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Change. It's being promised, as it is every election year, by candidates in both parties. The promise is rarely fulfilled, however, because, as William Wilberforce knew, change must originate in the hearts and minds of men before it can affect society. 

Until 2007, when Michael Apted's film Amazing Grace was released, William Wilberforce may not have been a household name on a par with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., but it could be argued that his life provided an example for those more celebrated figures. As a politician and philanthropist, he may not have been an "artist" in the usual sense, but his life provided inspiration for millions, including his contemporary, the romantic poet William Blake.

Wilberforce led the campaign to abolish the slave trade in Britain, of course, but his compassion was far reaching, and he championed many worthy causes in his time. He was even present at the first meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But unlike many modern day philanthropists, Wilberforce recognized the importance of religion in the betterment of mankind. Having concluded that Christianity was true, he realized that "it was infinitely important to study its precepts, and when known to obey them."

"The best preparation for being a good politician, as well as a superior man in every other line," he said, "is to be a truly religious man."

Wilberforce saw God's guiding hand at work in every aspect of life, and dismissed the idea that anything happened without reason. "How I abhor that word, fortunate; as if things happen by chance."  

Wilberforce wasn't always so devout, however. His spiritual awakening only followed years of what he later called "throwing away my time" and of being motivated by "the applause of my fellow creatures."

William Wilberforce was born August 24, 1759 in Hull, Yorkshire, to Robert, a successful merchant, and Elizabeth Wilberforce. He grew up in an atmosphere of wealth, the family's fortune having been made by William's grandfather who grew rich through maritime trade with Baltic countries and also served two terms as mayor of Hull. 

Although both of his parents were members of the Church of England, its doctrine was not known for embracing the true aims of Christianity. As author William Hague wrote in his recent biography of Wilberforce, membership in the church was "a necessary and formal requirement for active and respectable citizens, but not usually intrusive or demanding."

It was through his aunt and uncle with whom he lived for a time that Wilberforce gained his first exposure to a form of belief that was gaining many followers in both Britain and the American colonies. Evangelical Christianity presented a strong contrast to the complacency of the established state church. His aunt's beliefs in particular had an impact on the young Wilberforce's religious life. Her brother was John Thornton, a wealthy Christian merchant, as well as a follower of George Whitefield, a popular Methodist preacher. Methodism, also preached by John Wesley, was seen as a threat to the established church and aroused intense passion from both its adherents and opponents. 

Wilberforce's parents, however, were alarmed at the influence this more fervent form of Christianity was having on their son, and they brought him home, opting not to enroll him at Hull Grammar School where he had previously been a student because the headmaster had also become a Methodist. Wilberforce was enrolled instead at Pocklington School where the social life soon won out over religion in the battle for his soul. Fun and games continued to dominate his life when he entered St. John's College at Cambridge in 1776 at the age of 17.

"I was introduced on the very first night of my arrival to as licentious a set of men as can well be conceived," he wrote of Cambridge. "They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than their lives." Wilberforce was "horror-struck at their conduct." By then, his grandfather and uncle had both passed on, and as the sole male heir, he was now independently wealthy, and, therefore, not particularly motivated in his studies.

If he didn't quite fall to the same level of immorality as many of his peers, he nonetheless acknowledged that his life at college was one of "sober dissipation." Wilberforce nonetheless emerged from Cambridge with a B.A. and, later, an M.A. He also began what would become a lifelong friendship with William Pitt, the future Prime Minister.

Pitt was already planning a career in politics when Wilberforce joined him to watch debates in the galley of the House of Commons. Pitt encouraged Wilberforce to join him in seeking election to parliament, and in September 1780 at the age of 21, Wilberforce won the seat representing Kingston upon Hull. Valuing his independence, he was neither a Whig nor a Tory. Of short stature, Wilberforce's eloquence as a public speaker was such that author James Boswell observed that "I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale."

Although he was "no party man" when it came to politics, he was a party man in his personal life, becoming a regular at gambling clubs and impressing companions with his wit.

But somewhere in his soul lurked the seeds of his earlier religious faith, and, in 1785, upon reading The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge, his faith was reawakened. He later wrote to a cousin that "You cannot read a better book.  I hope it was one of the means of turning my heart to God." Doddridge presented a view of religion that emphasized the absolute certainty that judgment would follow death, and that one must live one's faith and not merely practice it. 

While still a boy living with his aunt, Wilberforce had heard a sermon by John Newton and remembered "reverencing him as a parent when I was a child." Now, torn between his political career and his reactivated religious convictions, he sought Newton's counsel. Newton, who authored the beloved hymn, "Amazing Grace," convinced him that his religious beliefs could be combined with his political career to effect positive change.
 
"I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman," Newton wrote of Wilberforce. "How seldom do these characters coincide! But they are not incompatible."
 
Wilberforce's beliefs influenced his politics, and he vowed to continue in public office with "increased diligence and conscientiousness." Although those who publicly expressed their religious beliefs were often shunned and ridiculed, Wilberforce remained popular with his friends and colleagues, due in part to his rejection of those who saw Christianity as strictly "a system of prohibitions rather than of privilege and hopes." Those who are religious, he noted, are often "made to wear a forbidding and gloomy air and not one of peace and hope and joy."
 
Wilberforce did not let his beliefs make him dour, and, as a result, one acquaintance observed that "If this is madness, I hope that he will bite us all."
 
It was his faith that led him to recognize the abomination represented by the slave trade from which his country had profited since the 16th century. He was initially reluctant to take up a cause he saw as worldly rather than spiritual until a small but powerful group called the Testonites set their sights on recruiting him. Wilberforce was won over, and, in October 1787, he wrote that "God Almighty has sent before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners."
 
Wilberforce considered the slave trade "so dreadful, so irredeemable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition . . . Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had affected its Abolition."
 
The slave trade had dominated the British economy representing 80 percent of its foreign income. To challenge the institution would prove to be a struggle that required the remainder of Wilberforce's life. Despite the opposition and hostility he engendered, Wilberforce persisted. In a speech before the House of Commons on April 17, 1791, he said:
 
 
"Let us not despair; it is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory: we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied. This is the first fruits of our efforts, let us persevere and our triumph will be complete. Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country."
 
 
Wilberforce was not without his critics, even from those who shared his anti-slavery views. Although he worked on behalf of prison reform, he was opposed to unions, calling them "a general disease in our society." He voted to suspend habeas corpus in 1795, and was criticized by radical writer William Cobbett who suggested Wilberforce was a hypocrite, concerned with slaves but not his fellow British citizens. "Never have you done one single act in favor of the labourers of this country," Cobbett wrote. Essayist William Hazlitt saw Wilberforce as one "who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilized states."

But Wilberforce did work to improve the working conditions of chimney sweeps and textile workers, and worked as an advocate on behalf of education as a means to defeat poverty. Still, it is his devotion to the abolition of slavery that dominated his life, and remains his greatest legacy. Only three days before his death on July 29, 1833, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.
 
The ultimate success of his life's mission may have accounted for the contentment he seems to have experienced during his final years. His son, Henry, observed that in his last year of life, his father "speaks very little as if looking forward to future happiness, but he seems more like a person in the actual enjoyment of heaven within."
 
It sounds like the description of a man ready to face judgment, knowing that even though he fell short of perfections, he was redeemed, saved by the Amazing Grace which his mentor, John Newton, praised in song. 



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