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1.3 Wilberforce’s ‘Conversion’ to Evangelicalism

Wilberforce’s religious ‘conversion’ in 1785 was profound but not instantaneous. Through the influence of Isaac Milner, an Evangelical clergyman who was his companion on extended journeys on the Continent, he first became intellectually convinced of the truth of Christian doctrines that he had doubted in the early 1780s. This process of rational argument, study and consideration was characteristic of an Enlightenment way of thinking, even if the conclusion was diametrically opposed to that of sceptical Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume (1711–70). Then, in November 1785, Wilberforce had an intense spiritual experience, making him feel that his own past life was futile, that he was utterly dependent on the infinite love of Christ, and that his future life must be committed to the service of God. It was in trying to come to terms with these new convictions that he recalled his boyhood acquaintance with Newton, now rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London, and turned to him for advice. Newton, evidently perceiving in Wilberforce a recruit to Evangelicalism of great potential influence, counteracted his impulse to withdraw into primarily spiritual concerns, and strongly counselled him to remain in politics. This advice was heeded. Moreover, although Wilberforce’s new-found convictions gave him a strong strain of zealous earnestness that ran through his writings and speeches, he remained on the surface an easy-going, extrovert and likeable person, who could inspire considerable affection even from those who disagreed with him. He also remained a shrewd ‘political animal’ whose strong commitment to long-term visions and objectives did not prevent considerable flexibility in short-term tactics. Herein lay key reasons for his success in pursuing sometimes unpopular causes.

Wilberforce’s conversion confirmed an inclination to follow an independent parliamentary career rather than to accept the constraints that would have come from seeking and holding government office. He was assisted in this respect by considerable personal wealth that freed him from any financial necessity for holding a salaried post. During 1787 the two pre-eminent concerns of the rest of his career became clear. First, he emerged as the parliamentary leader of the growing campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, complementing the activities of those who sought to stir up popular sentiment against slavery, including Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846), who became the driving force behind the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and published a classic account of the movement in 1808. Second, he began purposefully to promote moral and spiritual reform at home, initially through obtaining the issue of a royal proclamation ‘for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue’.