Wilberforce top 10
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Date: 16 February, 2007


William Wilberforce


'His motives were humanitarian as well as evangelistic.'

Steve Tomkins reveals ten things you probably didn’t know about anti-slavery campaigner and prominent Christian MP William Wilberforce.

It was ‘the greatest object which men ever pursued’, said William Wilberforce. A voter who heard his impassioned speech told him, ‘You made my blood tingle with delight’.

‘My dear Wilberforce,’ the Prime Minister William Pitt said, ‘I can never enough congratulate you on such a glorious success.’

These were three different campaigns which Wilberforce took a lead in, none of which were the abolition the slavery.

What most of us know about Wilberforce is that he was a Christian MP who fought successfully against the slave trade, and nothing else. And many of us are rather clearer about the nothing else than about the first bit.

So here are ten things you need to know about William Wilberforce to impress your friends, confound your enemies, and fascinate eavesdroppers.

1. Peace activist
Britain spent 20 years of his career at war with revolutionary France, which he opposed from start to finish. Calling war, ‘the greatest of human evils’, he made himself extremely unpopular with his hopeless peace motions in Parliament.

He fell out with Pitt, his best friend, and even discussed a plot against him. The Lord Privy Seal’s wife was warned ‘Your friend Mr Wilberforce will be very happy any morning to hand your ladyship to the guillotine.’

2. Little Ugly Fellow
‘In personal appearance,’ said a friend delicately, ‘he laboured under a positive disadvantage’. He was five foot at most, and had a rather eye-catching nose.

3. A Way with Words
He lived in the great age of British speakers, and was celebrated as one of the very best, combining intellect, passion, wit and a delicious voice.

‘I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table;’ said James Boswell, ‘but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale’.

Edmund Burke, a brilliant speaker himself, called his first three and a half hour abolition speech ‘equal to anything I have ever heard of in modern oratory; and perhaps are not excelled by anything met with in Demosthenes’.

4. Hot lovin’
After 37 years as a confirmed bachelor (though less confirmed in the early part, obviously), Wilberforce married a 17-year-old girl, for love, and not a little lust.

He proposed to Barbara a week after meeting her, to his friends’ alarm, and they married the following month after an unexpected delay.

Wilberforce felt bad that he had acted from ‘too much animal heat’, but not very bad. Perhaps the fact that her mother held her hand throughout their courtship helped to speed it up. They had a blissful marriage.

5. Animal Rights
Wilberforce was a founder of the RSPCA. He fought against bull-baiting in Parliament (the fight was in Parliament, not the bull-baiting) and berated cabbies for mistreating their horses. He was a pioneer, at a time when it had occurred to very few people that humans had responsibilities to animals.

6. Drug Habit
Wilberforce was an opium addict. This wasn’t unusual in an age when doctors handed it out like Nurofen, and his health was very poor.

What was very unusual is that he maintained the same daily dose throughout his life, instead of needing more and more. He was a highly disciplined drug addict.

7. Mission to India
This was ‘the greatest object which men ever pursued’. Because missionaries were not allowed into British India, Wilberforce used the mass campaigning techniques perfected against the slave trade to get the charter changed and helped found the Church Mission Society.

His motives were humanitarian as well as evangelistic: ‘Our religion is sublime, pure beneficent. Theirs is mean, licentious, and cruel.’

8. Mission to England
Wilberforce devoted equal energy to reaching the heathen of England with the gospel. He wrote an evangelistic book, Real Christianity, which no one wanted to publish, but went out of print in less than a week. He was instrumental in starting the Bible Society and poured money into mission to the British peasantry.

9. Tory bully boy
Living during the French revolution, Wilberforce was afraid British workers would rise up and slaughter their betters too if they got the chance, and did all he could to make sure they didn’t.

He was instrumental in getting unions outlawed, as well as many civil liberties, and in getting penniless workers gaoled for selling books advocating democracy.

The irony of this coming from the great enemy of slavery was not lost on his critics.

10. The Nuisance
Wilberforce was extremely popular, compulsively honest and very rich.

If he had invited in everyone who called at his house he would never have got anything done, but he could not tell the servants to say he was not as home when he was.

What to do? Simple. Buy the house next door too so he could go and work there and be genuinely not at home!

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