Birth of William Wilberforce

The English philanthropist was born on August 24th, 1759. Ian Bradley explains how his reputation as a champion of the abolition of slavery, evangelical and politician has undergone a series of reassessments.

'And who, Carruthers, was William Wilberforce?' 'He was the man who freed the slaves, sir.' Yet the answer to the schoolmaster's question could just as well be that he was the man who called his countrymen to repentance, the leading lay theologian of the Evangelical Revival, the politician who dedicated himself to reforming the nation's morals or, quite simply, as many of his contemporaries regarded him, the Saint, whose life, both public and private, provides one of the most shining and inspiring examples of practical Christianity.

It is, of course, Wilberforce the emancipator who is being remembered this month, the 150th anniversary of his death. This is hardly surprising when we are also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the triumphant culmination of his life's work of which Wilberforce heard the news just three days before he died on July 29th, 1833. The impressive programme of activities which has been organised this summer in his home city of Hull, ranging from a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt to a cricket match between Yorkshire and the West Indies, focuses almost entirely on Wilberforce's abolitionist activities. It would be a great pity, however, if his other claims to fame, and to the attention of historians, were to go unnoticed in this anniversary year.

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