I’ve only just read up on the life story of William Wilberforce and I am struck by the impact of his life on society. This was a man who changed long-standing mindsets and influenced culture through introducing the mind of God. He battled, persevered, loved God, loved his enemies, and refused to back down from the values He knew God had commanded. William Wilberforce influenced his nation, and his society in a way that still impacts today for God’s glory. He played a significant role in abolishing slavery at the height of Great Britain’s power. How did he do that, and how could God use us, in our different circumstances and giftings, to change mindsets and free the oppressed today?
William Wilberforce lived from 1759 to 1833 and grew up in a society that loved going to church, but viewed any more intimate relationship with God as repulsive. At this time, others such as John Wesley, and the Methodist church, were already working to show people how true knowledge and relationship with God was life-changing. Wilberforce spent some time in his childhood with a Methodist aunt and uncle who taught Him what faith meant. However, he was subsequently removed from their care when his mother discovered this, and grew up in all the ways of the world. He was a great intellectual and speaker, joining the world of politics at a very early age. He was successful, famous and involved in all manner of social events, singing, partying and enjoying exclusive membership to five gentlemen’s clubs. However, his life changed during a long journey to the South of France.
He was accompanying his mother there as she was ill and longed to be in warmer weather. She travelled in one coach, and Wilberforce travelled in another along with a travelling companion. He choose Isaac Milner, then the Lucasian Professor at Cambridge. During the long journey, Milner explained the case for God’s existence, and Wilberforce remembered his old faith. For some time after, he disappeared from the social circles, pondering what it meant to truly follow God, and eventually concluding that his life had to change. He resigned from all the gentlemen’s clubs and thought about joining a monastery. This was a chapter of his life that Wilberforce called “The Great Change”. As he thought about whether to give up politics, Wilberforce received encouragement from an old friend and decided he would serve God in the field of politics. He asked God where he should focus his attention and received revelation that “God Almighty has set before me two Great Objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.”
He championed in parliament to change legislation alongside others who had already been fighting to end the slave trade and, in 1807, the slave trade was abolished. Wilberforce continued to ensure this abolition of the slave trade was enforced, and other countries began to follow this move to end slavery. By the “Reformation of Manners”, Wilberforce meant to change how society’s values, and to introduce a godly mindset to replace that which allowed ignorance of the poor, child slavery, alcoholism and prostitution. In this, he also succeeded and as a result, views on these subjects have changed significantly with many organisations continuing to fight against these things.
In his journey with God through life, I notice the following things about William Wilberforce:
- He recognised the sovereignty of God – that he could not change the world, but God could.
- He was willing to submit himself to God’s plans, and to be a living example of what it means to be transformed by God’s grace.
- He immersed himself in the world of God (Wilberforce memorised and often recited Psalm 119 in its entirety)
- He fellowshipped often with brothers and sisters in Christ
- He loved his enemies, and made the most of every opportunity to achieve his vision and glorify God – in the people he worked with, and in the career choices he made.
The fruit of Wilberforce’s efforts are clear and there has been a great changeabout in the way people view slavery, child labour, alcoholism and prostitution today. Before we explore what we can do to advance God’s kingdom today, I want to look at one more person who changed her society in a great way – Queen Esther.
Orphaned, and raised by her uncle, Esther was recruited to the King’s harem as he sought a replacement for the deposed Queen Vasti. She won his favour and he made her queen. Her uncle Mordecai was a godly man who, at one point, saved the king’s life from those who planned to assassinate him. However, a high official in the king’s court, Haman, despised Mordecai as he refused to bow to any other than God. Haman was enjoying high status and Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him angered him. He sought to destroy all the Jews in the land (for Mordecai was a Jew) and obtained the king’s approval to do so on a designated date. Hearing this, Mordecai tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and mourned.
When Esther saw this, she sent someone to enquire about his mourning and learnt of the plot against her people, the Jews. Mordecai urged Esther to advocate on behalf of the Jews. She warns him that anyone who goes in to the king without appointment would be put to death, except for if the king extended his golden scepter so they might live. Esther had not been called in to the king for the last thirty days. Yet Mordecai said, “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther then agreed, but knowing she could not succeed without God, she said, “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”
At the end of the three days, Esther went to the king. He was pleased with her and extended his golden scepter, asking her what it was that she desired. Esther invited the king and Haman to a banquet that evening. When asked again at the banquet what she desired, Esther invites the king and Haman to another banquet the following night. Haman was puffed up with pride, and after boasting to his family and friends about his status, he decides to build a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. He goes in to the king to ask permission to do this, but finds the king reading the book of the records of the chronicles where it is recorded that Mordecai had once saved the king’s life. The king asked Haman how he should reward “the man whom the king delights to honour”. Thinking that man must be himself, Haman suggests an opulent display of status with the man to be mounted on the king’s horse, in the king’s robes with proclamation in the streets in honour of the man. As it turns out, this glory is given to Mordecai with Haman proclaiming to the people that the king delights to honour Mordecai. Haman rushes back to his house, mourning, but before much can be said, he is taken to Queen Esther’s banquet.
This time, when the king asks Esther what she desires, Esther pleads with him that her people, the Jews, be saved from the planned day of massacre. She also points out that Haman is behind this plan to exterminate her people. The king is furious and Haman ends up being hanged on the gallows he initially prepared for Mordecai. A second decree is then passed, allowing the Jews to fight against their enemies on the day that was initially meant for their destruction and on this day, the Jews are victorious. The festival of Purim still commemorates this victory for the Jewish people today.
Both William Wilberforce and Queen Esther held influential positions and worked with God in their circumstances to impact a nation. I think we can learn some important lessons about how we can be salt and light on this earth by looking at how they lived.
1. They needed God and trusted in His power, but also took responsibility upon themselves to obey.
Both Wilberforce and Esther knew were in dangerous positions. In both cases, their lives and reputations were at risk. Yet, neither backed away from the mission God had given them. They dared to stand up for what they knew God desired, and they trusted that as they obeyed, He would work.
2. They needed people, and were supported in fellowship
Wilberforce spent much time with friends in the Clapham circle. This group of Christians, all living around the same area was deliberately initiated by John Thornton, a wealthy friend of Wilberforce who slowly acquired property in the area to encourage his brothers and sisters in Christ to fellowship frequently with one another. This is a source of incredible support, and advice for Wilberforce. Queen Esther enlisted the help of the Jewish people in Susa. Together, the Jews cried out to God. There is power when God’s people are united in fellowship and purpose.
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” [Hebrews 10:24-25]
3. They recognised their giftings on earth, and decided to use them for God’s glory
Wilberforce was a prominent politician, and Esther was Queen of Persia. Wilberforce was a well-studied intellectual and had a great gift of speaking. In his speeches and appeals against slavery, Wilberforce showed an attitude of humility and responsibility. He spoke in love, and in genuine concern for the mistreatment of slaves, who he described as being equal with other men in God’s eyes. Biographer, John Pollock’s writes how Wilberforce described the slaves as “true men, not the brute beasts which some planters believed negroes to be.” In the excerpt of an anti-slavery speech below, we can see how Wilberforce abstains from blaming others, and sticks to the point of pointing out the evil of slavery itself. He combines his gift with the mindset of love and humility that comes from knowing Christ – thus, “putting on Christ” [Romans 13:12-14].
“I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others; and I therefore deprecate every kind of reflection against the various descriptions of people who are more immediately involved in this wretched business.” (http://www.brycchancarey.com/abolition/wilberforce2.htm)
Esther also uses her role as Queen to advocate for her people. At the same time, she recognises the authority of the king, thus petitioning him to allow justice for the Jews.
What does this all mean for us, living in the modern world today? I think the love, faith, and principles that guided the lives of William Wilberforce and Queen Esther are still relevant today. They are based on the living word of God, which remains true today and forevermore.
- We must recognise the wrongs in this world which stand in opposition to God’s desires. Some people suggest that the Bible has not specifically mentioned particular subjects of contention. However, while it may not specifically name abortion and euthanasia, the word of God describes clear appreciation for the value of life, and clear anger at the abuse of it. God clearly shows that He knows, loves and has plans for the unborn child (eg. Psalm 139), and in the Bible, we see a God who heals, and helps people persevere through suffering, rather than simply killing them.
- We must embrace the gifts God has given us, and the circumstances we find ourselves in. For example, I have trained to be a doctor, and as such, I seek to glorify God in my profession. My career is not separate to my faith, but it is a part of it and there are ways that God may work through me, that someone in a different field of study may not be able to do so easily. When I was little, I remember telling God that whether I write, or sing, or play instruments, whatever I did, I would do for him. May we glorify God in whatever our hand finds to do, and be obedient to His leading.
- We must put on Christ, in order to know His mind. If we are to minister effectively, then we must be in close partnership with God, and this means investing in intimacy.
- We should continue in fellowship with other brothers and sisters in Christ. This keeps us humble and accountable, and we can be effective as the “body of Christ”, built up as “the temple of God.” Different talents, ideas and the simple aspect of walking together in faith are valuable.
Some Useful Resources:
- Eric Metaxas – “7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness”
- Eric Metaxas – “Amazing Grace”
- About some of the arguments for and against prostitution: http://prostitutionresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/18-myths-on-prostitution-EWL.pdf
- Overview of modern slavery: http://www.antislavery.org/english/slavery_today/default.aspx
- RAHAB: Reaching out to those trapped sex trafficking: http://www.rahab.com.au/
As another side note, here is a new recording – “My Beloved” (A devotional on Song of Songs)