Wilberforce, William

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Wilberforce, William

William Wilberforce, 1759–1833, British politician and humanitarian. He was elected to Parliament in 1780 and during the campaign formed a lifelong friendship with William Pitt, whose measures he generally supported in the House of Commons. In 1785, during a tour of the Continent, he became converted to evangelicism—a decision that affected his entire outlook and caused him to withdraw from fashionable society. He pressed unsuccessfully for more humane criminal laws and, joining with Thomas Clarkson and others in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, was for 20 years parliamentary leader of this movement. He also organized (1802) the Society for the Suppression of Vice and took part in other evangelical activities for social improvement. Abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament was achieved in 1807. When it became apparent that the measure would not cause the natural demise of slavery, Wilberforce directed his efforts to the suppression of the institution throughout the British Empire. A bill to this effect was passed a month after his death. Wilberforce wrote A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians (1797), a work that enjoyed wide popularity both in Britain and on the Continent.

See his correspondence (1840); biographies by R. I. and S. Wilberforce (1835), R. Coupland (1923, repr. 1968), and O. M. Warner (1962); study by G. Lean (1988).

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