The Light of William Wilberforce
In dark times like this, it’s great to celebrate the birthday of a man who brought the light of Christ into his world. I want to re-acquaint you with him. Back when I was a lad, a certain breakfast cereal company attempted to stir up enthusiasm for its corn flakes by stating, “Taste them again for the first time.” Well, in this time of cultural darkness and tumult, I’d like for you to reacquaint yourself with my personal hero—a man whose faith and persistence are sorely needed today, whose 258th birthday we celebrate today. Can you guess? I wrote a book about him called “Amazing Grace”. Yes, you got it, it’s the English parliamentarian William Wilberforce, a true giant of the faith, who lived from 1759 to 1833. After his dramatic conversion to Jesus in 1785, Wilberforce made two consequential decisions that changed the world—actually, make that three: first, stay in politics, at a time when the conventional wisdom held that politics was too dirty a business for Christians; and second and third, work for the abolition of the slave trade in Britain and for what he called “the reformation of manners” in a society that was scraping bottom morally. So, how bad was it? Well, besides the dehumanizing brutality of the slave trade, British society in the late 1700s and early 1800s was reeling from rampant alcoholism, horrible child labor abuses, prostitution, and even mistreatment of animals through “pastimes” such as bear-baiting. So if you think today’s American degradation sets some kind of record, look at the pre-Victorian era in England again for the first time. Wilberforce had his work cut out for him—and, work he did. Tirelessly. As another one of my heroes, Chuck Colson, said, “He could not stand idly by and see the imago Dei of each person, the image of God, abused. His fiercely unpopular crusade against the slave trade ravaged his health and cost him politically. He endured verbal assaults and was even challenged to a duel by an angry slave-ship captain.” But Wilberforce didn’t stop there. He fought for prison reform and founded or supported over 60 charities. Did you know, by the way, that he founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? And he championed the British and Foreign Bible Society. I think it’s patently obvious that Western culture needs men and women like William Wilberforce, whose faith was translated into persistent action. Certainly we need to be reminded that all of us, no matter our race or religion, are equal in dignity, and that racism and other forms of bigotry are an obscenity in God’s world. Wilberforce never wavered on this point and was a brave and sometimes lonely voice that fought against the spiral of silence in a corrupted culture. Yes, Wilberforce was a fighter, but he had the faith to fight differently. He even treated his enemies with decency and respect. And he often worked with those who disagreed with him on other issues. For him, politics wasn’t simply about “winning.” It was about seeing what others could not see and standing up for the glory of God and the good of his neighbors—even those who were bound in chains and carried away from home in the dank bowels of a slave ship. William Wilberforce, though born 258 years ago today, remains a man for our time: a time when racism slithers back into our national discourse, political polarization takes over, and when the culture seems headed for the abyss. While we can’t bring Wilberforce back, we can celebrate and emulate him. To help you look at this model Christian statesman again for the first time, may I suggest you read my book “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery.” You can get more information at our online book store at BreakPoint.org.