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FIRST-PERSON: William Wilberforce’s example

DEERFIELD, Ill. (BP)–One of the values of biography is encouragement. Seeing God’s providence worked out in the life of another human being can often encourage us to repent, beware or persevere. Perseverance is the lesson I learn from the biography of one of my own Christian heroes, William Wilberforce.

Elected to British Parliament at the age of 21, Wilberforce felt no particular attraction to any cause until after his conversion five years later under the influence of Isaac Milner, his former tutor. Coming to faith in Christ meant a radical transformation in Wilberforce’s world and life views. From his conversion forward he approached his vocation as a calling from God. His friend, John Newton, former slave trader and author of many hymns, including “Amazing Grace,” convinced the young convert to remain in Parliament despite counsel to the contrary he had received from others.

When he was 27, Wilberforce founded the Society for the Reformation of Manners. The goal of the society was to make “goodness” respectable among the leadership class of his culture. Even though few were aware of it, King George III’s “Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue” was due to Wilberforce’s influence. That same year, Wilberforce became one of the prime movers in the effort to abolish the slave trade in England. He entered the following in his journal on Oct. 27, 1787: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, warned Wilberforce in a letter: “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by opposition from men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you?”

Though he was personally wealthy, Wilberforce often gave more than a quarter of his income to charities and paid for the education of some of his relatives. Wilberforce’s son observed that “he gave more than merely money; he made his house the home of one or two youths, the expense of whose education he defrayed; all their holidays were spent with him; and hours of his own time were profusely given to training and furnishing their minds. Nor were the poor forgotten; they were invited to join his family worship on Sunday evening, and sought out often in their cottages for instruction and relief.” While he might have availed himself of many of the amenities consistent with his social stature, he was quite modest in every way. Kevin Belmonte, in his recent profile, “Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce,” points out that, “In an intensely class-conscious age, Wilberforce forsook the amenities of traveling in his own comfortable and expensive carriage. Instead, he began to travel by coach, the equivalent today of taking a taxi instead of a limousine.”

Most striking, however, was Wilberforce’s persevering confidence in God’s power and purpose to end slavery through his efforts. In 1789, he gave a notable address before Parliament calling on his peers to pass his Abolition Bill. Newspaper accounts lauded it as one of the most eloquent speeches ever heard there. Nevertheless, the time was not yet right for abolition in England.

While continuing to lobby against the slave trade, Wilberforce founded The Bible Society, The Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, and published an apologetic theology, “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity.”

By 1804, it appeared that the tide was changing in Parliament. Wilberforce helped found the Abolition Society and reintroduced his bill in 1804 and again in 1805. The bill fell both times. Yet he persevered. In the face of defeat, Wilberforce published an influential tract against the trade of human slaves. Over and over again, Parliament resisted the inevitable.

Finally, on July 26, 1833 — a full 46 years after it was first introduced — the Emancipation Bill passed. Wilberforce died three days later.

John Pollock, the great Christian biographer of both Wilberforce and John Newton, reminds us of the genius of Wilberforce’s life: “First Wilberforce’s whole life was animated by a deeply held personal faith in Jesus Christ. Rather than ascribing to lifeless dogma or dull conventional religious thinking, Wilberforce and his colleagues were motivated by a robust personal belief in the living God who is concerned with individual human lives, justice, and the transformation of societies. At their core was a profound sense of the presence and power of God giving them vision, courage and the necessary perspective to choose their issues and stand against the powerful interests aligned against them.

“Wilberforce, along with his friends, viewed himself as a pilgrim on a mission of mercy, never defining his identity of purposes by the flawed values of his age. This transcendent perspective made him the freest of men and therefore the most threatening force against the status quo. Second, Wilberforce had a deep sense of calling that grew into the conviction that he was to exercise his spiritual purpose in the realm of his secular responsibility.

“Too often people of faith draw a dichotomy between the spiritual and the secular. Religious activities are considered a lofty calling, while secular involvements are viewed with disdain and believed to have little to do with true spirituality.”

We tend to be shortsighted when it comes to cultural transformation. If we do not see promiscuous abortion outlawed in one generation, we tend to give up. If we are not successful in turning around the militant homosexual agenda, we faint.

If our culture disintegrates around us, we are tempted to acquiesce. If the church loses her power, we often contribute to her impotence by forfeiting what is necessary to her potency, personal holiness.

Wilberforce has left us a legacy of fidelity to God, commitment to the worshiping community, effectiveness in public theology and perseverance in the face of systemic opposition. In addition, his life under God reminds us that it may take generations to see cultural transformation. We might never see it ourselves. But, we are to be faithful to do what God calls us to do, all the while remembering that God will accomplish his purpose in and through us.
C. Ben Mitchell, Ph. D., is professor of bioethics and contemporary culture in Deerfield, Ill., and a consultant to the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

    About the Author

  • C. Ben Mitchell

    C. Ben Mitchell is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., as well as research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

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