Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: William Wilberforce

By: Mrs. Diane Carter

When Mr. Smith asked the faculty to participate with him this semester in presenting chapel, asking us to offer to you biographies of our favorite historical or Bible figures, I jumped at the chance to present to you my lifetime favorite, William Wilberforce.  For decades, His story and his very person has captured my heart and been an inspiration for my own walk with God.

A superficial glance at his character and accomplishments make it easy to understand why I could feel that way.  He was a charming, warm, and godly man who brought about the end of the slave trade and the downfall of slavery as an institution in England in the 1800s–a massive world-changing accomplishment. But over the years, as my understanding of who Jesus is and what He came to accomplish has been refined, the life of Wilberforce has taken on a deeper meaning.  Before we jump into the details of that story though, i would like to first explore with you some thoughts about Jesus. So, Jesus said some very interesting things about who He was and what He came to do. When He first stood up to introduce His ministry to Israel and announce that the kingdom of God had come in His very person, He quoted from Isaiah saying,

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He said we were to petition that Jesus’ kingdom would keep on coming by saying,

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,”

Because of His obedience to the Father, He was exalted to the highest place and is now King of kings and Lord of lords.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Phil 2: 8-11

When He was raised from the dead, He commissioned His disciples to use His authority as king over all the earth to keep bringing in the kingdom by saying,

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

While He was still among His disciples He had said,

12 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. 13 And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. John 14:12-13

So to summarize, Scripture teaches that Christ has been exalted as King over all the earth.  His goal is to use His authority to keep bringing in His kingdom that He first established on earth by bringing about a restoration of all things in history through the faithful lives of His obedient, praying people.  Christ’s visible rule over the nations is now becoming a visible reality through His people in every place that Christians live and work, being doers of the word and not hearers only. And that through His people who are doing even greater deeds to continue bringing in His kingdom, Christ is slowly but surely shifting the allegiance of the kingdoms of this world and persuading them to become the kingdoms of His just and righteous rule, and He shall reign forever until He accomplishes this goal and returns.

Today, I want to demonstrate through the life of William Wilberforce what Christ’s rule on earth through his people looked like in the early 1800’s.

At that time in England, the enslavement of the Africans was seen as a common good for the purpose of economics. Nations throughout all of history were built on the backs of slaves, and England was no different during this period. It was a given in those days, as in much of the world prior to Christianity that there were races of people who were thought of as subhuman and who therefore could be trafficked for the purpose of monetary gain without any qualms to the conscience of either the slave traders, the slave owners or even of society as a whole. In England, it was just the way things were done.  It was business as usual.

The conditions among the blacks in slavery were horrendous.  Ripped from their motherland, separated from families, they were packed on shelves and shipped across long deadly ocean voyages to a hellish life. Their cries under whips and desperate living conditions for over a century finally reached heaven, much like the cries of slaves centuries before in Egypt reached Him and He said,

“I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. 8 So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.
Exodus 3:7

There were various voices that cried out loudly against the trade, but there was no one on the scene who had the right mixture of qualities and position of power who would be able to stand and keep standing in the face of great opposition and threat as would be required to fight this particular entrenched mindset of a nation.

So how did God respond to the cries of the Israelites in Egypt?  He raised up a man named Moses to deliver the people out of bondage into freedom.  And in the 1800’s, He did the same…he raised up William Wilberforce…a champion of the slaves to defend them and to work for their freedom.  But the way in which this came about is fascinating. These slaves were not released by fearful plagues and demonstrations of power like those which decimated the economy of Egypt.  No. Let me tell you the story…

Born 1759 in Hull, England, Wilberforce’s young life had some important seeds planted which would grow and blossom years later.  First, through the unexpected death of his father, followed by a grave illness of his mother, at the age of seven he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle who were caught up in the Methodist revival of that era under the preaching of George Whitfield and John and Charles Wesley.  Under their loving care, he was exposed to a lively religion and deep conversation about important matters of the soul. He also sat under the preaching of an elderly John Newton, author of the familiar hymn Amazing Grace and an ex-slaver captain who had come to a powerful saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus, had left the trade and became a pastor.  We know that Wilberforce first had his exposure during this time through his close ties to Newton of the injustices of the slave trade.

His character was bright and cheerful, his scholarly abilities from youth were notable, and his desire to follow Christ and to be pure were unique for that day and age.  However, when his mother was better, two years later, and found out that he was with ‘those Methodists’ and exhibiting religious feelings, she whisked him away and made sure that he was surrounded with all who would draw him away from any notion of religious thought. Over the painful years to him of the purposeful immersion by his mother into this godless culture, though after an admirable fight, he gradually succumbed to a style of living that was excessively worldly and dissipated.  He says of this time,

The theatre, balls, great suppers and card parties were the delight of the principal families of the town.  This mode of life was at first distressing to me, but by degrees I acquired a relish for it, and became as thoughtless as the rest.  I was everywhere invited and caressed. The religious impressions which I had gained continued for a considerable time after my return home, but my friends spared no pains to stifle them.  I might almost say that no pious parent ever laboured more to impress a beloved child with sentiments of piety, than they did to give me a taste for the world and its diversions.”

He entered Cambridge University at the age of 17 and immediately fell in with fellow students who encouraged a continuing of his dissipated life-style, wasting his time with harmless amusements instead of studying.   He was the life of the party with a penchant for entertaining and conversation and song that won him many friends and admirers. These early acquaintances’ goal he says was to “make and keep him idle.” Wilberforce was sharp enough that he could often pull out what was necessary, even with brilliance, at the 11th hour, but the slothful and disorganized habits that were formed during those years due dogged him his whole life and were a great source of regret.  He felt he could have done so much more if he had given himself to his education.

Two years into his Cambridge studies, he had pretty much disengaged himself from that crowd and instead had become friends with the kinds of students there who were on track to become the movers and shakers of English society, William Pitt being one of them who would, by the age of 24, become the Prime Minister of England.

By the time Wilberforce was 21 he had sought for and won election to the House of Commons as a member of Parliament.  His remarkable public speaking ability, combining rhetorical skills with a clever wit, won him early acclaim and invitation to the highest circles of society.  Pitt described him as having ‘the greatest natural eloquence of all the men I ever knew.”

At the age of 28, he began what he called “the Great Change”, a true conversion that began with a conversion of his intellect through the reading of religious books, being first persuaded of the reasonableness of the Christian faith. This was followed by a true conversion of the conscience and soul upon a careful reading of the Greek New Testament that brought about a deep sense of guilt followed by a serene peace as he spoke with Newton and others about the powerful convictions he was experiencing.  Christ had called Wilberforce to follow Him, and he was responding. Upon considering leaving public life for a more reclusive religious existence , Newton advised W not to withdraw. He told him, “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.” Very prophetic words!

The first signs of his change during this initial time, while figuring out what his great aim in life was to be, were his resignation from his membership at the clubs of London, as well as giving up gambling and going to the theater.  He still had to mix with fashionable society because of his position but he did so with a careful eye to propriety and made serious resolutions before God to keep himself above reproach, which he did.

The second thing he did was to found an institute for the reformation of manners or morals in England.  He became alarmed upon recognizing for the first time that the moral condition of the country had so declined that all manner of vices were rampant:  drunkenness, gambling, dueling, prostitution, corruption and all manner of immorality were tolerated at an unprecedented level. He wrote to a friend that

“The most effectual way of preventing the greater crimes is by punishing the smaller, and by endeavouring to suppress the general spirit of licentiousness which is the parent of every species of vice.”

Wilberforce gathered a committee and beseeched the king to endorse the reformation idea, who in agreement, made a royal proclamation against vice and immorality.  Copies were distributed and soon once-neglected laws against drunkenness, obscenity, and other vices were revived.

At this time, a small group of influential abolitionists went to Wilberforce to seek to persuade him to join their cause and champion the pitiful plight of the slaves.  Upon a short season of prayer and meditation upon the horrors and evils of the slave trade, he heard with certainty the call of God. He penned these famous words, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects:  the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”

What ensued was a bitter fight in Parliament over the course of decades to convince those who could actually make a difference, the lawmakers, that slavery was unjust and must be dismantled.  When the first arguments and efforts to persuade failed there, the group, now referring to themselves as the Clapham Group or the Saints who had joined each other in mutual bonds of affection and spiritual support for the common goal, turned to persuade public opinion through the dispersing of pamphlets, educating them on the horrors of the slave trade. Because of the public campaign, petitions against the trade began to flood in to Parliament. But revolution broke out in France and the abolition cause lost steam.

When he was not working for the abolition of slaves, he continued his reformation of manners by laboring tirelessly in many directions of social reform:  he raised funds for the construction of more churches and funds for the poor; he worked on prison and hospital reform, he helped to establish the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. He wrote a book called A Practical View, his manifesto on practical Christianity to influence the religious conduct and manners of the upper class who were in position to be examples to the rest of the nation.  The book was a smashing success. It was written at just the right time, during a long hard season of national strife and insecurity in which many looked to religion, and therefore Wilberforce, for answers. He continued his efforts at social reform by helping form the Church Missionary Society; he proposed legislation to prevent cruelty to animals.  He supported a smallpox vaccination and founded the Society for the Better Observance of the Sabbath. He formed a society for the distribution of Bibles, which led to the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Year after year the debates surrounding slave issue dragged on, W experiencing one crushing defeat after another in Parliament to abolish the slave trade.  But finally, in the year 1806, the Clapham Group’s efforts to stir the conscience of both the nation and Parliament had finally gained sufficient traction that the first great victory was won…the abolition of the slave trade.  No more could there be the buying and selling of slaves on English soil. The only battle remaining was the battle for the emancipation or freedom of the slaves. But it was a doozy! It wasn’t until 1833, three decades later, through Wilberforce’s declining health, family troubles and many more hard battles in the halls of Parliament that emancipation was finally procured for the slaves of England, just 3 days before the death of Wilberforce. No plagues, no economic destruction, no war, but only by grace.  God’s Amazing Grace.

Wilberforce was given the unprecedented honor by a grateful nation of being buried in Westminster Cathedral as a commoner, without rank or title, in the presence of men such as Sir Isaac Newton. His epitaph read in part:

Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guild of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the empire.

And so this is what Christ’s rule in the earth looked like through one man’s life, who was given to seeing the kingdom of God and of His Christ come on earth as it is in heaven.  Who did the greater works. So I conclude by asking you–you who have your whole life spread before you, ‘‘What shall you do with your life?’ What form shall Christ’s rule and reign on the earth look like through you?  For that is the reason you live.