A deeply religious English politician and tireless social reformer, William Wilberforce, nicknamed the “Nightingale of the House of Commons” for his distinct and melodious speaking, made history with his contribution to the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
English society at the end of the 18th century was marked by tragic social contrasts, and Christianity had lost its essence, becoming an external religion for the privileged classes. As a reaction, Methodism emerged, which brought the basic principles of Christianity back to people’s attention and inspired the future social reformers William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, George Müller, Thomas Buxton, John Venn, and others.
In 1784, following discussions with the former professor William Law, author of some books on practical Christianity, Wilberforce resumed the Bible readings he had begun in childhood. His superficial lifestyle changed with his conversion. The timing, however, was not the most convenient: at only 21 years old, Wilberforce had just been elected to occupy one of the most coveted seats in parliament, as a representative of the prestigious Yorkshire, and he feared that political activities would hamper his spiritual development.
His old friend from his Cambridge days, Prime Minister Pitt, persuaded Wilberforce not to withdraw from public life, suggesting that he get involved in supporting a law prohibiting the slave trade. Preacher John Newton, former slave trader, author of the famous hymn Amazing Grace, encouraged him to persevere as God’s witness in parliament.
The slave trade was a very profitable and extensive business, a Hydra with many heads, handling thousands of slaves, hundreds of ships, and millions of pounds. The economy of Great Britain and other European countries largely depended on it. British ships transported slaves from Africa to the West Indies, under terrible conditions. Few knew the horrors of their transport across the Atlantic, during which it was estimated that one in four slaves lost their lives. Wilberforce joined the abolitionist cause and for 18 years, despite setbacks and poor health, he introduced bills to parliament to ban the slave trade.
Eventually, as a result of his efforts, in 1807 the slave trade was prohibited by law, but this did not free those who were already enslaved. Slavery was not eradicated until after two decades of struggle, during which Wilberforce, retired from parliament, continued to speak and write in favour of abolition. Wilberforce died in July 1833, just days before the British parliament voted to abolish slavery once and for all.