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William Wilberforce’s Annotated Bible

William Wilberforce’s Annotated Bible by WILBERFORCE, William (1824)

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Author: WILBERFORCE, William
Title: William Wilberforce’s Annotated Copy of ‘The Holy Bible’
Year: 1824
Publisher: Samuel Collingwood and Co at The Clarendon Press
Place: Oxford
Dust Jacket: No
Signed: Yes
Price: £18500
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William Wilberforce’s bedside copy of the Bible with his ink signature on the title page and around a hundred autograph annotations, especially to Wilberforce’s beloved Psalms, revealing how the philanthropist’s Christian faith and abolitionist convictions were rooted in Bible study.

Large octavo bound in panelled calf with gilt decoration, re-backed with the original spine neatly laid down, decorative gilt turn-ins and blue marbled endpapers; inner hinges reinforced. At the time these repairs were made the text block was trimmed slightly and all edges gilded with slight loss to some annotations. Internally, foxing to early leaves; the leaf preceding the title has professional paper repairs along the gutter; short tears at the tail of both the title page and the leaf preceding.

William Wilberforce has signed the title page with the following instruction: ‘W Wilberforce - Best Bed Room (and not to be taken out of ye Room. Dec.r 1827’ - Wilberforce had moved into Hendon Hall in north London the previous year and would live there until 1831 as the figurehead for the campaign to free enslaved Africans which came to fruition in 1833. The provenance of the Bible is further documented opposite with the inscription, now difficult to read behind extensive foxing: ‘This book was given to W.H. Howrd by Wm Wilberforce Esq. Eldest son of that exemplary Christian the late W. Wilberforce Esq. M.P. whose name and handwriting appear on the opposite title page hereof - January 24 - 1840’. A page earlier is a later inscription, further gifting the precious volume: ‘W. H. Howrd to Robert H. White Esq. Whitehall Place 1 February 1869.’ It is clear that the book has been treated as a significant relic of Wilberforce since its first donation in 1840 by Wilberforce’s son. It is one of three Bibles known to have been owned by Wilberforce: one is now owned by Hull Museums and a second annotated Bible sold for £23,800 at auction in 2007.

There are around one hundred short autograph annotations to the Bible in Wilberforce’s hand as well as several dozen marginal lines, underlinings and cross references. Wilberforce has paid most attention to the Psalms, noting, very movingly, alongside Psalm IV ‘this psalm has a wondrous effect’ and paying special attention to Psalm CXIX of which he wrote in his diary: ‘Walked from Hyde Park quoting the 119th Psalm to great profit.’ At verse 96 of CXIX in this copy of his Bible Wilberforce has underlined the text ‘I have seen an end of all perfection’ and written in the margin: ‘Thy Promises [co]mfort me [a]nd my [o]nly comforts...’ - a few letters shaved off when the book was trimmed. The book of Psalms is annotated very simply and throughout with instructions at the beginning of many Psalms for their appropriate day for reading, so ‘3rd Mond’ and Psalm XXII, ‘Good Friday’. Psalm XXXVII is also annotated in ink ‘Golden[?] Psalm’. Wilberforce makes the interesting decision to highlight with vertical lines Psalm LXXI, verses 18-21 which begin ‘Now also when I am old and greyheaded...’ - lines which would have spoken deeply to the old man.

Another fascinating annotation appears at Job XXXVIII, relating to Wilberforce’s friend Henry Brougham, a staunch abolitionist who was soon to be Lord Chancellor and instrumental in passing the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Wilberforce notes in pencil how ‘Lord Brougham admires from Chap. 38 to 41’ These are the climactic chapters of the Book of Job which also bear a sequence of his underlinings of individual words, possibly functioning as pointing for reading the text aloud. Elsewhere in the Bible Wilberforce has annotated St Paul’s defence of marriage at I Corinthians VII 14-33 with a network of marginal lines that indicate real commitment to the text. And there is a manuscript commentary in another hand along the foreedge of the leaf apparently attesting to the annotation being written by ‘good Mr Wilberforce’ - frustratingly these words have been partially removed during trimming though further work will certainly decipher them.

In Numbers Wilberforce himself has written deep in the gutter: ‘I think this word is sanctioned’ and at Ezra II. x.66 Wilberforce corrects a misprint to ‘seven’ in ink. A passage from Deuteronomy is noted as ‘For Ash Wednesday’ and both Isaiah IX and Luke II are allocated to ‘Xmas Day’. There is further autograph annotation to 1 Samuel, XXVI,22 and II Samuel Chapter XIX as Wilberforce empathised with Jacob mourning Absalom: ‘How truly Pathetic is this? The bowels of a Father yearns for his son!’ - this note again written side on, deep in the book’s gutter. There are several annotations to Biblical calculations and numbers: a calculation regarding Shekels in Judges is noted in ink as ‘about £3750.0. of our Money-’ and there are other financial calculations at II Samuel XII and I Kings X. A handful of times Wilberforce provides cross-references to related passages in the Bible, notably II Corinthians.

As noted above there are several reverential annotations by the book’s later owners, perhaps the younger William Wilberforce or more likely, Howrd or White as noted in the dedications above. So, below the highlighted passage at II. Chronicles XXV. 2 ‘And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, but not with a perfect heart’ is written three lines of pencil commentary: ‘This was a Verse with which the mind of Mr. Wilberforce was much impressed in the early part of his Christian Passage...’. And again at Jeremiah XXXIX the annotator notes that ‘The late Mr Wilberforce mentions in his Diary of having opened to this Chapter and noticed these 3 Verses [16-18], after Prayer....’

Wilberforce’s annotations to this Bible provide ample evidence of his active and questioning reading of the Bible, a source of strength and solace during his final years, especially in relation to the Psalms. Wilberforce records in his diary his practice of Bible reading both alone and in company as ‘Bible almost daily’. This reading was an active discipline in which he would combine praying the Psalms with bodily exercise and Scripture memory. Wilberforce’s global reputation rests on his long parliamentary struggle to abolish the slave trade in 1789. Despite the support of William Pitt, and later Fox and Grenville and many others, motion after motion was defeated, principally from the House of Lords and the parliamentary timetable. By the early years of the nineteenth century public opinion moved decisively in favour of abolition, culminating in the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Wilberforce became widely respected for his stand but he was also well known for many other causes including cruelty to animals, parliamentary reform and missionary work in India. Depite the act of 1807, slavery had not been entirely eradicated and Wilberforce continued pressing for its complete abolition; he lived long enough to hear of the second reading of the Anti-Slavery Bill in 1833, which finally made all forms of slavery illegal in the British Empire.
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