When we read about heroes of the faith, it is easy to see their accomplishments and to notice a linear progression of what was written about their life. So often this plays out like a highlight reel and fails to acknowledge that most – if not all – stories of meaningful faith unfold in the space of the ordinary. Lives of faith that left an impact are thousands of ordinary, and often difficult moments sustained by God that together pave the way for something worth remembering.
Such is the life of British abolitionist, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce is heralded around the globe as a politician, philanthropist, and as the leader of what is often sited by historians as one of, if not the, most successful social justice campaigns in history. His story and that of the motley crew of Quaker and Anglican activists around him, that formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave trade, turned the norms of their day upside down. They inspired a social movement whose effects still echo in the structure and understanding of human rights and social justice campaigns today.
It’s impossible for us to conceptualize any understanding of slavery or natural law without pulling on the global impact of this group of men. In his riveting book, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild called the efforts of the Society, “the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizen movement of all time.” And any look to their work quickly reveals that the majority of these men were motivated in their efforts of abolition primarily by their religious faith. These men firmly held the belief that all humanity – regardless of colour or social standing – had intrinsic value because all persons are image bearers of God. These beliefs informed their fight for freedom and equality before the law for all.
Needless to say, I could write a lot about Wilberforce the visionary and activist. But, as (hugely) inspiring as those aspects of his life are, they’re quite well known – and for good reason. His story has been made popular through many well-written biographies and the 2007 movie, Amazing Grace. Most timelines of his life and work point to pivotal dates: 1807 and 1833, the years when the Slave Trade Act was passed and the year when the abolition of slavery was secured across the British Empire.
However, behind these world changing accomplishments Wilberforce’s story is one of a long and difficult career and a life characterized by both loss and wealth, struggle and perseverance, and a powerful encounter with God which led to a passionate and enduring relationship with Him. It’s in those spaces especially where the life of this famous politician points powerfully to the work of God.
Wilberforce’s story speaks to the reality that God pursues and draws people to himself, no matter their social standing or initial skepticism towards the things of God.
Perhaps most notably, Wilberforce’s story speaks to the reality that God pursues and draws people to himself, no matter their social standing or initial skepticism towards the things of God. Wilberforce was born into wealth and prestige. Due to the early deaths of his father, uncle, and grandfather, he had full access to his family’s fortune by the age of 18. He was educated at some of the best schools in the world, and gained a reputation as a socialite and a party boy. By the age of 21, while still a student at Cambridge University, he was elected as a Member of British Parliament. He was young, rich, and successful, and fully indulged in the hedonistic lifestyle those luxuries afforded him.
But, through connections, years of conversations and his education, he became increasingly interested in spiritual things. In 1785 he made the decision to follow Christ, a decision that significantly changed the focus of his life and work, which subsequently almost ended his political career. At the time, Wilberforce struggled to reconcile his career in politics with his desire to wholeheartedly pursue God. Thankfully, through the influence of John Newton and his friend (the future Prime Minister) William Pitt, Wilberforce came to believe that all work was Kingdom work. This meant that all vocations held the great joy and responsibility of representing Christ and pursuing the things of God. Wilberforce did not abandon his political post, but instead pursued his calling to both God and Parliament with increased “diligence and conscientiousness.”
Perhaps most importantly, this refocussing caused Wilberforce to centre and root himself in the study of scripture and in prayer. Wilberforce understood that there would be no gospel advance in a society skeptical of faith and scripture without persistent prayer. So he made the presence and pursuit of God his central priority. To this end he wrote, “Of all things, guard against neglecting God in the secret place of prayer.”
It was from this space that Wilberforce became the voice of a movement that knew that the holistic pursuit of justice was necessary for the Christian life. He became a leader who was bold with the task ahead of him, saying: “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.” He came to understand that the pursuit of justice and care for the victimized were not only good and/or optional things for followers of Christ to do, but things that were absolutely necessary. He gave no space in his theology for faith to remain inactive. Simply put, to follow Christ was to care for the poor, to protect the marginalized, and to proactively seek the renewal of society.
Lastly, Wilberforce was familiar with failure and weakness, but he didn’t let those things deter him. He began his political career in 1780 and continued through 1826. The 1807 Slave Trade Act passed in British Parliament after nearly 20 years of struggle and repeated previous defeats of his anti-slavery bills in Parliament. When he started, he was laughed out of the House of Commons. Throughout his career, he was ridiculed by people both inside and outside of the church. He struggled with chronic health issues his whole life. But he – and the community God brought around him – persevered, and in their faithful efforts, resolute boldness, and persistent creativity, they impacted change.