I first heard the name William Wilberforce when I was a sophomore in high school. Knowing of my interest in politics and history, a friend gave me a copy of a short biography of the man with the funny name. I stayed up into the early morning hours, unable to put the book down, finding within its pages an earthly hero.
William Wilberforce was born into a prosperous English family in 1759. While living with his aunt and uncle, as a young boy, Wilberforce came under the ministry and influence of their friend, the ex-slave ship captain, John Newton, author of the celebrated hymn Amazing Grace.
While the young boy made a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ during this time, his mother soon rushed her son back home to rescue him from the influence of the dreaded evangelicals. His walk with the Lord was soon snuffed out by the worldliness of Hull’s high society.
Years later, while serving as a young and wealthy member of the English parliament, Wilberforce began, again, to consider the spiritual truths he had been exposed to as a child.
What Wilberforce termed “the Great Change” had taken place within his heart and mind. Newton’s prayer was answered.As his carriage bounced its way across the European countryside during a parliamentary recess, Wilberforce found himself engaged in intense conversation with his friend and traveling partner, the intellectual Isaac Milner, who was himself an evangelical Christian.
The duo spent much of their time together reading Philip Doddridge’s work, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, and discussing the veracity of the Christian faith. When Wilberforce returned home to England, he was not yet a genuine believer; but he could not deny that something within his heart and mind was changing.
“What madness is the course I am pursuing,” he wrote. “I believe all the great truths of the Christian religion, but I am not acting as though I did. Should I die in this state I must go into a place of misery.”
Over a period of time, Wilberforce continued to wrestle with the idea of becoming a believer. What would it mean for his way of life? What of his career in Parliament?
It was this latter question that led him to the door of his old preacher-friend, John Newton. It was, Wilberforce thought, contradictory to be a follower of Christ, yet remain active in the worldly realm of politics. He was surprised, then, when Newton told him the exact opposite—that to stay in Parliament, to be a voice for truth in the spiritual vacuum of the political arena, was an excellent mission field.
A few months later, Newton wrote to his poet-friend William Cowper of Wilberforce, “I judge he is now decided on the right track…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.”
What Wilberforce termed “the Great Change” had taken place within his heart and mind. Newton’s prayer was answered.
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Wilberforce was indeed successful in his first “great object”. After a lifetime spent educating an apathetic public, largely ignorant of the plight of African slaves, and repeated defeats in the House of Commons to pass anti-Slavery legislation, the momentous day arrived on July 26, 1833: slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire. Just three days later, Wilberforce died, his earthly battle won.
1Metaxas, Eric. Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. Harper One, 2007. p.53.
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