In 1823 he entered Oriel College, Oxford. In the "United Debating Society," which afterwards developed into the "Union," he distinguished himself as a zealous advocate of liberalism. The set of friends with whom he chiefly associated at Oxford were sometimes named, on account of their exceptionally decorous conduct, the "Bethel Union"; but he was by no means averse to amusements, and specially delighted in hurdle jumping and hunting. He graduated in 1826, taking a first class in mathematics and a second in classics. After his marriage on June 11 1828 to Emily Sargent, he was in December ordained and appointed curate-in-charge at Checkenden near Henley-on-Thames.
In 1830 he was presented by Bishop Sumner of Winchester to the rectory of Brightstone in the Isle of Wight. In this comparatively retired sphere he soon found scope for that manifold activity which so prominently characterized his subsequent career. In 1831 he published a tract on tithes, "to correct the prejudices of the lower order of farmers," and in the following year a collection of hymns for use in his parish, which had a large general circulation; a small volume of stories entitled the Note Book of a Country Clergyman; and a sermon, The Apostolical Ministry. At the close of 1837 he published the Letters and Journals of Henry Martyn.
Although a High Churchman Wilberforce held aloof from the Oxford movement, and in 1838 his divergence from the "Tract" writers became so marked that JH Newman declined further contributions from him to the British Critic, not deeming it advisable that they should longer "co-operate very closely." In 1838 Wilberforce published, with his elder brother Robert, the Life of his father, and two years later his father's Correspondence. In 1839 he also published Eucharistica (from the old English divines), to which he wrote an introduction, Agathos and other Sunday Stories, and a volume of University Sermons, and in the following year Rocky Island and other Parables. In November 1839 he was installed archdeacon of Surrey, in August 1840 was collated canon of Winchester and in October he accepted the rectory of Alverstoke.
In 1841 he was chosen Bampton lecturer, and shortly afterwards made chaplain to Prince Albert, an appointment he owed to the impression produced by a speech at an anti-slavery meeting some months previously. In October 1843 he was appointed by the archbishop of York to be sub-almoner to the Queen. In 1844 appeared his History of the American Church. In March of the following year he accepted the deanery of Westminster, and in October the bishopric of Oxford.
The bishop in 1847 became involved in the Hampden controversy, and signed the remonstrance of the thirteen bishops to Lord John Russell against Hampden's appointment to the bishopric of Hereford. He also endeavoured to obtain satisfactory assurances from Hampden; but, though unsuccessful in this, he withdrew from the suit against him. The publication of a papal bull in 1850 establishing a Roman hierarchy in England brought the High Church party, of whom Wilberforce was the most prominent member, into temporary disrepute. The secession to the Church of Rome of his brother-in-law, Archdeacon (afterwards Cardinal) Manning, and then of his brothers, as well as his only daughter and his son-in-law, Mr and Mrs JH Pye, brought him under further suspicion, arid his revival of the powers of convocation lessened his influence at court; but his unfailing tact and wide sympathies, his marvellous energy in church organization, the magnetism of his personality, and his eloquence both on the platform and in the pulpit, gradually won for him recognition as without a rival on the episcopal bench.
His diary reveals a tender and devout private life which has been overlooked by those who have only considered the versatile facility and persuasive expediency that marked the successful public career of the bishop, and earned; him the sobriquet of "Soapy Sam." In the House of Lords he took a prominent part in the discussion of social and ecclesiastical questions. He has been styled the "bishop of society"; but society occupied only a fraction of his time. The great bent of his energies was ceaselessly directed to the better organization of his diocese and to the furtherance of schemes for increasing the influence and efficiency of the church.
In 1854 he opened a theological college at Cuddesdon, which was afterwards the subject of some controversy on account of its alleged Romanist tendencies.
In 1859, he took part in the famous debate against Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, attacking the former's book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and the theory behind it.
His attitude towards Essays and Reviews in 1861, against which he wrote an article in the Quarterly, won him the special gratitude of the Low Church party, and latterly he enjoyed the full confidence and esteem of all except the extreme men of either side and party. On the publication of JW Colenso's Commentary on the Romans in 1861, Wilberforce endeavoured to induce the author to hold a private conference with him; but after the publication of the first two parts of the Pentateuch Critically Examined he drew up the address of the bishops which called on Colenso to resign his bishopric. In 1867 he framed the first Report of the Ritualistic Commission, in which coercive measures against ritualism were discountenanced by the use of the word "restrain" instead of "abolish" or "prohibit." He also endeavoured to take the sting out of some resolutions of the second Ritualistic Commission in 1868, and was one of the four who signed the Report with qualifications. Though strongly opposed to the disestablishment of the Irish Church, yet, when the constituencies decided for it, he advised that no opposition should be made to it by the House of Lords. After twenty-four years' labour in the diocese of Oxford, he was translated by Gladstone to the bishopric of Winchester. He was killed on the 19th of July 1873, by the shock of a fall from his horse near Dorking, Surrey.
Wilberforce left three sons. The eldest, Reginald Carton Wilberforce, being the author of An Unrecorded Chapter of the Indian Mutiny (1894). His two younger sons both attained distinction in the English church. Ernest Roland Wilberforce (1840-1908) was bishop of Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 1882 to 1895, and bishop of Chichester from 1895 till his death. Albert Basil Orme Wilberforce (b. 1841) was appointed canon residentiary of Westminster in 1894, chaplain of the House of Commons in 1896 and archdeacon of Westminster in 1900; he has published several volumes of sermons.
Besides the works already mentioned, Wilberforce wrote Heroes of Hebrew History (1870), originally contributed to Good Words, and several volumes of sermons. See Life of Samuel Wilberforce, with Selections from his Diary and Correspondence (1879-1882), vol. i., ed. by Canon AR Ashwell, and vols. ii. and iii., ed. by his son RG Wilberforce, who also wrote a one-volume Life (1888). One of the volumes of the "English Leaders of Religion" is devoted to him, and he is included in Dean Burgon's Lives of Twelve Good Men (1888).