William Wilberforce: The Man Who Didn't Desert
- 2004 23 Sep
William Wilberforce was at a crossroads. Young, wealthy, well-educated, a member of Parliament, and a much in demand man about town, Wilberforce was in the throes of what he later came to call his “great change”—his conversion to Christianity.
Elected to Parliament in 1780 at age 21, Wilberforce had pursued his own political ambition with little thought for God or the Gospel. Instead, it was the pursuit of distinction that was, he later said, “his darling object.”
An enormously gifted orator who rode his eloquence into office, Wilberforce was called “the wittiest man in England.” But now, at age 26, this promising, talent-laden member of Parliament had been persuaded to trust Christ after reading a famous devotional classic and the Greek New Testament, while touring Europe with an old schoolmaster. He was now an evangelical.
What next? Should he leave politics? Should he resign from the House of Commons? Politics, after all, was, as many evangelicals then thought, a “worldly” pursuit. It was an endeavor fraught with moral compromise and the corrupting quest for power. Something, in short, in which no truly “spiritual” believer could take part. Perhaps he should enter the clergy or pursue full-time Christian service.
Distressed and undecided, Wilberforce put the question to John Newton, the former slave trader turned minister who is best known today for writing the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton’s answer amazed Wilberforce. He advised him not to leave his post. That would be tantamount to desertion from the position to which God had called him. Instead, he should serve Christ in the political arena, using all of his talents and all of his energies.
Wilberforce soon embraced two great goals which largely consumed his 45-year career in Parliament: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners (moral standards). He set about to end the abominable trade in humans beings across the British Empire and to reform the morals of a degenerate British society. He largely succeeded.
Twenty years after Wilberforce took up the cause of abolition, Parliament passed in 1807 a measure ending the horrid British traffic in slaves. Then, in 1833, just three days before his death, the House of Commons approved a bill for the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies—an act that, according to Wilberforce biographer Kevin Belmonte, brought freedom to some 800,000 slaves.
The impact of Wilberforce was equally profound on the moral climate of Britain. “It is a matter of history,” according to another Wilberforce biographer, John Pollock, “that for two generations at least after Wilberforce, the British character was molded by attitudes that were essentially his. Under his leadership, a Christian social conscience attacked prevalent social ills while at the same time seeking to better the lives of those affected by them.”
It happened before. It can happen again. The life of William Wilberforce is a powerful, stirring, and instructive example that we, as Christians, can bring moral renewal to our culture. It won’t happen through government alone, as Wilberforce well recognized, but it can happen if we answer the summons to be salt and light for Christ in every area of life—including the political arena.
D. James Kennedy, Ph.D., is senior minister of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, and president of Coral Ridge Ministries, an international Christian broadcast outreach.