Historical People Who Practiced Servant Leadership: William Wilberforce (1759-1833)




Have you ever imagined that you could change the world? William Wilberforce was that kind of leader. Before Wilberforce few people in the British empire questioned the practices of slavery and the slave trade. After Wilberforce, few people could understand why the slave trade, once dominated by the British masters of the sea, had seemed morally, politically or economically justified. His influence was that significant.


How could one person have such a profound impact, not only in the British empire, but on the world? Several key factors help us catch a glimpse of how one person made such a magnificent difference.


In 1785, at age twenty-six, Wilberforce had a spiritual conversion experience. Having read the New Testament of the Bible and, grasping the deep meaning of the message of Christ, he realized that the reality of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom changes everything about the human condition. In God’s sight, all humans are equal. Followers of Jesus are to love their neighbors as themselves. The slave trade, Wilberforce realized, was evil, sinful and morally wrong. The claims of the Gospel became the guiding principle for the rest of his life.


A second reality was that Wilberforce affiliated with people who followed Christ and strongly believed that their faith must be reflected in their attitudes and actions. This small group, often called the Clapham Sect or Clapham Circle for the area outside of London where they lived and worshiped, had extraordinary influence on public opinion and, ultimately, in the British Parliament. They devoted their energies to social improvements, including caring for the poor, advocating rigorous moral standards, developing Sunday schools, launching Christian missionary work, and establishing the British Bible Society. With Wilberforce, members of the Clapham Circle were committed to ending the slave trade and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.


Among his personal friendships, Wilberforce counted Hannah More (1745-1833), a writer, founder of schools and philanthropist, and John Newton ((1725-1807), former slave-ship captain, who, after his conversion wrote hymns, including “Amazing Grace,” and persuaded Wilberforce to remain in Parliament and lead the fight against the slave trade.


Wilberforce became a member of Parliament in 1780, representing Hull and later Yorkshire. An eloquent orator who, in taking up the cause of ending the slave trade, assumed a leadership role. Not until 1807 was the law abolishing slave trade passed. Only years later, in 1833, the year of his death, was slavery finally abolished in the empire.


William Wilberforce exemplifies world-changing leadership. He devoted his talents and energy to his life-long passion in the cause of justice, ending inhumane, crushing cruelty, and overcoming political as well as social scorn heaped upon him. The cost of practicing his faith in Christ was heavy. His dedication and commitment awakened the conscience of humanity, setting an inspiring example in practicing servant leadership.


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