William Wilberforce: A Man For Our Season

Reed JolleyCommunity News

It was Oscar Wilde who quipped, The trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings.  Had they been contemporaries, William Wilberforce may have responded, And the trouble with abolition is that it takes too many years.  In fact, the battle to abolish slavery consumed almost forty-six years of this Yorkshire parliamentarian’s life.  Last week, we observed the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s efforts: the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. Also last week the movie Amazing Grace—which chronicles the life of this tireless disciple—was released.  Amazing Grace is a good film, and it bears watching.  The script is lively; the dialogue, realistic; and the story, compelling.  I left the theater thinking, Yes, but what is there for me to learn from this man?  Here are a few thoughts that didn’t come from the film:

First, Wilberforce teaches me that evangelical zeal compels social action.    Although he was raised in an evangelical home, Wilberforce gave up any interest in biblical Christianity while he was a student at Cambridge.  In the winter of 1784, he took a vacation to France with a friend who led him back to the Lord.  He called this period of his life the great change.  And change it was. Wilberforce began to see all of life as a gift to be spent for the purposes of God.  He became suspect of material wealth and began giving away a quarter of his income to the poor.  The great change almost compelled Wilberforce to leave politics and become a preacher.  It was John Newton, writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” that compelled him to stay at his post.  After they met privately, Newton wrote to Wilberforce and said, It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation. Wilberforce stayed in politics for the rest of his life.  In his book A Practical View of Christianity (1797), Wilberforce writes, No man has a right to be idle.  Where is it that in such a world as this, [that] health, and leisure, and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate?  In other words, no matter who we are or where we are, we can find space to do the will of God in the public square.

Second, Wilberforce teaches me that social action is both broad and narrow.  On the one hand, this politician is remembered for being the catalyst behind abolishing the slave trade.  Wilberforce spent much of his life on this single, narrow issue.  But abolition was not the only cause he championed.  Wilberforce wrote in his diary,
(cont’d from previous page) God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.  By manners Wilberforce had in mind public morals in Britain.  Accordingly he stood against and for a variety of issues and causes.  He fought the practice of dueling even as he supported the British Foreign Bible Society. Wilberforce founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (The scene in the movie where Wilberforce intercedes for a horse that is being brutally beaten is both accurate and understated.  In real life, the man beating his horse stopped and said, Are you Mr. Wilberforce?. . . Then I will never beat my horse again!) Wilberforce worked to pass laws protecting child laborers, and he promoted laws that would protect Sunday as a day of rest.  He worked on agricultural reform that would help provide food for the needy.

Third, Wilberforce teaches me that sound doctrine fuels the long-haul work of promoting change.  What galvanized Wilberforce’s life was his commitment to what he called the peculiar doctrines of Christianity.  These doctrines informed his affections which gave him staying power in the political arena.  What, specifically, were those doctrines?

Wilberforce had a biblical view of human nature and therefore of himself.  At one point he contrasted the rationalistic enlightened thinking of his day that sees people as inclined toward virtue with what he called the humiliating language of true Christianity.

From [this language] we learn that man is an apostate creature.  He has fallen from his high, original state. . . . He is indisposed toward the good, and disposed toward evil. . . He is tainted with sin, not slightly and superficially, but radically, and to the very core of his being.  Even though it may be humiliating to acknowledge these things, still this is the biblical account of man.

Wilberforce was convinced that all men and women are infected by the disease of sin, and this conviction gave him patience as he labored alongside those who opposed him bitterly.  He was also convinced that he had been justified by faith because of Christ’s work of atonement on the cross.  In other words, William Wilberforce was not a politician with energetic moxie. Instead, he was a sinner transformed by the truths that he believed. The great change compelled his every step.

Fourth, Wilberforce teaches me that joy is necessary for promoting social change.  The biographers agree with the script of Amazing Grace that William Wilberforce was a quirky, joy-filled believer.  He adored his pets and wrestled playfully with his children.  He couldn’t suppress a laugh, and he loved a good joke.  With the awesome stakes involved in the abolition of slavery, wouldn’t Wilberforce be excused if he never cracked a smile?  But this was not the way God made him.  When Wilberforce died, a clergyman named Joseph Brown said of him, He was . . .a most cheerful Christian. His harp appeared to be always in tune; no “gloomy atmosphere of a melancholy moroseness” surrounded him; his sun appeared to be always shining. . .

In April 1797, two weeks after he met her, William Wilberforce married Barbara Ann Spooner.  They remained married for thirty-seven years until Wilberforce died.  Together they had four sons and two daughters.  Wilberforce, the dignified parliamentarian, was known to interrupt important meetings at his home in order to go out on the lawn and wrestle with his children and their friends.  Biographer Betty Steele Everett comments that Wilberforce was not like the fathers of his day.  Most who had the wealth and position he had would maintain a very distant relationship with their children.  Not Wilberforce. He played marbles and Blindman’s Bluff and ran races with them. In the games, the children treated him like one of them.  Joy!

Why this retrospective on William Wilberforce?  Because we need to follow his lead.  A slave during Wilberforce’s time cost upwards of $40,000 (adjusted for inflation).  Today a slave can be purchased in many parts of the world for $90.  We need hordes of Wilberforces to fight the slave trade.  We need Wilberforces to give voice to those snared in the sex trafficking industry, Wilberforces to intercede for the enslavement of Christians by the Islamists in Sudan.  We need tireless Wilberforces to have patience and tenacity in the fight against abortion.  And so on. . .

The last letter that John Wesley ever wrote was to William Wilberforce.  In it Wesley said, Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. . . But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary of well-doing.  Then Wesley signed the letter with a benediction, Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might.  We should do the same.