In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Wilberforce

  • Introduction
  • Primary Printed Sources
  • Archival Collections
  • Biographical Studies
  • Wilberforce and ‘the Clapham Sect’
  • Biographies of Wilberforce’s Associates
  • Wilberforce’s Contemporary Critics
  • Wilberforce and British Politics
  • Wilberforce and Evangelicalism
  • Wilberforce and the Age of Reform
  • Wilberforce, Africa, and Race
  • Wilberforce and the Americas
  • Wilberforce beyond the Atlantic World: India and Australia
  • Wilberforce: Legacy and Memory

Atlantic History William Wilberforce
John Coffey, Anna Harrington
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0397


Born to a merchant family in England’s east coast port of Kingston-upon-Hull, William Wilberforce (b. 1759–d. 1833) went on to become the most famous of British abolitionists. Educated at Cambridge University in the late 1770s (during the American War of Independence), he became a member of parliament (MP) for his hometown in 1780 at the age of twenty-one. He struck up a close personal friendship with a Cambridge contemporary, William Pitt, son of “Pitt the Elder,” and after “Pitt the Younger” became prime minister in 1783, Wilberforce was elected as an MP for Yorkshire, England’s largest county constituency, a seat he held until 1812. The key turning point in his career came in 1785–1786, when he experienced a protracted evangelical conversion and was drawn into a circle of Anglican reformers opposed to the slave trade. They included the Teston Set gathered around the Reverend James Ramsay, as well as the former slave ship captain, the Reverend John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Wilberforce discovered “two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [i.e. morals].” He became the parliamentary spokesman of the abolitionists, giving his first great speech on the Atlantic slave trade in 1789, though his many attempts to secure abolition failed until it became an official government measure in 1806–1807, after Pitt’s death. During this time, he assembled an inner circle of brilliant collaborators, including Henry Thornton, James Stephen, and Zachary Macaulay. Their influence was seen in different parts of the Atlantic world, from Sierra Leone to the British Caribbean and even Haiti, although they were thwarted in their efforts to secure an international ban on the Atlantic slave trade and amelioration of West Indian slavery. They did, however, create a plethora of philanthropic and evangelical organizations, forging a religious public that could be mobilized in massive petitioning campaigns. In 1823, Wilberforce was a founder of the Anti-Slavery Society, although he passed on the parliamentary leadership of the campaign to Thomas Fowell Buxton. He retired from Parliament in 1825, after forty-five years as an MP. Since 1807, or even 1789, he had been a national icon, but a controversial figure too, mocked for his strait-laced piety, excoriated for his abolitionism, and criticized for his domestic political conservatism. He died in July 1833, as the Slavery Abolition Bill was passing through Parliament. As a result of that happy coincidence, he became known, rather misleadingly, as “the emancipator.”

Primary Printed Sources

For almost two hundred years, studies of Wilberforce have rested on seven volumes published by his sons: Wilberforce and Wilberforce 1838 and Wilberforce and Wilberforce 1840. These volumes contain a wealth of correspondence as well as voluminous extracts from his diaries and journals. Clarkson 1838 was the first to warn of their misrepresentations. Harford 1865 supplements rather than corrects the Life. Wilberforce 1897 marked the publication of further correspondence and papers. The availability of these printed works (together with many other Lives and Letters from the period) has proved a labor-saving device for numerous researchers too busy to peruse Wilberforce’s manuscripts or master his difficult handwriting. There has never been a scholarly edition of Wilberforce’s complete diaries, or his voluminous correspondence, or his many speeches, whether parliamentary or extraparliamentary. Wilberforce 1983 did supply an edition of his 1779 “Summer Diary,” and McMullen 2021 presents and annotates his unpublished religious journals. The Wilberforce Diaries Project, directed by John Coffey at the University of Leicester, is currently preparing a scholarly edition of the complete diaries and journals (almost one million words) for Oxford University Press.

  • Clarkson, Thomas. Strictures on a Life of William Wilberforce. London: Longman, 1838.

    Exposé of the slanted history purveyed by the Wilberforce sons. The seventy-nine-year-old Clarkson demonstrated that they had written him out of the story of abolition after 1789. He documents his pioneering role and his long collaboration with Wilberforce.

  • Harford, John S. Recollections of William Wilberforce, Esq. London: Longman, 1865.

    Compiled by a close friend, this includes some of Wilberforce’s correspondence and memories alongside Harford’s own anecdotes and recollections. A similar work is the Quaker Joseph John Gurney’s Familiar Sketch of the Late William Wilberforce (Norwich, UK: J. Fletcher, 1838).

  • McMullen, Michael, ed. William Wilberforce: His Unpublished Spiritual Journals. Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2021.

    The first complete, annotated edition of Wilberforce’s manuscript “Religious Journals,” which he began during his evangelical awakening in 1785–1786. Also includes his unpublished “Autobiography,” covering his early career.

  • Wilberforce, A.M., ed. Private Papers of William Wilberforce. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897.

    Contains Wilberforce’s correspondence with William Pitt and other politicians, his brief biographical “Sketch of Pitt,” and some family letters.

  • Wilberforce, Robert Isaac, and Samuel Wilberforce, eds. The Life of William Wilberforce. 5 vols. London: John Murray, 1838.

    This immense official Life, assembled by two of Wilberforce’s sons, is as much an anthology as a biography. It contains extracts from hundreds of his letters, and over 100,000 words from his diaries and journals.

  • Wilberforce, Robert Isaac and Samuel Wilberforce, eds. The Correspondence of William Wilberforce. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1840.

    The main collection of Wilberforce’s published letters, including correspondence with his inner circle (Isaac Milner, James Stephen, Zachary Macaulay); leading politicians (William Pitt, William Grenville, Spencer Perceval, Lord Liverpool, George Canning); foreign statesmen (Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Henri Christophe of Haiti, Augustin Arguelles); and literati (Jeremy Bentham, Hannah More, Robert Southey).

  • Wilberforce, William. Journey to the Lake District from Cambridge, 1779: A Diary. Edited by C. E. Wrangham. Stocksfield, UK: Oriel Press, 1983.

    The only portion of Wilberforce’s daily diary to be published in full. Traveling to the Lake District with his “claude glass” in hand, he was on the cutting edge of the latest tourist trend, but he also visited country estates and mining operations. The “Diary” reveals Wilberforce as a fashionable young man: tourist, social networker, and entrepreneur.

  • Wilberforce, William. A Practical View of Christianity. Edited by Kevin Belmonte. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

    An annotated edition of Wilberforce’s 1797 religious bestseller with a foreword by President Nixon’s former “hatchet man,” Charles Colson, who after his “born again” conversion often cited Wilberforce as an inspiration for his prison reform work.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.