Soon after his meeting with Newton, Wilberforce wrote in his journal, “God Almighty has placed before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners”.1
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.
Understandably, much is written about Wilberforce’s campaign against the traffic of human beings. But perhaps even more interesting is his “Reformation of Manners”, a 19th century term for meaning “to change the moral climate of the culture”. Fueled by his love for the Lord and His Word, Wilberforce was instrumental in bringing great societal change to the British Empire, including aiding the poor, taking the gospel to India, and establishing the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
What few people know, however, is that William Wilberforce’s faith inspired a great love for God’s chosen people. He believed in the biblical mandate to take the gospel to all the world, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, and he believed that God would one day bring the Jewish people back into their homeland. Wilberforce biographer Rev. Dr. Clifford Hill says, “[Wilberforce] longed to see the gospel going out throughout the world, and he believed that it was in God’s purposes that the Jewish people have a home back in Israel”.
In 1809, a Jewish believer in Jesus named Joseph Frey established the London Jews’ Society. Its first vice-president was none other than Wilberforce.
Wilberforce’s Great Change also manifested itself in a very practical and conscientious way.Dr. Paul Wilkinson says that Wilberforce and the other early members of this organization were united by their belief in the authority of Scripture. “They had the same understanding of the Word of God,” he says. “They believed in the inspiration of the Scriptures. They believed in the literal fulfillment of prophecy. And within that, the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the restoration of the Jews to the land.”2
In 1813, the London Jews’ Society laid the foundation stone for “Palestine Place”, a campus composed of a ministry training college, boys’ and girls’ schools, and a church, where the service was conducted in both English and Hebrew, the first place of worship in England specifically for Jewish believers.3 Wilberforce attended the foundation-laying ceremony, an event that drew more than 20,000 spectators, and spoke at the reception that followed.4
It would be easy to think that a busy politician, such as Wilberforce, concerned as he was with the affairs of the British government, would be merely a figurehead of such an organization, dedicated to sharing biblical truth and raising awareness about the plight of the Jewish people. After all, he was already waging an all-out war on the British Slave Trade at the time—an arduous and unpopular cause in itself. But that was not how Wilberforce operated. Once he committed himself to a cause, he was one of its hardest workers and greatest champions.
Share this Post
This ethic translated to much involvement with the London Jews’ Society. It required him to be intimately acquainted with the workings of the organization, as he presided over, attended, and spoke at at least eight of the Society’s annual meetings.6
In the history of the organization, the authors write of Wilberforce, “He was one of the most loving and prominent personages of his day. It speaks volumes for the character of the Society’s work that it could command from such a man, affection patronage, time, and advocacy, all of which he ungrudgingly bestowed upon it from its foundation.”7
William Wilberforce died in 1833, at the age of 74. His passing was mourned, not only by his own nation, but by those of nations around the world. He was a man whose relationship with Jesus Christ was no private matter. On the contrary, it was a faith that compelled him to advocate for the rights of African slaves, to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and to be a friend of Israel.
Today, in Westminster Abbey, among the memorials to famed men and women of British history, there stands a statue of a bent-over, elderly Wilberforce, whose features would not endear him to anyone. But engraved on this stone is a fitting tribute to the all-but-forgotten Christian Zionist:
To the memory of William Wilberforce:
…In an age and country fertile in great and good men,
He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times
Because to high and various talents
To warm benevolence, and to universal candour,
He added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life.
…He died not unnoticed or forgotten by his country:
The Peers and Commons of England,
With the Lord Chancellor, and the Speaker, at their head,
Carried him to his fitting place among the mighty dead around,
Here to repose: till, through the merits of Jesus Christ,
His only Redeemer and Saviour,
(Whom, in his life and in his writings he had desired to glorify,)
He shall rise in the resurrection of the just.8
1 Curtis, Ken. “William Wilberforce.” Christianity.com 2007,christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1801-1900/william-wilberforce-11630357.html.
4 Gidney, William Thomas. The History of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, from 1809 to 1908, 1908, p. 41.
5 Belmonte, Kevin. William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity. Zondervan, 2007. p. 91
6 Gidney, William Thomas. The History of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, from 1809 to 1908, 1908. p. 147.
8 Metaxas, Eric. Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. Harper One, 2007. p. 278.
~If you missed part one of this blog, you can read it here