Richly satisfying biography of a great humanitarian who was also thoroughly likable.
It took 20 years of struggle by William Wilberforce (1759–1833) before the House of Commons finally voted in 1807 to abolish the slave trade, observes former British Conservative Party leader Hague (William Pitt the Younger, 2005). Great parliamentary figures from William Pitt to Charles James Fox loved Wilberforce for his intelligence, wit, warmth and political acumen, even when they did not share his fervent religious convictions. Son of a rich merchant, he entered Parliament in 1780 and in 1785 converted to Evangelicalism, an intense movement that believed Christian principles applied to all areas of life, public as well as private. When Wilberforce decided in 1787 to oppose the slave trade, he joined a tiny group of religious advocates; most Englishmen were indifferent. The abolitionists launched the first modern, issue-oriented PR campaign with a torrent of speeches, rallies, pamphlets and sermons, and within a few years almost everyone had an opinion about slavery. Parliamentary opponents, who claimed that abolishing the trade would impoverish Britain, were on the defensive when disaster struck. The French Revolution threw Europe into turmoil; its armies seemed invincible, and its defenders denounced slavery, tainting the abolitionist cause in patriotic Britons’ eyes. Prime Minister Pitt, who was against the slave trade, turned his attention to national defense. Wilberforce became a voice in the wilderness, repeatedly introducing his antislavery bill, eloquently defending it and watching it fail. But the passage of years rendered the issue less controversial, and persistence gradually weakened the opposition. By 1807, even the House of Lords did not object, and Parliament overwhelmingly approved the Abolition Act. Hague paints a dynamic picture of Wilberforce as a man obsessed with his Christian obligations who continually excoriated himself for falling short.
Hearing today’s leaders proclaim deep religious convictions, especially around election time, readers may feel that they don’t make Christians like they used to.