William Wilberforce and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

By Dr. Kevin Dougherty

Leadership and management are closely related and often overlapping, but the main distinction between the two concerns their approach toward change. Peter Northouse explains that “The overriding function of management is to provide order and consistency to organizations, whereas the primary function of leadership is to produce change and movement. Management is about seeking order and stability, leadership is about seeking adaptive and constructive change.”[1] Both leaders and managers need to understand how things work, but it is the leader that is driven to make things work better.[2] James Kouzes and Barry Posner agree, adding that “change is the work of leaders. It’s what they do.”[3]

Almost all meaningful change, however, comes with a measure of difficulty and resistance that John Maxwell refers to as “the make-or-break time for a leader.”[4] During this period, leaders can expect to be viewed with increased scrutiny and suspicion. Change usually requires some power shift. It requires additional work. Its results are uncertain. Such bold change requires a tremendous leap of faith.[5] Steven Covey adds that in order to make vision reality, all leaders “must have the discipline to deal with the hard, pragmatic, brutal facts that stand in the way.”[6] To do so, Joseph Badaracco notes that “leaders have a deep conviction that they must make something happen and they devote themselves to making it happen—despite obstacles, frustrations, failures, and very steep costs.”[7]

Christian leaders are not immune from this great need for perseverance, but theirs is not merely an exercise in mustering the indomitable strength and will necessary to see a task through to completion. Perseverance for the Christian leader is based on the empowerment and perspective that comes from faith in the all-encompassing sufficiency of Jesus. It that type of perseverance that Paul refers to in Hebrews 12: 1-2 when he calls us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” It is that kind of Christian perseverance that William Wilberforce drew on in his twenty-year struggle to abolish the slave trade in Great Britian.

Wilberforce was elected to the House of Commons in 1780. He was a relatively inactive and unremarkable politician until his conversion to Evangelical Christianity in 1784 spurned in him an interest in social reform. He even considered leaving politics to become a clergyman, but John Newton, the former slave trader who authored the hymn “Amazing Grace,” convinced Wilberforce that he could serve God better by remaining in Parliament and campaigning for social reform.

In addition to Newton, Wilberforce also drew inspiration from Thomas Clarkson, who in 1786 published Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. Clarkson’s work was a powerful indictment against the slave system and the slave trade that supported it. In 1787, Clarkson joined with William Dillwyn and Granville Sharp to form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Clarkson originally approached Charles Middleton to represent the group’s interests in the House of Commons, but Middleton instead suggested Wilberforce, who “not only displayed very superior talents of great eloquence, but was a decided and powerful advocate of the cause of truth and virtue.”[8] Soon an effective division of labor was achieved with Clarkson and his colleagues gathering evidence and shaping popular opinion through his society and Wilberforce championing the cause in the House of Commons.

On October 28, 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his journal that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”[9] His formal entry into this great work was marked by a three and a half hour speech he delivered on May 12, 1789 that argued to abolish the slave trade.   After the speech, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade sent Wilberforce their thanks for his “unparalleled assiduity and perseverance.”[10] But neither Wilberforce nor the Society could have possibly anticipated how much, much more perseverance would be required.

When the House of Commons agreed to establish a committee to look into the slave trade, Wilberforce introduced no new testimony, naively imagining the case against the trade was already in the public record.   Like many others, he thought the proceedings would be brief, but instead, Ellen Wilson reports that “the slaving interests prolonged it so skilfully that when the House adjourned on 23 June, their witnesses were still testifying.”[11] Wilberforce had his first experience with the magnitude of the organized opposition he faced.

The French Revolution created political complications for Wilberforce’s anti-slave trade campaign and also distracted much of the national attention.   The excesses of the Jacobins made the British government “afraid of anything that smacked of human rights or liberty or equality.”[12] When Wilberforce finally had the chance to introduce a bill to abolish the slave trade on April 18, 1791, it was defeated the next day by a vote of 163 to 88.[13] Undeterred, Wilberforce was so convinced of the injustice of the slave trade that he vowed to “even less make this grand cause the sport of caprice, or sacrifice it to motives of political convenience or personal feeling.”[14] In 1793 he put worth a Foreign Slave Bill with the more modest objective of stopping British ships from carrying slaves to foreign countries. Even this half-measure failed in the House of Commons by two votes. It passed the House of Commons the next year, only to be crushingly defeated in the House of Lords.[15]

Wilberforce tried again in March 1796. In what Eric Metaxas describes as a “tantalizingly, horribly close” defeat, the proposal failed by just four votes.[16] The razor thin margin was especially agonizing because at least a dozen abolitionist Members of Parliament were out of town or at the new comic opera in London. A frustrated Wilberforce lamented, “Enough at the Opera to have carried it. Very much vexed and incensed at our opponents.”[17]

The 1804 bill passed the House of Commons, but Wilberforce was persuaded to withdraw it from the House of Lords because of a lack of support. When he tried again the next year, the slave trade proponents were better prepared and it was defeated by seven votes.[18]

The tide turned in February, 1806 when Lord Grenville was invited by the king to form a new Whig administration. Grenville had been a vocal opponent of the slave trade throughout the debate of the 1790s and now was determined to bring an end to British involvement in the trade. Clarkson, recognizing that “there was never perhaps a season when so much virtuous feeling pervading all ranks,” redoubled the efforts of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade to mobilize support.[19]

Eric Metaxas records that “Since 1787, year after year after year, Wilberforce had put forth his bill, and year after year after year it had been defeated, one way or another. In twenty long years, he had still not brought the boat into the harbor, though he had tacked and retacked and circled back and tacked in again and again and again. There had always been some difficulty, some heartbreaking last-minute barrier to success.” But now, “the waters were quite suddenly smoothed, and the harbor for which he had longed for two decades seemed finally to open her arms to him.”[20] Indeed, on March 25, 1807, some twenty years after Wilberforce had taken up the cause, “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” abolished the slave trade in the British Empire and also encouraged British action to press other European states to do the same.

John Piper notes that what made Wilberforce’s perseverance “so remarkable is not only the length of it but the obstacles he had to surmount.” Financial self-interest, the global economy, and international politics all stood in Wilberforce’s way.[21] But, in recounting the leadership lessons associated with Wilberforce’s triumph, David Vaughn notes that “perseverance wins the prize.”[22] Wilberforce clearly had the perseverance all leaders need to effect change, but it was his commitment and conviction that his work was serving Christ and that through Christ all things are possible that makes him such a wonderful example to all who seek to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”


[1] Peter Northouse, Leadership Theory and Practice, (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2004), 8.

[2] Bob Johansen, Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, (Berrett Koehler Publishers, 2009),20.

[3] Kouzes and Posner, 209.

[4] Maxwell, Teamwork, 236.

[5] William Pasmore, Creating Strategic Change: Designing the Flexible, High-Performing Organization, (New York: Wiley, 1994), 264

[6] Stephen Covey, The 8th Habit, (New York: Free Press, 2004), 65-66. Hereafter, Covey, 8th Habit.

                  [7] Joseph Badaracco, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature, (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2006), 117.

[8] Stephen Tomkins, William Wilberforce: A Biography, (Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2007), 55.

[9] William Wilberforce, diary entry (28th October 1787)

[10] John Wolffe, William Wilberforce : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004-2014).

[11] Ellen Gibson Wilson, Thomas Clarkson: A Biography, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1989), 51.

[12] Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 158.

[13] Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 524.

[14] Metaxas, 159.

[15] Ibid., 159-160.

[16] Ibid., 206.

[17] William Wilberforce, diary (15th March 1796).

[18] Tomkins, 160.

[19] Thomas, 552.

[20] Metaxas, 206.

[21] John Piper, Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 48-49.

[22] David Vaughn, Statesman and Saint: The Principled Politics of William Wilberforce, (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2001), 312.

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