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1 Wilberforce’s early career

1.1 Early influences

In the early summer of 1771, the clergyman and writer John Newton (1725–1807) was visited at Olney by two of his admirers, William and Hannah Wilberforce, a wealthy childless couple, and their 11-year-old nephew and heir, also named William. Newton made a profound impression on the boy. In 1785 it was to Newton that the younger William Wilberforce (1759–1833), now Member of Parliament for Yorkshire and a close friend of Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger), turned for counsel in the midst of a period of spiritual crisis. Wilberforce’s commitment to Evangelicalism was to be a defining feature of a remarkable political career, the most notable feature of which was his long campaign for British abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce was also concerned with spiritual and moral conditions at home, expressed in his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians… Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797) which was very popular and influential at the time. Reading and understanding parts of this text and some of his writings on slavery form the substance of this course. The study of Wilberforce provides insights not only into the interactions between the Evangelical movement and its wider social and political environment, but also into the impact of the French Revolution on Britain and into British relations with the non-European world, as focused by the campaign against slavery.