Penetrating Joy: A Tribute to William Wilberforce

Reed JolleyCommunity News

I confess to you, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did [slavery’s] wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for Abolition…. Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.

It was 4:30 a.m., February 24, 1807.  The members of Parliament sat nervously in the House of Commons while Lord Grenville counted the votes.  Those in favor of abolishing the slave trade, 283; those opposed, 16.  Thus, the slave trade in the British Empire came to an end.

All eyes turned toward William Wilberforce who had labored twenty years for this moment. The fight was not over.  It would be another twenty-six years until slavery itself (not just the slave trade) was abolished. But on this morning, tears streamed down his face as his colleagues raised their voices to cheer.  He had lost friends, and his life had been threatened.  At times it seemed he had forfeited his political career.  But now, trafficking human beings for profit was abolished.

August 24, 2009, was the 250th anniversary of William Wilberforce’s birth, and we should have a party to celebrate. His accomplishments have helped shape our lives to this day, and his example is worthy of a second look.  Wilberforce was a man small in height (5’0”), but large in persistence.  He was wealthy, but he lived a simple life and gave sacrificially to the poor.  His energy seemed boundless, yet he suffered constantly from weak lungs, colitis, curvature of the spine, and poor eyesight.  He was vilified, yet joy-filled.  James Boswell, the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson, wrote a satirical limerick about Wilberforce: I hate your whittling sneer./ Your pert and self-sufficient leer. . . begone, for shame,/ Thou dwarf with big resounding name.  Lord Byron and others criticized him bitterly.  William Cobett, a defender of slavery, wrote and published a bitter invective to Wilberforce:

You seem to have a great affection for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing Negroes. . . . [But] never have you done one single act in favor of the laborers of this country.

Cobett’s charge was a blatant lie (see below), but Wilberforce did not defend himself.  As one writer put it,Instead of speaking of his own accomplishments, he often said that one line of prayer that summarized his only hope: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Yes, Wilberforce suffered, yet his life was marked by joy.  A contemporary of this Parliamentary statesman wrote to a friend, By the tones of his voice and expression of his countenance he showed that joy was the prevailing feature of his own mind, joy springing from entireness of trust in the Savior’s merits and from love to God and man. . . . His joy was quite penetrating.  One friend said of Wilberforce after his death, His mirth was as irresistible as the first laughter of childhood. 

Wilberforce himself saw joy as the duty of every Christian.  Joyless faith, according to this spunky disciple, is highly criminal.  Consider what he said in his famous book A Practical View of Christianity:

We can scarcely indeed look into any part of the [Bible] without meeting abundant proofs, that it is the religion of the Affections which God particularly requires…. Joy…is enjoined on us as our bounden duty and commended to us as our acceptable worship…. A cold…unfeeling heart is represented as highly criminal.

What was the secret of this man’s penetrating joy?  Why was his tenacious stubbornness in social reform always coupled with an appealing lightheartedness? The answer lies not in his temperament, but in his conviction.  Wilberforce’s untiring passion for the improvement of society flowed from his beliefs about God, and his countenance was shaped by his doctrinal beliefs.  In short, Wilberforce got saved.  He passed from death to life, and the whole world looked different.  He had the bedrock conviction that God was God and he was not.  Wilberforce believed that the glory of God was the grand governing maxim of life.  Because all things exist to glorify the sovereign God of the universe, this politician and statesman worked relentlessly for the betterment of all things, but he did so with what one colleague called the charm of youth.

William Wilberforce was far from a one-issue politician.  In October of 1787, he wrote in his journal thatGod Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners, and by the latter he meant the reformation of the moral order of society.  He seemed tireless in the causes he joined or pioneered. For example, he was involved in the Society for the Manufacturing Poor, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  He sought to pass labor laws that would protect children (especially little boys who were hired to sweep chimneys, dying early deaths because of soot they breathed into their lungs).  He tried to promote Sunday as a day without work.  Wilberforce also labored to restrict capital punishment and to improve prison conditions.  He sought agriculture reform that would help the poor buy inexpensive food. At one point in his life, he was active in sixty-nine different initiatives that were intended to improve the social order of his day. And he did all of this with penetrating joy!

Wilberforce understood that society is built, ultimately, not on laws but, on the beliefs of its people.  At one point he said this:

The national difficulties we face result from the decline of religion and morality among us.  I must confess…boldly that my solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies…as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ.  I believe that their prayers may yet prevail.

So, happy belated birthday, William Wilberforce!  We are thankful that you were one who loved and obeyed the gospel of Christ.  You worked on abolishing slavery and, in your words, reforming manners.  We need to find ourselves busy working on issues and causes very similar to those that consumed you: slavery in Africa, the sex-trafficking industry, a 40 percent out-of-wedlock birth rate, abortion, environmental abuse, etc.  May we follow your example as we seek to make our contribution to the public good.  And may we do so with overtones of penetrating joy.