Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 41
William Wilberforce | 1759–1833
The story of William Wilberforce is fairly well-known, especially since the renaissance of popular interest in him birthed by the movie “Amazing Grace.” But it is his spirituality, his personal walk with Christ, that is less known or appreciated. We learn much of this primarily from his own Spiritual Journals, which I will publish for the first time later this year, with Christian Focus Publishers.
William Wilberforce was born in Hull, England in 1759, the son of a wealthy merchant, enjoying all the privileges that wealth and position afforded him. He became a member of Parliament but until his evangelical conversion in 1785/6, he had no real driving passion except pleasure. Once converted Wilberforce would never be the same. He was counseled and mentored by the likes of John Newton and John Wesley, and soon became the leader of the parliamentary campaign for the abolition of slavery. He saw the slave trade abolished at age 47, and slavery itself at age 73, dying only three days after it was achieved.
In his initial speech on slavery and abolition that he gave to Parliament in 1789 he said, “When I consider the magnitude of the subject and when I think at the same time on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause, when these reflections press upon my mind, it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task. As soon as ever I had arrived this far in my investigation…I confess…so enormous, so dreadful did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition…let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.”
I am convinced that his words, passion, drive, and character are needed now more than ever, especially when one thinks, for example, of such issues as abortion and human trafficking. At the same time, I believe Wilberforce has been a massively neglected Christian voice, that, as JI Packer rightly stated, we would be foolish to neglect: “William Wilberforce was a great man who impacted the Western world as few others have done. Blessed with brains, charm, influence and initiative, much wealth…he put evangelism on Britain’s map as a power for social change. To forget such men is foolish.”
As a believer, Wilberforce reflected much on his walk with Christ, especially his prayer life, and in all his self-assessment and introspection, he was his own worst critic. His very detailed journals were his way of keeping a detailed check on his life, character, and spirituality. He loved to read Scripture, learning much of it by heart and in Greek. His constant fear and battle was that people might see him as he saw himself, a man constantly failing in his own spiritual life. He loved to read, so when he was unable to do so because of his eye disease, or when he was getting ready in the morning, he hired ‘readers’ to read Scripture and Christian books to him—these became the equivalent of 18th century podcasts for him.
Wilberforce recorded in his Diary that God had set before him “two great objects”: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners—an incredible Christian impact on the culture of his day. Pursuing those became his focus for the rest of his life: he sacrificially gave all he had—time, wealth and health—and never took the easy road. Wilberforce became a very active, involved, determined, and sold-out Evangelical at the very time he was needed, and he never gave up! When the opposition he faced was fiercest, he simply relied all the more on Christ.
Wilberforce had powerful enemies and he experienced actual physical assaults, in addition to receiving several death threats, necessitating him traveling with an armed bodyguard. He had numerous lies told about him, including that he had secretly married a black slave and had children by her. He also battled the sickness and frailty of his own body, which included Ulcerative Colitis, a genetic and debilitating eye disease, an opium addiction because of the pain, and a painful curvature of the spine.
Wilberforce was generous to a fault, illustrated by the fact that because he was unable to fire servants when they became old or infirm, his house soon resembled an unofficial retirement home. He also funded so many causes, much of it done without fanfare or public knowledge. In the end Wilberforce died in a house that was not his own, having been forced to sell what he had owned to pay debts that were not his but those of his son, William Jr.
Wilberforce assembled around him or, maybe more accurately, attracted a group around him that would become his encouragers, mentors, supporters, and enablers in all the causes he championed. This ‘Clapham Circle’ believed exactly what Wilberforce wrote in his only book Real Christianity, that, “It is the true duty of every man to promote the happiness of his fellow creatures to the utmost of his power.” Little wonder then that Wilberforce was always looking for ways to share Christ with friends and influencers.
He was also an incredible family man who loved his children and loved kids generally, being described by several who knew him as childlike but never childish! He chose a wife with a similar-outlook as he—a committed Evangelical—that they might encourage each other and bring up their children in a house of faith. He was 37; Barbara was 26. He proposed after only eight days and they were married within a few weeks, and so began in his own words, “thirty-five years of undiluted happiness.” Within a decade they had four sons and two daughters and he was devoted to all seven of them! Guests were amazed as the children treated him as one of them, as he joined in their various games: marbles, Blindman’s Buff and running races, and all this in a day when fathers rarely even saw their children.
His family and the cause of abolition took much of his time, but he was also very active pursuing the second of his “great objects,” impacting society with the gospel. He was an active creator, member, leader, or supporter of at least 69 very active societies. He campaigned for the poor, for chimney sweeps, the uneducated, and for children in mines and factories. He helped found the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the London Missionary Society, which would send Eric Liddle to China and Livingstone to Africa. He sacrificially supported dozens of evangelical and humanitarian institutions including fever hospitals, asylums, infirmaries, and prisons. He founded schools for the deaf and the blind, lending libraries, and schools for the poor. He helped to found the School for the Blind in York, the National Gallery in London, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution—all four of which are still flourishing. He financially supported the artist William Blake; Patrick Bronte through school; Mrs. Charles Wesley in her widowhood; and many missionary and ministry candidates who were too poor to finance themselves.
Within hours of his death, more than 100 high-profile figures in Britain, wrote to request the highest honour Britain can afford someone, that they be buried in Westminster Abbey, and there he lies today.
As we reflect on his life and impact, we should see Wilberforce as being an example for believers today that we should:
- give our all to Christ: time, talents, and treasure.
- use every opportunity to share the gospel.
- discern God’s direction for our lives, and be obedient to whatever we are called to do, including the very important work of politics.
- seek out mentors, encouragers, prayer-warriors, and accountability partners.
- expect opposition and suffering.
- repent as soon as we fail, then continue to follow God.
- nurture a Christian home and family.
- be generous and a blessing to all.
- be winsome.
- never give up, and having done all, to stand.
- be faithful in meeting with other believers for worship.
- read and memorize Scripture, and read challenging and encouraging Christian books.
Wilberforce referred to himself an “Agent of Usefulness.” What an understatement that turned out to be!
Michael D. McMullen | Professor of Church History, Editor, Midwestern Journal of Theology