Dr John Sentamu paid tribute to Wilberforce, a former Hull MP, during the service held in York Minster on Sunday to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the former British Empire.
According to the Dean of York, the Very Rev Keith Jones, the event was the first of many celebrations to be held throughout 2007 both regionally and nationally and the Minster was the right place to start them off, he said.
"William Wilberforce was an MP for Yorkshire for many years," he said in a BBC report.
"Although Hull is rightly proud of its son, our Minster service will give thanks for a great Yorkshireman and parliamentarian, who worked for years to bring an act for the abolition of the slave trade.
"On the night of February 23/24 1807, the Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons.
"It was a tremendous scene when at 4am, after a long debate, Wilberforce was cheered to the echo and tears streamed down his face."
York Minster opened an exhibition entitled Free at Last on Sunday, which tells the story of Yorkshire's involvement in the slave trade.
Part of Sunday's service featured a performance by the choir of Pocklington school in East Yorks, which was attended by Wilberforce, and some of his descendents were expected to be among the hundreds at the service.