“Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.
Let my soul live, and it shall praise thee; and let thy judgments help me. I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments.”
These were the words that frequented William Wilberforce’s lips as he made the 20 minute trek through Hyde Park on his way home from Parliament. The quotes above represent the entirety of Psalm 119, the longest chapter in Scripture and one which focuses on the law of the Lord and its health for the soul. For Wilberforce, these words were not merely spiritual practice but were rooted in true application. He was a man who sought direction from God, lived by His Word, and in so doing, changed the modern world.
Wilberforce was born in 1759 and grew up to be a very young and ambitious English statesman. Wilberforce is worthy of mention because his life was dedicated to what he penned in his journal in 1787: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” These words would go on to define the life of the then 28 year old statesman.
These two objects that Wilberforce believed that God had placed in his sights were not small feats. At this time, the slave trade in England was a major part of British economic life. England at that time was a vast imperial power that stretched around the world and relied heavily on the cheap labor that slavery provided to sustain its vast infrastructure. Regardless, Wilberforce felt compelled by God and God’s view of justice to bring an end to the slave trade in England.
Equally as significant was the second object that Wilberforce set out to resolve in his lifetime: the reformation of manners. Put more pointedly, the reformation of manners was the reformation of morality and culture. Prior to Wilberforce’s influence on English society, the vast majority of people believed in a system that those who had little, deserved little and those who had much, deserved much. The idea of charity in Western society was virtually nonexistent and was certainly not the cultural phenomenon that is apparent today. The value of a person’s life was not based on their humanity but instead on their social status. Today, there is much pomp and circumstance with large celebrity driven telethons and organizations like (RED), the One Campaign and socially conscious companies like TOMS or Warby Parker. Today, the wealthy, regardless of intention, participate and are expected to participate financially in the alleviation of suffering for marginalized people both domestically and abroad. Things were much different in the time and place that Wilberforce lived.
Since Wilberforce is still discussed today, one can surmise that he succeeded in these endeavors. But how did he succeed with such a tall order? First, Wilberforce was an incredibly intelligent and winsome man. He went to college at Cambridge and befriended another young man named William Pitt. Both Wilberforce and Pitt were elected to Parliament at the young age of 20. This level of success at such an early age caused Wilberforce and his friend Pitt to be welcomed into the upper echelon of English society. This acceptance quickly translated to Wilberforce being elected into a high ranking position within Parliament while Pitt was elected Prime Minister. Pitt still holds the distinction of being the youngest ever elected to this seat at the age of 24. With such an early start and with great success, Wilberforce was primed to make an impact.
All of these events happened within a few years after joining Parliament and before Wilberforce truly came to the faith. This brings us to the second factor as to why Wilberforce succeeded: his faith. Due to many circumstances and experiences that would take too long to deliberate here, Wilberforce became incredibly convicted that Jesus was the Son of God and that Jesus desired his people to live lives of justice and mercy. Metaxas writes,
This conviction almost caused him to drop from politics altogether in order to become a clergyman and directly impact the lives of the marginalized. Instead, at the goading of his mentor John Newton, Wilberforce decided to use his influence in order to reform society and morals.
The third reason for his success was that Wilberforce had friends in and out of Parliament who acted as important support systems through a very trying time. He lived in an area of London called Clapham Circle which was an intentional community of Christian writers, thinkers and influencers who encouraged one another to live true to the call of Christ. Wilberforce knew that he needed God’s help to bring about this change and that God uses the Christian church to encourage and edify his saints. Wilberforce intentionally positioned himself with these individuals in order to gain much needed wisdom, encouragement and prayer.
Wilberforce accomplished a great deal in his lifetime and left a legacy that changed the modern world. In 1807, the British Parliament passed an act effectively banning the slave trade. It would take nearly 60 years and a Civil War for America to achieve the same end. Wilberforce at the age of 28, decided that he would use his influence, faith and relationships, to accomplish peacefully the reformation of the country that he loved. The fact that these values that Wilberforce worked so hard to see change still exist in some form in our society shows the impact that Wilberforce continues to have. Without God using Wilberforce to proclaim justice in light of the gospel and making justice a priority, it is fair to say that we would have little desire to help the poor and needy around us.
As I think about the story and legacy of Wilberforce, I am in awe at the faith and conviction of one so young. Today, I am 24 years old and as it stands, I do not have nearly the conviction and determination of Wilberforce. Granted, God has not placed me in the position of influence that he placed Wilberforce in or given me the same “objects”, but I have to ask myself, what are the objects that God has placed before me? What are the injustices that everyone looks at and says is allowable where I can make a difference? There are injustices that roll like a tide of evil working against the redemption that God has planned for the world. Evil does not take hold over night but like an entropic force it slowly progresses backward away from intended glory.
God have mercy on us as we struggle against this tide that comes in under the cover of darkness toward our blind eyes. I challenge you and myself to begin to wonder how we can make a difference in just one person’s life and maybe, should God bless us, we too can leave a legacy of redemption!