Wilberforce was by all accounts a weedy bloke. A fact that doesn’t really come out in all the stylized statues and paintings. He grew up in Yorkshire, in a wealthy family – his father traded across the Baltic and had been local mayor in Hull on two occasions.
His first exposure to Christianity was through his Aunt Hannah who was a staunch supporter of the ministry of George Whitfield – the great English open-air preacher. Evangelicalism was regarded with a fair bit of suspicion in polite circles at this time (similar to the modern attitude towards Pentecostalism), and when William started to become a bit ‘involved’ in his religion, his parents changed his school and moved him away from his Aunt, to break him out of his unhealthy religious enthusiasm.
It seemed to work for a while. Wilberforce finished school and went to study at St John’s College, Cambridge. (He studied an Arts degree, of course). While at the University he appears to have lived a fairly normal student life. He became known as a good card player and was fond of the odd cheeky drop.
Like all good Arts students, he kept an interest in politics – after all, we need something to argue about over a beer. It is at this point that Wilberforce begins to stand out a little from the crowd.
You or I may have had the odd day dream about student politics, but honestly, who has the time or inclination?
Only the Profoundly Annoying as far as I can tell.
For students at Cambridge however, student politics at that time basically meant The House of Commons in the British Parliament.
William, at the age of 21, and still undertaking his B.A. got himself elected to Parliament.
I’m really not sure what was going on then because William Pitt – Wilberforces close friend from Cambridge and also in Parliament – got himself elected Prime Minister a couple of years later (1783) at the ripe old age of 24.
Wilberforce is famous for a lot of things, some of these things are worth knowing about, others…
but maybe you’ll be as impressed as me to know that William was an early adopter of one of the hot new technologies of the latter 18th century – the ‘paper back’.
[Note the picture]
How’s this for a hot look – he even had a special ‘reading jacket’ made, with pockets large enough to carry around the latest bit of pulp fiction (probably some twallop by that Austen chick).
Like any good politician it appears that in 1784 Wilberforce embarked on an overseas junket. He made the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, but it was during this time through a travelling companion that his spiritual life was reawakened. Isaac Milner, who travelled with William, encouraged him to read Philip Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul together with him, and later to study the New Testament.
Wilberforce began to avidly read the Bible, rising early in the morning to read and pray. He began to seriously consider leaving politics to seek to serve God through ministering in the Church.