This series has examined what the Bible has to say about government and economics— both the “whats” and the “whys.” But also important is the concept of “how.” Simply put, biblically informed policy is accomplished only through persistence and perseverance. The story of British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce is a great example! His perseverance in office forever changed slavery laws in Britain; his indefatigable determination proves exemplary for all officeholders. Here personified is what it takes to reform most any governmental policy in a democracy, the kind of character it takes to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution in America.
On July 26, 1833, Great Britain’s House of Commons voted to end the practice of African slave trading throughout its empire. This historic legislative feat can be attributed to the perseverance of William Wilberforce.
The spiritual mentor behind Wilberforce was John Newton. “A wretched man” in his own words, Newton was a slave trader who was dramatically saved by the powerful message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is no wonder he is the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which includes the lamenting admission, “that saved a wretch like me.” After his conversion, Newton became a pastor who had a profound personal impact on William Wilberforce: not a lobbying kind of impact, but a spiritual one that led to a political impact that changed a nation.
Newton and other ministers within the church were responsible for helping Wilberforce develop convictions born from Scripture. Their discipleship efforts led Wilberforce to become a man driven by theology and doctrine. He was a lover of God and the Bible. After he became a Christian, he decided to spend legislative recesses studying the Bible. It was common for him to spend ten hours per day studying and memorizing Scripture. This righteous conviction rooted in biblical doctrine is what sustained and directed Wilberforce during his decades-long battle against slavery.
Those are the kind of persevering legislators America needs today in order to wean our nation from its enslavement to debt.
William Wilberforce would be a forgotten figure in history had it not been for the disciple-maker John Newton. Newton remained singularly focused on his calling, which was making disciples of Jesus Christ by the Word of God. He was perhaps just as responsible for ending the slave trade in Britain as was Wilberforce, yet he never engaged directly in politics. The church made Wilberforce who he was, not by morphing itself into a lobbying mechanism, but through the ministry of the Word in the lives of members of parliament.
What follows is my best attempt at helping you to get to know Wilberforce—and hopefully become like him in many ways. This is the kind of guy it will take today to bring about a balanced budget amendment to the American Constitution!
Read on, my friend.
One of the darkest chapters in American history is nineteenth-century African slavery. During America’s Civil War (1861–1865), Bible scholars on both sides of the slavery issue were firing theological volleys back and forth at one another in an attempt either: (1) to decry the enslavement of one human being by another or (2) to justify slavery by aligning it with slavery in the Bible.1
Commenting on this theological warfare, one historian writes, “Abolitionists argued vehemently that, based on the Bible, the spirit of Christianity forbids the enslavement of one race by another. Slavery’s defenders in the South argued just as vehemently that the Bible itself did not condemn slavery but took it for granted.”2
While it is not the purpose of this study to reconstruct and analyze the theological arguments surrounding this human atrocity, it is the firm conviction of this writer that nineteenth-century African slavery in America was in no way biblically justified.3 Nor was it justified in Great Britain. Let’s examine the primary figure behind the abolition of African slavery in Great Britain two hundred years ago, the politician William Wilberforce.4 And important to this study on Government and Economics:
How did Wilberforce persevere in his decadal quest that changed the course of a nation?
Contemporary religious right activists5 often cite this man as the par excellence example of Christian political activism.6 His ultimately successful twenty-year fight in British Parliament to end slavery is looked upon as a jewel in the crown of moralistic campaigning. While it cannot be denied that Wilberforce fought a persevering, meritorious fight prevailing against the odds, and that he helped eradicate a vile cancer from his part of the world, what sustained him as he fought the good fight for so long? Was he motivated by the simple desire to take back the culture? Or was there something deeper that put the fire in his bones, that compelled him forward, to fight for what was biblically correct? As the following pages will show, it was the Word of God that dwelt richly in Wilberforce, a vibrant and growing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that steered his political career, informed his convictions, and gave him the motivation to persevere against incredible odds as a monumental reformer—someone who turned the course of a nation.7 The following survey of Wilberforce’s life will bear this out. In Wilberforce’s own words:
“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.”8
Yet another way to answer what motivated him was his involvement in Bible study with other believers in parliament, one that was led by a skilled Bible teacher named Newton. It saddens my heart that so many believers in office in America today do not get this! How unfortunate it is to see believers leave office each cycle in discouragement—unfortunately many of them never connected to a Bible study while on the Hill.
II. WHO WAS WILLIAM WILBERFORCE?9
William Wilberforce was born in 1759 in Hull, England. He was a contemporary of some of England’s greatest preachers, including John Newton, John Wesley, and George Whitefield.10 God used unusual circumstances in the life of young Wilberforce to bring him into the company of evangelicals and one of these great men of God—John Newton.11 Writes Wilberforce biographer John Pollock:
“When William was turning nine, his father died at the age of forty. Abel Smith became head of the business; the firm changed its name to Wilberforce and Smith, and William’s life changed too. Not merely because he would be independent and quite rich when he came of age, but because he was sent, a year after his father’s death, to live with his childless uncle and aunt, William and Hannah Wilberforce, at their Wimbledon villa in the Surrey countryside and their London house in St. James’s Place. They put him to boarding school at Putney.”12
As it turns out, “These relatives were despised evangelicals, friends of the preacher George Whitefield, a leader in the first Great Awakening, and John Newton, best known today as the author of ‘Amazing Grace.’ Newton, an old seadog, ex-naval deserter, ex-lecher, and ex-slave-trader who had been converted slowly in and after a storm at sea, fascinated the boy with his yarns. And Newton showed little William ‘how sweet the name of Jesus sounds’ until his mother, horrified that he was turning ‘Methodist,’ took him away.”13
An article by Steven Gertz on Wilberforce’s relationship with Newton states, “As a boy of eight years [or nine], he’d [Wilberforce] sat at the feet of the fascinating sea-captain [Newton], drinking in his colorful stories, jokes, songs—and perhaps most importantly, lessons of faith.”14 Later in life:
“William remembered a younger Evangelical, John Newton, the parson of Olney in Buckinghamshire who often preached in London and was soon to be famous as a hymn-writer. A boy could hardly fail to be impressed by this jolly, affectionate ex-sea captain and slaver, who as a youth had been flogged in the Royal Navy for desertion and later suffered as the virtual slave of a white man’s native mistress in West Africa. Wilberforce listened enthralled to his sermons and his stories, even ‘reverencing him as a parent when I was a child.’”15
Seeds of faith may have been planted in young Wilberforce’s life, yet the real fruit of true salvation was still years away. Wilberforce, Piper notes, “had admired George Whitefield, John Wesley, and John Newton as a child. But soon he left all the influence of the evangelicals behind.”16As noted previously, Wilberforce’s “mother was more high church and was concerned her son was ‘turning Methodist.’ So she took him out of the boarding school where they had sent him and put him in another.”17 “In the holidays the Wilberforce family began to scrub William’s soul clear of Wimbledon and Clapham which was a slow process: he [William] wrote manfully to his uncle [who he was pulled away from] of endurance under persecution [from his family], and of increasing ‘in the knowledge of God and Christ Jesus whom he sent, whom to know is life eternal.’”18
In Wilberforce’s life, the intervening time between his childhood exposure to Newton and his later conversion via Isaac Milner’s ministry was one of spiritual deadness. Says one writer about Wilberforce’s college years, he “lost any interest in biblical religion and loved circulating among the social elite.”19 So far had he drifted, “Newton said sadly that nothing seemed left of his [Wilberforce’s] faith except a more moral outlook than was usual among men of fashion.”20 Being moral apart from regeneration was no more salvific back then than it is now— or ever will be!
III. COMING TO FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST
In the spiritual vacuum of his heart, Wilberforce made room for the popular religion of his day.
“In London, he [Wilberforce] had a sitting at the Essex Street chapel founded by Theopilius Lindsey, the ‘father’ of modern Unitarianism, one of the few clergy of the Church of England who had shown courage and principle enough to resign their livings on abandoning, like so many, a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Lindsey still preached the Christian ethic and read the Church services, and his chapel attracted several eminent men: Wilberforce rated him London’s only fervent preacher, since the Evangelical or ‘methodistical’ preachers he had enjoyed with the uncle and aunt were now outside his pale.”21
But Wilberforce would eventually be saved from this anti-biblical notion of Jesus Christ.
“Wilberforce’s subsequent accounts of his long drawn out Conversion or perhaps Re-dedication to the Christ of his boyhood faith are somewhat contradictory but he gives a prime share to his reading Doddridge’s book with Milner. They possibly looked up relevant passages in the Bible, for Wilberforce says he adopted his religious principles from the ‘perusal of the Holy Scriptures and… the instruction I derived from a friend of very extraordinary natural and acquired powers.’”22
Wilberforce had come to salvation in Jesus Christ at age twenty-five,23a few years before a life-changing meeting with Newton. According to one biographical sketch of Wilberforce’s life, after he won his election to parliament in 1784, he “agreed to take a tour of the continent. … When he happened to run into his old schoolmaster from Hull, Isaac Milner, Wilberforce impulsively invited him to join the traveling party. That invitation was to change Wilberforce’s life.”24
“By the time Milner deposited him on 22 February 1785 at Number 10 Downing Street, Wilberforce had reached intellectual assent to the Biblical view of man, God and Christ. He thrust it to the back of his mind and resumed his social and political life.”25 In the summer of that year, “slowly intellectual assent became profound conviction.”26 But, still not a Christian by his own summation, it was not until “the third week of October 1785 the ‘great change,’ as he afterwards termed it, had driven Wilberforce to rise early each morning to pray.”27 The story goes that Milner spoke of his Christian faith to Wilberforce, and that the latter “initially treated the subject flippantly, but eventually agreed to read the Scriptures daily.”28
IV. WILBERFORCE’S CRISIS OF FAITH
Faced with tremendous difficulty, “feeling weary and confused”29 over how to reconcile his political career with his new life in Christ, Wilberforce “turned to his boyhood hero, John Newton, now sixty years old and Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth in the City.”30 Says Gertz of Wilberforce’s 1785 meeting with Newton:
“Now, in a moment of spiritual crisis, wondering whether his reborn faith in God required him to leave politics, Wilberforce knew who could help him most. … He mustered his courage and strode to the front door to call on his old friend.”31 It is noteworthy that when it came to his political career, Wilberforce sought counsel from none other than a minister of the Word of God. Newton advised Wilberforce to stay in office and pursue Christ as well.
What can we learn from Newton and Wilberforce pertaining to the differing roles of church and state?
Newton and Wilberforce serve to magnificently model and personify a clear, biblically correct understanding of the relationship between the institution of the church and the institution of the state. God appointed Wilberforce to lead in His institution of the state, whereas God appointed Newton to lead in His institution of the church. The latter is called to make disciples; the former is called to moralize the unregenerate. It is ineffective for leaders in the church to assume the work of God’s leaders in the state—especially at the expense of shelving their call of making disciples of the state’s leaders.
V. THE LIFE OF A SAVED POLITICIAN
Wilberforce’s reliance and accountability to biblical precepts underlie the tremendous things he did as a legislator—namely, fighting a twenty-year battle to abolish the African slave trade. It is unfortunate that the latter fact about Wilberforce is often trumpeted without a proper and necessary emphasis on the former. Like a faithful pastor-teacher is continually mindful of James 3:1, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” It seems that Wilberforce had similar sentiments about answering to the Lord Jesus Christ one day for his political endeavors as a “minister of God … for good” (Romans 13:4).
It was not his district constituents who informed his legislative decisions; it was God’s holy precepts —he deemed preeminent and more important that one day he would give an account to his Creator for his deeds, not voters.
It was also only a few years after his conversion that Wilberforce’s heart slowly became set on abolishing the slave trade. Much could be said from a historical perspective about the providential workings of God through specific people and circumstances that brought the issue to a rolling boil in Wilberforce’s heart, but suffice to say that God raised up the right person, at the right time, for the right task.
Wilberforce serves as a pivotal evangelical public servant role model. His story is an exemplar for every present and future public servant. States biographer 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.”32
In many ways, William Wilberforce is a biblical role model of a most effective Christian public servant!
Once saved and sure that he should stay in politics, Wilberforce “worked hard to strengthen not only mental but spiritual stamina.”33 In the process, “the Bible became his best loved book and he learned stretches by heart.”34
Such will be the case I believe in the fight for a balanced budget amendment in America. Will the believing legislators possess the spiritual stamina necessary for the fight ahead? Wilberforce found continual, decadal strength by letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in him (Colossians 3:16). Bible study was a discipline necessary for the long battle. Perhaps most telling of the primacy of his salvation over his entire life is the following statement by Pollack:
“For Wilberforce wanted to subject not merely his appetites but his politics to Christ: ‘A man who acts from the principle I profess,’ he told a constituent three years after the conversion, ‘reflects that he is to give an account of his political conduct at the Judgment seat of Christ.’”35
I pray the same for each of you. Will you be a public servant who finds favor at the judgment seat of Christ?
Next week in part 12, the conclusion of our series on Government and Economics, we look at why believers should be involved in politics beyond evangelism. cm
1. For more on this topic see: H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher, American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents, Vol. 2, 1820–1960 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 167–212.
2. George M. Marsden, Religion and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001), 74.
3. As my preamble to this study concludes, that which germinated the overturn of slavery in America was not political activism, Abraham Lincoln, or the Civil War. It was the winning out of correct Bible interpretation, and that correct theology influenced the state. By way of application, that is why Bible study amongst public servants is so astronomically important — because politics and policy, wars and actions, stem from the beliefs people hold close in their hearts. Actions are reflective, whereas beliefs are causal.
4. 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.)
5. It is generally accepted that the goal of the religious right political movement in America is to increase societal morality. The method employed by this movement to reach this goal is political in nature, i.e. the passage and enforcement of laws that promote morality.
6. One of many examples is The Wilberforce Forum, which is a subsidiary of Prison Fellowship. The Annual Wilberforce Forum Award “recognizes an individual who has made a difference in the face of formidable societal problems and injustices.” http://www.wilberforce.org/contentindex.asp?ID=188.
7. Dear reader, this same God-given wisdom is available to every Christian legislator today who believes in Jesus Christ and submits himself/herself to the Word of God.
8. William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, ed. Kevin Charles Belmonte, with an introduction by Charles Colson (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996), 5–6.
9. Respected author and Bible teacher John Piper wisely suggests, “To understand and appreciate the life and labor of William Wilberforce, one of the wisest things to do is to read his own book, A Practical View of Chris