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Wilberforce by Sims

Wilberforce, Wesley and the Influence of the Methodist Movement on England and

the English Slave Trade

By Ervin Sims

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

for you!"

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

twenty-one years.

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

Dear Sir:

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,

John Wesley

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.”