Various non-profit organizations and opinion leaders within Christian political activists groups still even to this day point to William Wilberforce as an example as they recruit pastors, churches, and individual Christians into political campaigns against the moral ills within our culture.
At first glance this seems like a reasonable alliance, but a closer look shows that the Christian activists misunderstands the critical importance of a Church focused on its mission, which is an activism of a different kind: a pre-political engagement discipling the lives of public servants.
The primary purpose of the Church is not politics, but evangelism and discipleship through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is revealed in every believer to evangelize the lost. Furthermore, political wars should not be mistaken by the Church as biblical ministry efforts.
The Church is called to save souls, not culture.
Saving souls is the only real means to change culture. As the Church makes disciples and Christ reigns in the hearts of more people, the culture may very well be preserved. But if the Church makes cultural preservation its highest goal, choosing to moralize though political lobbying pursuits rather than save souls, the culture will most certainly be lost.
Such has been the misfortune of America’s Christian political activist movement since the 1970s. After 40 years of a biblically misinformed direction, America is only much worse off. No one can disagree with that.
In Part 2 of “Wilberforce: Insights On Successfully Persevering in Office,” we will examine an exemplar of the fruit of the Church in proper focus, in proper mission. Wilberforce was a recipient of what only the Church can properly manifest in the life of a political leader.
Read on, my friend.
America is certainly not the only country that has engaged in the abominable practice of chattel slavery. America’s progenitor, Great Britain, relied heavily on slave labor for economic reasons throughout its empire. History records that slavery was eventually abolished in both Great Britain and in the United States, the former through a peaceful political process, the latter through a violent civil war.
There are many worthy subjects of study within this broad area, but this study’s specific purpose is to help the reader better understand the primary figure behind the abolition of African slavery in Great Britain 200 years ago, the politician William Wilberforce.1
II. WILBERFORCE’S “TWO GREAT OBJECTS”2
Slavery was rampant in Great Britain during Wilberforce’s lifetime. “The [slave] Trade was legalized by Royal Charters of 1631, 1633 and 1672 and by Act of Parliament in 1698. One of the most prized fruits of the War of Spanish Succession was the Assiento clause of the Treaty of Utrecht, giving Britain the sole right to supply slaves to the Spanish Colonies.”3 In the years following his conversion to Jesus Christ, Wilberforce became convinced that God had called him through His providence to a specific task: “Wilberforce stated this mission in his diary entry on October 28, 1787, when he was a young twenty-eight-year-old parliamentarian. With the menacing black clouds of the French Revolution rolling up on the horizon and Britain’s own social conditions providing cause for grave concern, he wrote simply: ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.’”4 These convictions were what led him to tirelessly pursue the abolition of slavery for 20 years,5 as well as societal reform. Author Charles Colson observes that during these years, Wilberforce came to an important conclusion concerning the second of his two aims:
“It was the great genius of Wilberforce that he realized that attempts at political reform without, at the same time changing the hearts and minds of people, were futile.”6
Wilberforce’s platform to reform the manners of Britain is worth mentioning due to the methodology he used to effect change. Writes John Pollock:
“Interestingly, the campaign was never specifically religious. Wilberforce never tried to enlist the religious or even the professedly moral. Some of the grandees whose support he gained were in fact notoriously dissolute. But Wilberforce believed strongly that the destinies of a nation could best be influenced by deeply committed followers of Christ, and that conversion to Christ was a person’s most important political action as well as religious.”7
Not only did Wilberforce’s perspective on the public arena put a premium on salvation, it also emphasized the importance of understanding sound doctrine. Piper sheds valuable light on Wilberforce’s biblical presuppositions:
“What made Wilberforce tick was a profound biblical allegiance to what he called the ‘peculiar doctrines’8 of Christianity. These, he said, give rise in turn to true ‘affections’ for spiritual things, which then break the power of pride and greed and fear and lead to transformed morals, which lead to the political welfare of the nation. No true Christian can endure in battling unrighteousness unless his heart is aflame with new spiritual affections, or passions.”9
By placing such a premium on Christ and sound doctrine, is there any question about the epistemological basis from which Wilberforce operated? Wilberforce diagnosed the root cause of Britain’s sliding moral condition as being connected with a low view of genuine Christian doctrine. Observing the attitude of his day, he commented, “The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the ‘peculiar doctrines’ of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.”10
If Christian morals and Christian doctrines need be connected as Wilberforce suggests, should not a country that desires a return to a God-honoring culture strive to reconnect them? The first step involves understanding those ‘peculiar doctrines’—not trying to change a nation’s laws. If Wilberforce is right, the latter flows out of the former and he personifies what he preaches: he makes the case for the evangelism, discipleship, and in-depth expositional teaching of God’s Word to our governmental leaders both in principle and in historical example! The fruit of his premises and personifications were discernable throughout British life well into the next century: “Whatever its faults, nineteenth-century British public life became famous for its emphasis on character, morals, and justice and the British business world famous for integrity.”11 What sweet relief to a country once ravaged by untold human suffering! It was salvation in and the doctrines of Christ that energized Wilberforce’s political life and motivated him to reshape his culture!12
Driven by sound biblical theology, Wilberforce did much for the morals of the culture not only for the benefit of his day, but also for the years that followed. As for his other “great object:” “It was a full forty-six years later and only three days before his death on July 26, 1833, when the bill for the abolition of slavery throughout the entire British Empire passed its second reading in the House of Commons.”13 Not only had he succeeded in prohibiting the slave trade (but not yet abolishing it) in 1807, but also his efforts shut down the entire insidious institution! A lifetime of work changed the world for the benefit of millions of people. But, it all began first with a change in the heart of the man who would one day change the world. Wilberforce faithfully pursued his God-given mission.
III. THE IMPORTANCE OF EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP IN WILBERFORCE’S LIFE
The back of the British slave trade was broken not by political activists, that is, Christians who attempt to change civil laws with no consideration for the hearts of legislators, but by a man of God who stood for the truth of Scriptures.
As a lifelong Member of Parliament who never lost an election,14 Wilberforce made himself strong in the doctrines of grace15 and allowed himself to be discipled by great men of the Church like Isaac Milner and John Newton.
It is important to note that Wilberforce was not strong in his own strength (1 Corinthians 1:27), but in his humility lay his strength. In 1785, at the risk of ostracism, Wilberforce continually met with Newton whom Parliament despised. Through this meeting, and the sound teaching he received in both his childhood and adult years, Wilberforce grew bold in Christ. (I have stated this again because it is so important for you to grasp). Newton later said of Wilberforce, “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.”16 Keep in mind too that Wilberforce’s relationship with Newton came about despite the counsel of his close colleague Prime Minister William Pitt who attempted to pressure him away from Newton. Pitt castigated Newton as an Evangelical who would, “render your talents useless both to yourself and mankind.” Nothing, as it turned out, could have been further from the truth! Many legislators who read this will have to surmount the same counsel of their colleagues relative to attending my Bible studies to members. But we must all keep in mind what the apostle Paul stated in Galatians 1:10, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” Your and my answer to that question is critical. Will one end up sitting at the seat of scoffers or the counsel of the wise in Christ?17
Wilberforce did not shirk from the truth written on his heart by the Word of God. Writes Pollack:
“In planning moral reform he showed awareness that politics are influenced more by the climate of an age than by the personal piety of statesmen and politicians. Wilberforce believed, nonetheless, that England’s destiny lay safest in the hands of men of clear Christian principle, and that submission to Christ was a man’s most important political as well as religious decision.”18
Accordingly, “very early in his own pilgrimage Wilberforce set out to bring his friends to Christ.”19 Wilberforce knew that salvation in and submission to Jesus Christ were preeminent factors in the life of effective politicians.20 Piper notes Wilberforce’s strategy, “Alongside all his social engagements, he carried on a steady relational ministry, as we might call it, seeking to win his unbelieving colleagues to personal faith in Jesus Christ”21 (emphasis mine). Such a relationship with a fellow politician, Edward Eliot, serves to manifest the Christian/political philosophy of Wilberforce. Wilberforce won Eliot to Christ after the latter’s wife died while giving birth. Subsequently, “The two [Wilberforce and Eliot] could open their hearts to each other. Both knew the difficulties of walking with God when pressed by the rush and other temptations of political life.”22 Wilberforce’s emphasis on evangelism throughout his political career remained consistent with his political philosophy. Conversely,
Present day religious activists show little concern for the welfare of the heart of public servants. Rather, they pressure those who know not the Author of Scripture to accede to the precepts of His book.
IV. WILBERFORCE’S THOUGHTS ON MORALISM
Wilberforce wrote a treatise in 1797 on the actual state of Christianity among the professing Christians of his day, entitled, A Practical View of Christianity.23 Pollock notes, “A Practical View took the reader on a discursive journey to discover how Christianity should and could guide the politics, habits and attitudes of a nation from the highest to the lowest.”24 In it Wilberforce states that he wrote with the intent “to point out the scanty and erroneous system of the bulk of those who belong to the class of orthodox Christians, and to contrast their defective scheme with a representation of what the author apprehends to be real Christianity.”25 The volume’s depth proves especially remarkable considering Wilberforce regarded himself no more than a “Layman.”26 Yet with doctrinal accuracy and prowess Wilberforce outlined much of the failure of eighteenth-century British Christianity. For instance:
“The truth is, their opinions on these subjects are not formed from the perusal of the word of God. The Bible lies on the shelf unopened; and they would be wholly ignorant of its contents, except for what they hear occasionally at church, or for the faint traces which their memories may retain of the lessons of their earliest infancy.”27
Wilberforce saw a deplorable lack of biblical reliance amongst the professing Christians of his day.28 Sadly, such a state is far too often characteristic of the Church in the twenty-first-century as well. Wilberforce drills deeper:
“How different, nay, in many respects, how contradictory, would be the two systems of mere morals, of which the one should be formed from the commonly received maxims of the Christian world, and the other from the study of the holy Scriptures!”29
Wilberforce’s distaste for rank moralism apart from a doctrinally-rooted methodology of developing one’s epistemology from the Word of God is readily apparent. To this statement Wilberforce adds the coup de grâce to any notion that he would support moralism in the public square:
“The diligent perusal of the Holy Scriptures would discover to us our past ignorance. We should cease to be deceived by superficial appearances, and to confound the Gospel of Christ with the systems of philosophers; we should become impressed with that weighty truth, so much forgotten, and never to be too strongly insisted on, that Christianity calls on us, as we value our immortal souls, not merely in general, to be religious and moral, but specially to believe the doctrines, and imbibe the principles, and practice the precepts of Christ.”30
Accordingly, Wilberforce would not be pleased with those today who pin him up as the poster child for the moralistic religious right movement.
Wilberforce’s emphasis on societal change was fueled by an evangelistic fervor. He had his hopes pinned on the truth of God’s Word as the means of bringing solidarity to the nation and its people. For this reason, he had firm opinions about the role of the Church in promoting biblical understanding rather than moralistic campaigning. For example, in reaction to the radicals of his day, Wilberforce felt it necessary
“to encourage the increase of devoted clergymen who would promote ‘true honest practical Christianity’. He saw the role of clergy as that of reconcilers, harmonizers and quieters: he would not have liked radical parsons who preached political revolt, even against glaring injustice, for revolt bred distress and confusion for the common man. Wilberforce’s eye was on the happiness of families rather than on the creation of a distant better order through civil strife; the French Revolution had been proof enough of the misery such might cause, and he was too near to appreciate its lasting contributions to liberty.”31
The ministry of evangelism and discipleship of a governmental leader made William Wilberforce strong in Christ and broke the back of slavery in Britain.32 And so should be the primary ministry of the church today.
The institution of the Church should be pre-political rather than political.
It should concentrate its energies on evangelizing, teaching, and discipling public servants in Christ, rather than on becoming a political lobbying force on moral issues.33 Pressure tactics may work effectively for a time…they might even seem like the most practical way to achieve change in culture, yet Wilberforce “was practical with a difference. He believed with all his heart that new affections for God were the key to new morals and lasting political reformation.”34
If Evangelicals in the political arena desire to have more Wilberforces in office (i.e., men and women whose most important political decision is their salvation and submission to God’s Word), the biblical methodology to achieve this goal is only through the accurate proclamation of the truth of God’s Word. Evangelism and discipleship of governmental leaders is the rightful and critically necessary place for the institutional Church within the halls of civil government. John Piper sets forth the following challenge:
“Is it not remarkable that one of the greatest politicians of Britain and one of the most persevering public warriors for social justice should elevate doctrine so highly? Perhaps this is why the impact of the church today is as weak as it is. Those who are most passionate about being practical for the public good are often the least doctrinally interested or informed. Wilberforce would say: You can’t endure in bearing fruit if you sever the root.”35
How true this is, and how sad as well. Wilberforce was not merely full of good and moral ideas; rather, he was full of God’s wisdom and His Holy Spirit! This illustrates the need for and outcome of evangelizing and discipling today’s governmental leaders! God may have another Wilberforce in the making! Maybe even two or three in our Capitol!
Wilberforce serves as a pivotal Evangelical public servant role model! His story is an exemplar for every present and future public servant! States biographer Steven Gertz, who wrote about the life of Newton in “Pastor to the Nation:”
“In 1786, Newton wrote of Wilberforce, ‘I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide! But they are not incompatible.’ To Newton’s credit as a spiritual counselor and friend, few politicians have ever done so much as Wilberforce for the cause of Christ or the church.”36
In many ways, William Wilberforce is a biblical role model of a most effective Evangelical public servant!
Unfortunately, slave trading is still alive and well today in other countries throughout the world. It is estimated that over 25 million people around the globe are living under the yoke of slavery. This is a human tragedy. It highlights the depravity and sinful nature of man. Man is not basically good, he is essentially evil and it is the government’s role to punish such evil (Romans 13) not condone it. The Church today needs more men like John Newton, men who will make disciples of Jesus Christ among those in political leadership to enable them by the clear teaching of the Word of God to lead the State with visceral biblical convictions.
1. To get a sense of the political courage necessary to lead this charge, consider the following: “Britain two hundred years ago was the world’s leading slave-trading nation; uprooting the vile practice threatened the annual trade of hundreds of ships, thousands of sailors, and hundreds of millions of pounds sterling.” ( John Pollock, “A Man Who Changed His Times,” in Character Counts: Leadership Qualities in Washington, Wilberforce, Lincoln, and Solzhenitsyn, ed. by Os Guinness [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1999], 81.)
2. J. Douglas Holladay, “A Life of Significance,” in Character Counts: Leadership Qualities in Washington, Wilberforce, Lincoln, and Solzhenitsyn, ed. by Os Guinness (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1999), 69.
3. Garth Lean, God’s Politician: William Wilberforce’s Struggle (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Helmers & Howard, 1987), 3.
4. Holladay, 69.
5. “Of course the opposition that raged for these twenty years [of Wilberforce’s legislative battle] was because of the financial benefits of slavery to the traders and to the British economy, because of what the plantations in the West Indies produced” (Piper, 130–1).
6. Charles Colson, “Introduction,” in Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, xxii.
7. Pollock, “A Man Who Changed His Times,” 86.
8. Explains Piper, “By that term [‘peculiar doctrines’], he simply meant the central distinguishing doctrines of human depravity, divine judgment, the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds” (Piper, 120).
9 . Piper, 118.
10. William Wilberforce cited in Piper, 116.
11. Pollock, “A Man Who Changed His Times,” 87.
12. While there is no biblical mandate to shape our culture (as is the subtitle of one popular Religious Right book), there is a biblical formula as expressed herein as to how one best shapes culture.
13. Holladay, 70.
14. Piper, 117.
15. It is noteworthy to add here that Wilberforce was a man of prayer. Writes E. M. Bounds, “Said William Wilberforce, the peer of kings: ‘I must secure more time for private devotions. I have been living far too public for me. The shortening of private devotions starves the soul; it grows lean and faint. I have been keeping too late hours.’ Of a failure in Parliament he says: ‘Let me record my grief and shame, and all, probably, from private devotions having been contracted, and so God let me stumble.’ More solitude and earlier hours was his remedy.” (Edward M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor, Wash.: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999), chapter 19.) This shows maturity in Wilberforce’s Christian life and suggests that even his political endeavors were bathed in prayer and supplication before God. Note also Wilberforce’s opening quotation in the same chapter of Bounds’ book: “This perpetual hurry of business and company ruins me in soul if not in body. More solitude and earlier hours! I suspect I have been allotting habitually too little time to religious exercises, as private devotion and religious meditation, Scripture-reading, etc. Hence I am lean and cold and hard. I had better allot two hours or an hour and a half daily. I have been keeping too late hours, and hence have had but a hurried half hour in a morning to myself. Surely the experience of all good men confirms the proposition that without a due measure of private devotions the soul will grow lean. But all may be done through prayer—almighty prayer, I am ready to say—and why not? For that it is almighty is only through the gracious ordination of the God of love and truth. O then, pray, pray, pray!” (Ibid.)
16. Piper, 128; as quoting from Robert Issac Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, abridged edition (London: 1843), 47.
17. The mature believer can see through his temptation with the biblical discernment of Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
18. Pollock, Wilberforce, 66.
19. Pollock, Wilberforce, 66. This is congruous with a clear biblical understanding and all that Wilberforce has already reasoned. However, his use of ecumenical tactics to achieve greater power, influence, and reelection do not meet the test of Scripture. Holladay outlines Wilberforce’s philosophy in seven principles.
20. After all, Romans 13:4 calls elected political leaders “ministers of God for good.”
21. Piper, 134. In his book, Pollock pays tribute to Wilberforce’s Christian influence among his colleagues when he writes, “In contrast to 1780, when scarcely one man of strong religious and humanitarian conviction sat in the House of Commons, Wilberforce had many disciples.” (Pollock, Wilberforce, 279.)
22. Pollock, Wilberforce, 66. Pollack notes God’s salvific work in Eliot’s life. For instance, “Wilberforce’s sympathy became one of Eliot’s chief props in the months that followed [after his wife died giving birth], until he grew to share Wilberforce’s faith. ‘I was little better than an infidel,’ Eliot commented some years later, ‘but it pleased God to draw me by [the bereavement] to a better mind’” (second bracket in original). (Pollock, Wilberforce, 65.)
23. According to Pollock, “A Practical View is a Biblical view, presented intelligibly if haphazardly. It sets out the essential Christian doctrines by Scripture texts, and then discourses about the imitation which passed for religion in 1797. The very discursiveness which powered the book’s impact on a generation rather bored by closely reasoned theologies, makes it wearisome to the modern reader and checkmates literary and theological critiques: it is a slippery eel of a book.” (Pollock, Wilberforce, 147.)
24. Pollock, Wilberforce, 148.
25. Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, xxxi.
26. Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, xxx.
27. Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, 4.
28. “The more he [Wilberforce] looked at the religion of the New Testament the more he wanted to show how far it lay from the religion of the polite in England, whose blend of a little piety with a little moralizing offered nothing to a man whose inward eye had seen his corruption in the blinding light of the glory of the Lord.” (Pollock, Wilberforce, 146.)
29. Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, 4.
30. Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, 5-6.
31. Pollock, Wilberforce, 259.
32. It was the personal pursuit of growing in Christ (i.e. studying the Word, praying diligently, valuing doctrine over moralism, etc.) that kept Wilberforce strong.
33. This is not to be confused with every believer’s responsibility as a citizen to vote. I am talking about mobilizing the institution of the Church into a lobbying organization at the expense of it calling to make disciples.
34. Piper, 119.
35. Piper, 159–60.
36. Steven Gertz, “Pastor to the Nation:” Christian History & Biography, Issue 81, Winter 2004, p. 39.