We've all heard of William Wilberforce for bringing about the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, but what can we learn from his life?
I've just finished reading a biography of Wilberforce and want to highlight three things that struck me about this servant of Christ, that we can prayerfully apply to our own lives.
1. Treasure Christ
In Wilberforce we see a man who put the Kingdom of God first, in contrast to the pursuits of his peers. Wilberforce was utterly consumed by a love for Christ and a passion to serve Him.
It wasn’t till Wilberforce’s early years as a Member of Parliament that the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see Christ as his own personal Saviour.
One particular book he read was instrumental in his conversion: The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, by Philip Doddridge. The dead religious observance to which Wilberforce had been previously accustomed became a living gospel-filled true religion which transformed his life.
Through his reading, Wilberforce came to recognise the importance of daily self-examination, prayer, early-morning devotions, diligence in work, vigilance in recreation, and the value of time.
This was especially pertinent to a young Wilberforce who freely admitted that pre-conversion, he was especially guilty of idleness; particularly excessive eating, drinking, gambling and endless socialising - to the neglect not only of meaningful endeavours, but of the eternal state of his soul.
However, Wilberforce’s commitment to his Saviour prevented him being consumed by the need for popularity, power, women, wealth, or the approval of those with high social standing. He found himself a most happy man, saying that “the gospel freely admitted makes a man happy. It gives him peace with God, and it makes him happy in God”.
When Wilberforce treasured Christ, his work was transformed: “from the moment a man begins to do his saviour’s sake, he feels that the most ordinary employments are full of sweetness and dignity, and that the most difficult are not impossible”.
What we know of Wilberforce’s achievements present a clear example of the powerful witness of a life given wholly to the Lord, and its lasting effects on society.
2. Be salt and light
Wherever the Lord has planted you for these university years, make the most of it and work for your Saviour’s sake. Wilberforce’s example has certainly challenged me personally to be thankful for the Lord’s provision thus far, and to make the most of the place I am in, and the people I am around each day.
After he was converted, Wilberforce struggled in a Parliament that was full of members of a high society that scoffed at Evangelical Christianity.
Many of his fellow MPs were known for their socialising, womanising and gluttony through all hours of the day and night in the fashionable clubs of London – which were routinely filled with well-off members of British society.
The striking thing about Wilberforce was that he continued to spend a great deal of time with the upper class – Christian and otherwise - following advice from John Newton not to cut himself off from his friends. It is well documented that his company was eagerly sought after due to his vivacious character, kind disposition, warm humour, and sincere conversation.
Wilberforce no doubt felt he was inadequate for what the Lord had called him to do, and he often expressed despair and doubt. However, he took encouragement from the fellowship of believers, and was sustained by the Word of God.
John Newton encouraged him to combine his religious beliefs with a political career. He wrote of Wilberforce to the famous poet William Cowper in 1786: “I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and as a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide!! But they are not incompatible.”
Let’s make the most of the opportunities we have to witness right now, where we are, with the gifts and abilities he has given us, rather than focus on what we feel we can’t do.
The perseverance of the saints is a well-known theme. Reading of all that Wilberforce went through, I became utterly convinced that it was only through his confidence God’s promises that he was enabled to persevere.
Wilberforce spent years leading the parliamentary campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, but it wasn't until 1807 that the Slave Trade Act was passed.
Make no mistake, this milestone in Britain's history took years of blood, sweat and tears on the part of Wilberforce and his fellow campaigners. It took years of doing the groundwork; making connections, writing to the right people, getting alongside whichever government was in power……and a great deal of prayer.
Wilberforce was constantly taking ill, and his generosity prevented him from rejecting anyone who appealed to him for help, regardless of his existing workload. Now, obviously I am not endorsing working yourself to a sick-bed, but he does serve as an example that by the Lord’s strength we too can be enabled to persevere.
Wilberforce continued his campaign relentlessly while maintaining a faithful commitment to his constituency work. He often travelled with a special carriage just for his paperwork; he had sacks of letters from constituents that awaited his reply. Despite being at times hopelessly disorganised (nobody's perfect!) he was known to be diligent in replying to people, and his letters sincere.
How could William Wilberforce continue through the weight of sin, doubt, adversity, sickness, and opposition? He relied on his Saviour. He persevered in the knowledge that his eternal security was guaranteed in the finished work of Jesus Christ who died and rose again for William Wilberforce.
If you read of William Wilberforce in the media, it will likely focus on his earthly achievement of bringing about the abolition of the Slave Trade in Britain through his Parliamentary efforts. His love for his fellow human beings is clear for all to see, and easy to commend. However, you are unlikely to read of what drove William Wilberforce. You will rarely read in the media that what drove William Wilberforce was his love for his Lord and Saviour. We would all do well to consider whether we have this same passion in our hearts for Christ and the furtherance of his Kingdom.
Philip Coghill studied politics at the University of Strathclyde and is a political researcher. He's married to Christine, a maths teacher, and lives in Inverness.