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Who is William Wilberforce?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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William Wilberforce was a prominent British social reformer who is probably best remembered for his contributions to the anti-slavery movement. Wilberforce is venerated today as one of the leading forces for abolition in the 19th century, and people who visit Hull, the site of Wilberforce's birth, can even visit the home in which he was born. During his lifetime, Wilberforce supported a wide range of social causes, published several treatises on social issues, and managed to raise a large family.

This iconic figure in British history was born in 1759 in Hull, England, to a wealthy family. His early years were marked by some licentiousness and lack of focus until 1785, when he converted to evangelical Christianity. This conversion was obviously a turning point in the life of William Wilberforce, who turned his fortunes to philanthropy and became a major member of the social reform movement in England.

In addition to being a prominent advocate for social reform, William Wilberforce was also a popular member of parliament, serving from 1780-1825. During his time in parliament, Wilberforce brought forward a number of bills related to social issues, and advocated for causes like worker's rights, prevention of animal cruelty, the promotion of missionary societies, humane treatment of prisoners, and education for English children.

In 1797, Wilberforce met and married Barbara Spooner, with whom he had six children. Spooner shared his commitment to social causes and his deep religious faith, and by all accounts the two had a very loving relationship until his death. Sadly, the two are buried in different locations; William Wilberforce enjoys a place of honor in Westminster Abby, along with other prominent British citizens, while his wife is buried in Kent, England.

Wilberforce became involved in the abolitionist movement in the 1780s when he met with several prominent members of the abolitionist community. 20 years later, he was part of an abolitionist alliance which sponsored and pushed through the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which banned the slave trade throughout the British Empire, although it did not ban slavery itself. This act paved the way for the Abolition Act of 1833, which was passed shortly after his death.

In 2007, a film called Amazing Grace was released to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. In addition to William Wilberforce, the film also profiled a number of famous leaders of the abolition movement which brought about an end to this cruel trade in human lives.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon68346 — On Mar 02, 2010

William Wilberforce was a very wise guy who went about the abolition of slavery in a very educated way. He joined a slave abolition crew which banned the slave trade in Britain but it didn't end slavery. This then led to the Abolition Act of 1833 right after his death.

By anon29217 — On Mar 29, 2009

How did William Wilberforce go about the abolition of slavery?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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