William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was born to a wealthy English merchant family. His father died when he was young, and for a time he was cared for by an uncle and aunt who were staunch Christian believers. His mother was concerned about their influence and brought him back into the immediate family. But a seed was planted, even if the soil looked unpromising for quite a number of years.
When Wilberforce did become a believing Christian, it was an event that would transform Britain and its empire. Against all earthly odds – fierce opposition, including from the king and the wealthy aristocratic class – the many who was small in stature but large in faith would lead the drive to end the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire. And he would undertake a reformation aimed at British morality that would transform British culture and society.
William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte is a biography worthy of the man. And it something of an unorthodox biography. Rather than a straight chronological account of Wilberforce’s like and deeds, Belmonte focuses the first part of the book on what the man called his “two great objects” – end the slave trade and reform society. The second part of the book includes biographical information, including information about his family and personal life.
A little unorthodox, yes, but it works. The reader gets the powerful account of the man’s accomplishments up front because those are what his life was so much about. And yet, Wilberforce was also a strong family man, deeply involved with the lives of his wife and children.
The critical account in the biography is what Wilberforce himself referred to as “the great change” – his conversion from nominal Anglican to devout Christian. It happened gradually over a two-year period and was the result, Belmonte writes, of a series of unlikely events. The man he asked to travel to the continent with him couldn’t go, and Isaac Milner, a believing Christian, took his place. The two had ample time for long, extended conversations about faith. A book on faith left behind by a cousin stimulated Wilberforce’s thinking. The discussions and the book led to a crisis in faith, forcing the man to grapple with what was happening in his life. He sought counsel from John Newton, the former slave trader turned minister and slavery opponent.
The entire account is a compelling part of a compelling biography.
Belmonte is also the author of D.L. Moody: A Life (2014); Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of G.K. Chesterton (2011); The Quotable Chesterton (2011); and John Bunyan (2012). Among other works. He received a B.A. in English from Gordon College, an M.A. in Church History from Bordon-Conwell Seminary; and an M.A. in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. The biography of Wilberforce won the John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and he served as the lead script and historical consultant for the film Amazing Grace, which told the story of Wilberforce.
William Wilberforce succeeds on any number of levels. It’s is a solid account of Wilberforce’s life. It emphasizes the man’s great accomplishments. It puts those accomplishments into the right perspective; Wilberforce and his thinking influenced a generation of people on both sides of the Atlantic, including many of the American founding fathers. When you finish reading it, you simply say, “Well done, Mr. Wilberforce.” And well done, Mr. Belmonte.
Related: Counting the Cost of Faith – my post on William Wilberforce at Literary Life.
Top painting: William Wilberforce about 1974, oil on canvas by Karl Anton Hickel