Monday, August 24, 2009

God’s work against slavery

One of the leading anti-slavery campaigners of the late 18th century, William Wilberforce, was born two hundred and fifty years ago today. A politician and evangelical Christian, he was also a keen diarist. A five-volume biography published in the 1830s relies heavily on his diaries and this is freely available on Googlebooks. However, an early travel diary by Wilberforce, written while still a student and before having become zealously religious, has been published much more recently.

Wilberforce was born in Hull, the son of a wealthy merchant, exactly one quarter of a millennium ago today. After his father died he was looked after by an aunt who was a strong supporter of John Wesley and the Methodist movement. Wilberforce studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he met William Pitt, a future Prime Minister. He was elected as MP for Hull when only 21; but, thereafter, became one of the two MPs representing Yorkshire. In 1784 he converted to Evangelical Christianity, and joined the Clapham Set. In 1797, he married Barbara Ann Spooner, and they had four children, one of whom, Samuel, was also a diarist.

After his conversion, Wilberforce became particularly interested in social reform and the abolition of the slave trade. In 1791, his first bill on the subject was easily defeated. However, he persisted, first winning support in the House of Commons, and then, eventually, the House of Lords: the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill was passed in 1807. This did not end the slave trade, but is considered to be the beginning of its end. It was only shortly after Wilberforce died in 1833 (from falling off a horse) that the Slavery Abolition Act, giving all slaves in the British Empire their freedom, was brought into law. More information is available at The Diary Junction and Wikipedia.

Wilberforce’s only published diary appears to be a travel journal written while still young: Journey to The Lake District from Cambridge, A Summer Diary 1779, edited by Cuthbert Edward Wrangham, and published by Oriel Press in 1983. Plenty of second hand copies are available through Abebooks.

Robin Birkenhead, in his foreword to Summer Diary, gives a flavour of the young Wilberforce’s preoccupations, and also points up a key difference with his later diaries: ‘The reader is given detailed instructions as to his route and is even told where to stand for the best view. The dimensions of mountains and waterfalls are given or guessed at in the absence of reliable information; old country tales are retold. It reads as if he was preparing a guide book to the Lakes or doing an exercise as a young pupil of [the garden designer Humphry] Repton. . . For Wilberforce to write like this was only possible in the brief period when he had no deep religious convictions. After 1785 . . . whatever the subject would have contained a mass of religious reflections. . . Mountains, views and waterfalls would be described not only as sublime and majestic, but also as evidence of God’s goodness . . . It is fascinating to have this journal to compare with later writings.’

Wilberforce went on to keep a diary for much of his life. These diaries were used extensively by Wilberforce’s sons, Robert Isaac and Samuel, in a five-volume biography of their father, The Life of William Wilberforce, published by John Murray in the late 1830s. All five of these volumes are freely available on Googlebooks. A more recent biography, Wilberforce, by John Pollock, published by Constable in 1977, also quotes from the diaries. Adam Matthews Publications provides a guide to the contents of the unpupublished diaries.

Here are a few extracts from Wilberforce’s diary, including several around the time of his 30th birthday (220 years ago today).

28 October 1787
‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.’

‘At length, I well remember after a conversation with Mr Pitt in the open air at the root of an old tree at Holwood, just above the steep descent into the vale of Keston, I resolved to give notice on a fit occasion in the House of Commons of my intention to bring forward the abolition of the slave trade.’

20 August 1789
‘At Cowslip Green [Somerset] all day.’

21 August 1789
‘After breakfast to see Chedder [Gorge]. Intended to read, dine, &c. amongst the rocks, but could not get rid of the people; so determined to go back again. The rocks very fine. Had some talk with the people, and gave them something - grateful beyond measure - wretchedly poor and deficient in spiritual help. I hope to amend their state.’

23 August 1789
‘Resolved to think seriously to-day for to-morrow, my birth-day on which I shall be much more disturbed. Cowslip Green, birth-day eve. To-morrow I complete my thirtieth year. What shame ought to cover me when I review my past life in all its circumstances! With full knowledge of my Master’s will, how little have I practised it!. . .’

24 August 1789
‘Left Cowslip Green for Bristol. Spent half an hour with Sir James Stonhouse - seventy-four; under many bodily tortures, yet patient and cheerful - much pleased with him. He recommended 12th of Hebrews, and 3rd of Lamentations. Spoke in the highest terms of Dr Doddridge, and related the circumstances of his own conversion, when he belonged to a deistical club.’

13 January 1798
‘Three or four times have I most grievously broke my resolutions since I last took up my pen alas! alas! how miserable a wretch am I! How infatuated, how dead to every better feeling yet - yet - yet - may I, Oh God, be enabled to repent and turn to thee with my whole heart, I am now flying from thee. Thou hast been above all measure gracious and forgiving. . . .’

20 July 1820
‘What a lesson it is to a man not to set his heart on low popularity when after 40 years disinterested public service, I am believed by the Bulk to be a Hypocritical Rascal. O what a comfort it is to have to fly for refuge to a God of unchangeable truth and love.’

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