a man hath will he give for his life! Whatever you lose, lose not your
soul: Nothing can countervail that loss. Immediately quit the horrid trade: At all
events, be an honest man.
This equally concerns every merchant who is engaged in the slave-trade. It is
you that induce the African villain to sell his countrymen; and in order thereto, to
steal, rob, murder men, women, and children without number, by enabling the
English villain to pay him for so doing, whom you overpay for his execrable
labour. It is your money that is the spring of all, that empowers him to go on: So
that whatever he or the African does in this matter is all your act and deed. And is
your conscience quite reconciled to this? Does it never reproach you at all? Has
gold entirely blinded your eyes, and stupified your heart? Can you see, can you
feel, no harm therein? Is it doing as you would be done to? Make the case your
own. "Master," said a slave at Liverpool to the merchant that owned him, "what, if
some of my countrymen were to come here, and take away my mistress, and
Master Tommy, and Master Billy, and carry them into our country, and make them
slaves, how would you like it?" His answer was worthy of a man: "I will never
buy a slave more while I live." O let his resolution be yours! Have no more any
part in this detestable business. Instantly leave it to those unfeeling wretches who
laugh at human nature and compassion! Be you a man, not a wolf, a devourer of
the human species! Be merciful, that you may obtain mercy!
Methodism was more that just a new Christian denomination in formation but was also
the focus of a social movement in England. Although there were wealthy and middle class
believers in Methodist doctrine, the large majority of Methodists were poor or lower middle class
workers and artisans. Methodists taught a form of Christianity, which emphasized freewill and
expressed a belief that anyone who sincerely sought salvation through repentance could be
saved. This belief was in opposition to the predestination beliefs of the Calvinist sects and
denominations that dominated politics in the seventeenth century. These Calvinist were known as
Puritans. Puritans controlled the English Parliament in the mid Seventeenth Century and it was
they, lead by Oliver Cromwell who successfully overthrew and beheaded their king Charles I,
and ruled England without a king for about twenty years. Calvinists believed that God had
already predetermined who was to be saved and who was destined to be damned and that there
was nothing anyone could do to make themselves more or less likely to be saved or lost. Since
Calvinists often looked to wealth and/or worldly success as a sign of God’s favor, the poorer
classes found the hope of salvation that the Methodist offered more appealing.
England during the eighteenth century experienced an ongoing Christian revival. This
revival split into two distinct movements. The evangelical movement was started and lead by the
Evangelist George Whitefield and its adherents were also known as the Calvinistic Methodists.
The second movement was know as the Methodist Movement and was lead by John Wesley.
While distinct in certain aspects of their theology, the two movements had very much in common
with one another. Both movements considered themselves to be part of the Anglican Church,
and both wished to be agents of reform in the Anglican Church, but the Methodist Movement
would, after Wesley’s death become a separate denomination.
What these movements also had in common was that both held to the basic Protestant
doctrines. Personal salvation required faith in Jesus Christ and in the atoning sacrifice, which
could alone keep one from eternal damnation, or gain for one eternal salvation. Both
Evangelicals and Methodists believed in the importance of holiness and in remaining obedient to
God in ones day to day actions. Like the Puritans a century before them, Methodists and
Evangelicals emphasized the preaching of the Gospels from the pulpits. Sunday was regarded as
the Sabbath and kept as a holy day, and many socially acceptable sports and pastimes of the day
were seen as a danger to ones spiritual health. Although the Evangelicals shared with Methodists
a concern over the spiritual harm of amusements and forms of relaxation, they were not as strict
in restricting their practice. In a similar fashion today, some holiness professing denominations
forbid their membership from going to movies while other denominations now only discourage
movie going but put no active sanction on those members who actually go to movies.
The Evangelicals and Methodists in one sense of the word differed primarily in their
intensity and in their perceived relationship to the world. Methodists were prone to separate
themselves from the affairs of the world. They would take quite literally the admonition in
James 4:4, “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is
enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” or 1
John 2:15, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the
world, the love of the Father is not in him.” The Evangelical would deny that such scripture
meant that they should not participate in the world. They would be apt to say that they were in
the world but not of it. They would respond with scriptures such as Mark 16:15 “And he said
unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature”, and John 17:18
“As thou hast sent me into the world even so have I also sent them into the world.” Such
divergent views on the proper relationship with the world meant that Methodists were not prone
to take an active role in politics where the Evangelicals could see it as a mission field.
Another difference between the Methodists and the Evangelicals was in their structure
and organization. Evangelicals concentrated on putting good ministers in the pulpit of each of
the Anglican Churches. Therefore, a strong emphasis from the Evangelicals was in pastoral
education. Methodists set up a structure of local organizations known as the Connexion.
Methodists had in effect set up congregations within congregations. Methodists were expected
to go to their Anglican Church on Sunday and meet with their local “Society” during the week.
With time the Society became a Church and the Methodists Denomination was born.
George Whitefield, who became a leading figure in the Evangelical Movement, and John
Wesley who for years was the Methodist Movement, were friends and contemporaries in the
1730’s, but due to divergent theological views they became estranged, each seeking to reform the
Anglican Church in their own way. George Whitefield concentrated on leading local revivals,
and by coincidence, one of his converts was John Thornton, the half-brother of Hannah
Wilberforce, who was the aunt of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce would in his early life be
exposed to Evangelical and Methodist theology. It was not however, an uninterrupted exposure.
Wilberforce’s father was a wealthy merchant who died while Wilberforce was young and
for some time was raised by an Aunt and Uncle. His aunt strongly supported the Methodists and
Evangelical Movements, and introduced William at an early age to the beliefs and mindset of the
Methodists. William’s mother did not approve of the Methodists and Evangelicals. When she
discovered the extent of this influence she took William back into her home. Eventually, she
placed him in St.John’s College, Cambridge.
Wilberforce was strongly influenced by the Methodist movements, both Whitefield’s
Calvinistic Methodists and Wesley’s Methodists. While staying with his aunt and uncle, William
had met John Newton, an Anglican Minister with a sordid past. Newton was a versatile man. In
his early life he had been the captain of a slave trading ship that had seen the error of his ways
and turned his life around. Although he had become a Christian and a Minister of the Gospel, he
was not a glum or sour man. Wilberforce found Newton humorous and pleasant to be around
and easy to talk too. Newton is perhaps best known for having written the hymn ‘Amazing
Grace’ and is believed by some to be the model of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.
After leaving his Aunt and Uncle Wilberforce quit seeing Newton until he started to
recommit himself to the Church. For a while William drifted from the Methodist influences
under which he was raised and embraced the activities of the young well to do men of his class.
It was at Cambridge that William met and made friends with William Pitt, who was to become
Great Britain’s youngest serving Prime Minister.
Whether it was from William Pitt’s influence or personal ambition William Wilberforce
decided to enter politics. He ran for Parliament against Lord Rockingham, a powerful nobleman
and at the cost of £9,000 won a seat in the House of Commons. Wilberforce was a supporter of
his friend William Pitt who led the Tory government. At first Wilberforce had no problem fitting
in as one of the up and coming new Members of Parliament. However, a change of heart was
soon to take place. While vacationing on the Continent in the summer of 1784 Wilberforce
traveled with a former classmate Isaac Milner. At first Wilberforce made disparaging remarks
about religion in general and Methodists in particular not realizing that he had made a challenge
to Milner’s Christian belief. During that summer Milner engaged Wilberforce in discussions
which brought about an intellectual conversion to Christianity, though it did not bring about any
great change in his lifestyle. By October of 1785 Wilberforce had reached a new level of
Christian commitment, one which reflected not only in his thoughts but also in his actions.
Wilberforce started to associate once again with those of the Methodist persuasion.
Wilberforce had come to a decision in late November of 1785 that he should withdraw
from the world if he was to live a godly lifestyle. Writing several friends he explained his
concerns. He told Pitt that he could no longer be regarded as a Party man. He implied that he
could no longer be counted on to tow the Party line. At this point in his life he appeared to be
taking more of a Methodist slant on his Christianity than an Evangelist one. Pitt responded
quickly. Pollock describes the interchange as follows:
On 2 December he received Pitt’s long reply, full of kindness and without hint of
flippancy, but written in alarm that ‘You are nevertheless deluding yourself into
principled which have but too much tendency to counteract your own object, and
to render your talents useless both to yourself and mankind.’ Since Wilberforce
had assured him the character of religion was not gloomy, why then asked Pitt,
‘this preparation of solitude, which cannot hardly avoid tincturing the mind either
with melancholy or superstition?’ Next day they had two hours uninhibited
discussion at Wimbledon. Pitt failed to reason Wilberforce out of his new
conviction. Neither did Wilberforce convert Pitt, too absorbed in politics, he
supposed, to give much thought to religion.
When Wilberforce came to find his faith renewed, he also sought to renew an old
acquaintance. Although his heart had changed, his position in the world of politics was still the
same. In the political and social circles in which he existed, Evangelicals and Methodists were
not viewed as what one would call today politically correct. Wilberforce wanted to seek the
advice of a childhood friend. John Newton, the former slaver turned Anglican Minister. Doing
his best to be discrete and unobserved, he met again with Evangelical Anglican.
In Newton, Wilberforce found the sound advice and spiritual direction he was
looking for. Newton encouraged him to stay in public life and service. Newton helped him to
see that the Lord may well have brought him to this point of political power and Christian faith
to do a good work for the Church and the nation. While Wilberforce did not accept all of
Newton’s theological opinions, it would be safe to credit Newton’s advice along with Pitt’s
encouragement with keeping him in politics.
About the same time that Wilberforce was being reintroduced to Christianity, he met the
Vicar James Ramsay. Ramsay had at one time served in the Royal Navy and had seen the
horrors of the slave trade. Ramsay shared his experiences with Wilberforce in 1783 and the
following year published An Inquiry into the Effects of Putting a Stop to the African Slave Trade
and of Granting Liberty to the Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies. This book which called for
an end to both the slave trade and slavery was influential with both Wilberforce and Pitt.
Although Wilberforce had already shown an inclination to oppose slavery and the slave
trade, it wasn’t until Sir Charles and Lady Margaret Middleton recruited him that he actively
took the lead in pushing for the abolition of the slave trade. Sir Charles was also a Member of
Parliament but he did not feel that he had the skills or charisma to lead such a fight. Both Sir
Charles and Lady Margaret were active supporters of abolition and the Evangelical movement.
So, while meeting with Sir Charles and Lady Margaret in Hull, Wilberforce took up the mantle
of leadership. The abolition of the slave trade would be a primary focus of his career for the next
It is one thing to tell others that you will act, it is another thing to prepare to act, but to
actually take the first concrete step is another act all together. There is myth and legend
surrounding Wilberforce’s first move in Parliament:
Under his oak tree Pitt brought Wilberforce’s hesitation and prevarications to the
sticking point. ‘Wilberforce, why don’t you give notice of a motion on the subject
of the Slave Trade? You have already taken great pains to collect evidence and
are therefore fully entitled to the credit which doing so will ensure you. Do not
lose time, or the ground may be occupied by another.’
Wilberforce does not record his answer, nor whether it disclaimed the
motive of personal credit which Pitt, knowing him of old, seemed to suppose still
dominant. But this was the incident, … which Wilberforce would recall when
asked in old age why he took up Abolition. ‘I distinctly remember,’ he would say,
‘the very knoll on which I was sitting near Pitt and Grenville.”
The oak stood for another hundred years, known as ‘Wilberforce Oak’. Its
stump is still to be seen, marked by a plaque.
Shortly after Christmas in 1787 Wilberforce made know his intention in Parliament that
he would move in the next secession to abolish the slave trade. His intention was to make a
motion in February of 1788, but before he could do so, he came down with a serious illness. His
condition was so grave that he was not expected to recover. As it became clear that Wilberforce
was in no condition to advance the motion Pitt, acting on his behalf set up a committee to study
the slave trade. Although the findings of this commission did not result in the abolition of the
slave trade, the Dolben’s Bill was passed in 1788 to regulate the practices of the slave trade with
an effort to stop the sever crowding on slave ships. Although in our day this seems a small
measure it was considered at the time to be a great victory, and the first step toward the eventual
abolition of the slave trade and slavery.
Wilberforce did not die, but by the start of 1789 had fully recovered. In May of 1789
Wilberforce made his first speech in Parliament in opposition to the slave trade. His speech
earned great praise from Burke and Pitt. Belmonte in his book quotes this part of the speech:
Policy, however…is not my principle, and I am not ashamed to say it. There is a
principle above ever thing that is political….[W]hen I reflect on the command
which says, “Thou Shalt do no murder,” believing the authority to be divine, how
can I dare to set up any reasonings of my own against it? And…when we think of
eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this
life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the
principles of justice, the laws of religion and of God….
[T]he nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we
can no longer plead ignorance---we cannot evade it---it is now an object placed
before us---we cannot pass it; we may spurn it, we may kick it out of the way, but
we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it….[I]t is brought now so directly
before our eyes, that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and
to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their
In spite of the eloquence of the speech no action beyond studying the evidence more was
taken in 1789. In 1790 a Select Committee was formed to hear more evidence which delayed the
consideration for another year. Debate on the slave trade abolition bill finally started on April
18, 1791. It is interesting to note in passing that one of the strongest opponents of the abolition
bill was a man Americans considered one of the greatest villains of the American Revolution,
Banastre Tarleton. He was notorious for the pleasure he took in killing. Local historians would
be pleased to tell you how he was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens, which took, place about
sixty miles from Charlotte. Unfortunately, in the legislative battle of 1791 Tarleton was not
defeated. Another try in 1792 also failed.
No further action was taken on the slave trade until 1796. One reason for the delay was
that Wilberforce and Pitt had a major disagreement. Pitt did not wish to negotiate for peace with
the French Directorate. In 1794 and in 1796 Wilberforce proposed amendments that would call
for peace with France. Wilberforce was greatly conflicted to do so because while he held his
friendship with Pitt dear, he did not believe that continued war with France was necessary for the
defense of Great Britain. Relations were strained for two years until they were reconciled.
Neither changed their mind on the issue, but Pitt came to realize that Wilberforce’s beliefs on this
issue were sincere and not a political maneuver.
On February 18, 1796 Wilberforce proposed a bill that would abolish the slave trade.
While efforts to shelf the bill were defeated, the final vote for the bill failed by a vote of 74 to 70.
While deeply disappointed Wilberforce persevered. Every year after that failure Wilberforce
introduce a resolution to end the slave trade until 1807 when he finally met with success.
During his fight for the abolition of the slave trade drew strength from his faith and
fellow Christians. Wesley wrote shortly before he died in 1791 the following letter to
Balam, February 24, 1791
Unless the divine power has raised you us to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I
see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that
execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human
nature. 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 fore 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.
Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by
that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by
a white man, can have no redress; it being a "law" in our colonies that the oath of
a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?
That he who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this
and all things, is the prayer of, dear sir,
Your affectionate servant,
In 1797 Wilberforce wrote A Practical View of Christianity Personal Faith as a Call to
Political Responsibility. In this book Wilberforce made a personal statement of faith. No direct
statement about the slave trade was made because the issues of moral living were more universal
that any one standing political issue. However, from this book one can glean the principles that
he used to guide his stand on issues like the slave trade. “In the language of Scripture,
Christianity is not a geographical, but a moral term. It is not the being a native of a Christian
country: it is a condition, a state; the possession of a peculiar nature [1 Peter 2:9], with the
qualities and properties which belong to it.” Wilberforce was not a Christian because he lived in
a country that gave lip service to Christianity. He was a Christian because he accepted Christ as
his Savior and lived in a manner that was pleasing to Him.
To Wilberforce the essence of Christianity was that God loved mankind so much, that
even though all men had rebelled against Him and by their deeds were deserving of death and
Hell, God took the form of a man and paid the price that justice demanded for that rebellion. The
subsequent salvation gained by this act was fully and freely available to anyone who would
accept it. However, the price of acceptance was obedience and the desire to please the One who
paid the price and offered the salvation.
It remains, however, to be here farther remarked, that this grace can no where be
cultivated with more advantage than at the foot of the Cross. No where can our
Saviour’s dying injunction to the exercise of this virtue be recollected with more
effect: “This is my commandment, that ye love one another as I have loved
you” [JOHN !3:34]….The view of mankind which is here presented to us, as
having been all involved in one common ruin and the offer of deliverance held out
to all, by the Son of God’s giving of himself up to pay the price of our
reconciliation, produce that sympathy towards our fellow-creatures….Our hearts
become tender while we contemplate this signal act of loving-kindness. We grow
desirous for imitating what we cannot but admire. A vigorous principle of
enlarged and active charity springs up within us; and we go forth with alacrity,
desirous of treading in the steps of our blessed Master, and of manifesting our
gratitude for his unmerited goodness, by bearing each other’s burdens, and
abounding in the disinterested labours of benevolence.
How can a Christian who has been set free from sin and death enslave another human being? To
Wilberforce the terms Slave Owner and Christian are contradictory terms. To Wilberforce
disinterested labours of benevolence most certainly include and require one to work to end the
enslavement of fellow humans.
A few years after Wilberforce dies, Marx will say that religion is the opiate of the masses.
When one regards the English revival movements, and notes that during the same time France
was undergoing a violent and bloody upheaval in the name of social justice, that Christian
activists in England were bringing about significant social reform, one might well pause to
wonder. If Atheists are right and there is no God, Marx hit the nail on the head. A believer might
say that false religion could be an opiate for the masses. If those who act in the name of religion
do no public good then a promise of heavenly reward stands alone and rings hollow. In the case
of Wilberforce, however, one sees more than a hollow promise of heavenly reward. Concrete
acts on behalf of fellow human beings are clearly accomplished. Perhaps Mr. Whipper is correct
as he begins to bring his eulogy to a close by stating, “My friends, of the millions who sound
forth his praises, probably there are only thousands who do him honour. Those…who have not
adopted for the line of their conduct towards their fellow men, the golden rule, “do unto others as
you would they should do unto you” are unfit to utter forth his name.”