The Life and Legacy of William Wilberforce

I spent last month reading Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas. It's one of the best books I've ever read. If you're interested in learning more about Wilberforce, I'd highly recommend it! William Wilberforce was a man like no other. He spent twenty years of his life fighting for the abolition of the slave trade—just the trade, not slavery itself. It was another twenty-six years before British slaves were fully and finally emancipated. Throughout those forty-six years, Wilberforce had plenty of reasons to give up, yet he was driven by the cries of men, women, and children who were held in captivity. But was it, exactly, about Wilberforce that gave him the courage he needed to fight the battle of abolition to the end?

William Wilberforce had an uncanny ability to ignore what other people said about him. When he began fighting for abolition, he truly believed that if he only gave people the facts about the brutality of slavery, they would be eager to join him. Although some people responded that way, there were many who had too much invested in the slave trade to turn against it. Their words were intended to harm, and while some of them did, Wilberforce was largely able to ignore them and keep pressing forward. Yet on the other side of this, Wilberforce was also dubbed by one friend as “praise proof.” When flattered, he was able to see through it and keep kind words from going to his head.

While Wilberforce is the person we see when we think about the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, he didn’t fight on his own. He surrounded himself with men and women who shared his worldview and his passions. They called themselves the Clapham Sect. Encouragement and accountability were incredibly important in their efforts to bring social good to England, and they were able to provide that for each other. They lived life in a close-knit community that served as a constant reminder that none of them were fighting for abolition and the betterment of society on their own.

If there is one thing that stands out as most important in Wilberforce’s life and legacy, it is the time he spent secluded with God. He himself said, “Of all things, guard against neglecting God in the secret place of prayer.” It was also his time alone with God and countless hours searching out the mysteries of His word that allowed Wilberforce to understand his purpose. He caught glimpses of God’s heart for the poor, the broken, and the oppressed. This, and the role of Christians as part of the solution, drove him forward into politics and pursuing social reform. Yet he was careful, even in the swirling political world, to take time to refresh himself in God’s presence. It’s the single thing that made him as effective as he was.

But what does that mean for those of us fighting for social reform today? While we easily get caught up in what people think of us, either good or bad, when our eyes are fixed on Christ and on the people He’s called us to serve, the opinions of others will matter less. It’s vital that we surround ourselves with people who share our passions, people who will encourage us, hold us accountable, and run the race alongside us. These things are important, but they will fail us if we don’t sustain everything we do with our relationship with God. William Wilberforce has truly left a legacy, and it’s one worth following. The things that made it possible for him to see his battle through are the very same things that will equip us for our fight.