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Reformed Literature
A Presbyterian Internet Journal

William Wilberforce

A biography

Stephen Tomkins

Lion, 2007

This is a book that was published in 2007 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Bill that abolished the Slave Trade. It was accompanied that year by various other books on Wilberforce, including one by the present British Foreign Secretary, William Hague.

The author, Stephen Tomkins, is a graduate of the London School of Theology and has published several other books that were also published by Lion. His other writings include, John Wesley: A biography, Paul and his World and A short History of Christianity. It should be noted that the author is a journalist, this has the advantage that his writing is very racy and readable (the book is accessible for an early teenager) but means that he is reticent to approve things like Wilberforce's opposition to Catholic Emancipation.

The book presents a fascinating insight into the life of a man born into an a wealthy family , who became an Member of Parliament then converted to Evangelical Christianity and sought to live out the implications of this change in his life in the public sphere. He remained a well respected MP and a close friend of one of our best known Prime Ministers, William Pitt (The Younger). He is best known for his links with the Clapham Sect and his unceasing work for the abolition of Slavery in the British Empire.

Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759 to a wealthy business orientated family in Hull. He went to the local Grammar school and at ten was sent to his aunt in Wimbledon. While his own family were Church of England (nominally Christian) his aunt was an Evangelical, a Calvinist and a follower of George Whitefield. His aunt took the ten year old to Olney to visit John Newton , however, his parents fearful that he might become a Methodist recalled him.

He went to Cambridge and threw off the influences of his aunt. He bought the seat of Hull, as was common in those days. As an MP he became close friends with William Pitt but never joined any party, remaining independent.

In 1784, he was travelling to France with an old teacher, Isaac Milner, and the conversation turned to religion. Milner gave him a copy of Doddridge on The Rise and Progress of Religion, while he thought that its conclusions twofold wreck his career and social life he couldn't escape them. In his unease he went to see Newton amidst deep soul concern. In November 1785 he wrote to his friends announcing his conversion and a period of seclusion.

From that point he became caught up in various social causes most notably alongside Clarkson in the movement for the abolition of slavery.

In the 1620s, Britain took the Caribbean and found that the islands were not great for growing tobacco, but the climate was perfect for sugar. By 1650 there were 20000 slaves on the island, by the 1690s this had grown to 95000. In 1700, the average Briton consumed 4lbs of sugar. By the end of the abolition campaign it was 12lbs and would be 18lbs by the end of the century. Much was for coffee and tea, but Britain was also becoming famous for its puddings, pies, tarts, trifles and ices. Even the poor drank sweet tea and ate sweet porridge. What was a aristocratic luxury was now an everyday essential. Tomkins comments, "We are told it profits a man nothing if he gains the world and loses his soul, but Britain sold its soul for sweet tea. Luckily, for a century or so the world was thrown in."

The book is a fascinating tour of a great life and a turbulent time in our history. it has war with France, Napoleon,Nelson, Pitt, the creation of income tax and Catholic emancipation. I would warmly recommend it for its engaging and popular style. An excellent read and a good gift.