Can a man be a Christian and a politician?Â This question plagued a rising member of the English parliament in 1785, as the young politician contemplated how he should live out his newfound faith.
William Wilberforce was born in 1759 in Hull, England.Â He was raised in a wealthy home, educated at Cambridge and won his first seat in Parliament at 21 years of age.Â Although small in appearance and plagued with physical difficulties, he was a gifted and persuasive speaker and was soon known as â€˜the nightingale of the House of Commons.â€™Â By the age of 24, he was already a powerful force in the British government.
Although he had the trappings of a Christian faith, attended church and considered himself a good person, Wilberforce was beset by uneasy thoughts when contemplating eternity. â€˜Often while in the full enjoyment of all that this world can bestow,â€™ he wrote, â€˜my conscience told me that in the true sense of the word, I was not a Christian. I laughed, I sang, I was apparently .. happy, but the thought would steal across me, “What madness is all this; to continue easy in a state in which a sudden call out of the world would cosign me to everlasting misery, and that, when eternal happiness is within my grasp!”
In 1784, he began to think seriously about claims of Christianity.Â What had been an intellectual puzzle soon became a personal faith.Â As he would later write, â€˜intellectual assent developed into deep inner conviction.â€™Â He became convinced that although he was a successful and solid citizen, he still had committed acts against God’s standard of righteousness and was in need of the blood of Christ to cover his sins.Â Neglecting such a wonderful gift of forgiveness was the height of ingratitude. â€˜It was not so much the fear of punishment by which I was affected,â€™ he said. â€˜as a sense of my great sinfulness in having so long neglected the unspeakable mercies of my God and Saviour.”
Now a committed Christian, he wondered if he should continue his political career.Â He sought the advice of one of the most radical Christians of his day, John Newton – who had been a former slave trader turned follower of Jesus Christ.Â Newton not only encouraged him to stay in politics, but warned him against forsaking his old friendships and losing himself in too many religious activities.Â He argued that Wilberforce’s abilities and position in the ‘secular’ world had actually been orchestrated by God for the good of the nation and for a moral voice in government.
Wilberforce returned to Parliament committed to letting his Christian convictions direct his political course of action.Â In October of 1787, he felt God leading him to confront two societal issues as he wrote in his journal, â€˜God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade the reformation of manners.â€™
The â€˜reformation of mannersâ€™ would become a campaign to see the biblical principles of morality and decency flourish in British society, especially in the upper classes.Â In 1797, he published a book containing this vision entitled, A Practical view of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, which became an almost instant classic.Â It was especially influential in leadership circles. â€˜Men of authority,â€™ he wrote, â€˜should be involvedâ€™ in the promotion of â€˜good morals.â€™ â€˜Let them in their several stations encourage virtue .. let them favor and take part in any plans which may be formed for the advancement of morality.â€™
However, Wilberforce is best known for his unwavering commitment to the abolition of the slave trade.Â With an impassioned three-hour speech, he brought his first anti-slavery motion to the floor of the House of Commons in 1789.Â The bill, however, was soundly defeated.Â This was the beginning of a life-long struggle against the forces of slavery and for the next eighteen years, he would propose bill after bill arguing for the end of slave trade.Â Many of the finest minds in Britain rallied to this cause becoming known as the ‘Clapham Sect.’Â (Clapham being the village south of London where many of their meetings were held.)
These men and women were committed to cultural transformation by utilizing their own unique positions and gifts to spread the kingdom of God in British society. They â€˜were a group of whose brains could not be denied, even by those who sneered at religion .. they possessed .. an astonishing range of capacities .. a capacity for research, sparkling wit and literary style, business sagacity .. legal ability, oratory and parliamentary skill.â€™
Wilberforceâ€™s tireless efforts were finally rewarded when, in January of 1807, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to put an end to the trafficking of slaves. The vote was greeted with an unusual breakout of cheering and applause. Wilberforce continued to battle against slavery itself, and the bill for the emancipation of all slaves in British territories was passed just three days before his death on July 29th, 1833.
1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”Â The Christian church is always in danger of holding to the false dichotomy between sacred and secular concerning oneâ€™s profession and work.Â There are some who falsely teach that a Christianâ€™s highest calling can only be lived out in â€˜full-timeâ€™ Christian ministry.Â However, the Scriptures clearly call us to do all to the glory of God. We are encouraged to surrender our time and talent, in whatever profession, to be used by the Lord as a vehicle for cultural transformation and the spread His kingdom.
The history of slavery in Britain would be entirely different if Wilberforce would have listened to those voices that called for him to leave the â€˜secularâ€™ workplace in order to be involved in â€˜real ministry.â€™Â Christianâ€™s should permeate our society in every profession, dedicating the unique abilities God has given to be used for His glory in all walks of life.
Rather than retreating from world, we are called to live in the world in such a way that brings about Christian transformation to other individuals and societal institutions. As Wilberforce said, â€˜the habitual sentiment of our hearts ought to be Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.â€™
Lean, God’s Politician
Ryun, Heroes Among Us
Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity
Wilberforce, Life of William Wilberforce, Vol. 1