Faith in Action: The Life of William Wilberforce
People often accuse Christians, whether justified or not, of being so heavenly-minded to be no earthly good. But this is not true of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) who was a politician all of his adult life never losing an election from the time he was 21 years old. In his diary, Wilberforce describes his young adult life as having wasted my precious time, and opportunities, and talents. Before declaring Jesus Christ as Lord of his life, what Wilberforce called the Great Change, he was a self-seeking rich politician who abused the opportunities given him. But after Wilberforce declared his allegiance to Jesus two changes were immediately obvious: first his attitude toward money and second his use of time. Before the Great Change Wilberforce viewed his money and time to be used as he pleased. But as he studied Scripture he realized that his wealth, talents, and time were gifts to be used for Gods purposes and for Gods honor. On June 21, 1786 Wilberforce writes in his journal, To endeavor from this moment to amend my plan for time. I hope to live more than heretofore to Gods glory and my fellow-creatures good. Wilberforces faith in Jesus was no mere otherworldly hope but was a faith expressed in action: to love God and to love his neighbor as himself. He writes, God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners. In 1787, Wilberforce set out to abolish the British slave trade. In May, 1789 he spoke to the House about how he came to his conviction, “I confess to you, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its (slave trade) wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for Abolition. . . . Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.” And rest he didnt, for this object took over 20 years to accomplish. During this time his life was threatened more than once, he was publicly criticized, lost many friends, and faced extreme political pressure since the abolition of slavery, it was argued, would cause the British economy to collapse. On top of all this Wilberforces health had always been questionable, suffering from severe ulcers and poor eyesight. However, in 1807 victory came, after 20 years (not days!) of having his bills rejected in the British parliament. So then he retired, right? Well, not exactly. Wilberforce spent the rest of his life, 26 years, implementing the abolition of the slave trade and fighting to abolish slavery itself in the British colonies. On July 26, 1833, three days before William Wilberforce died, slavery itself was outlawed. 46 years of his life was spent fighting the injustice of slavery. 46 years!But this was not all Wilberforce sought to change in his life. 18th century Britain was a brutal, decadent, and violent society. After becoming a Christian, Wilberforce was deeply moved to bring about a change in the social decay all around him. Therefore, he worked throughout his political career as a Christian to stop rampant alcoholism, child prostitution, child labor, public executions, and cruelty to animals (what he termed the Reformation of Manners). So what could possibly compel someone to dedicate so many years to bring about so much good with so little support? Wilberforce himself explained that it was because of his faith in Jesus; a faith that was expressed in action for the love and honor of God. His faith was rooted in true Christian doctrine and expressed in his public political life through social action. Wilberforce writes, some are thrown into public, some have their lot in private life. [It] would merit no better name than desertionif I were thus to fly from the post where Providence has placed me. Faith in Jesus mattered for William Wilberforce, and because of his active faith British society was changed. Of course some thought he had lost his mind, but as one observer put it: If this were madness, I hope he will bite us all.
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