Thursday, February 15, 2007

Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (1759 - 1833) was a British politician with uncompromising Christian faith. He made his mark in history as a social justice crusader against slavery. This year, there is particular renewed interest in Wilberforce because March 25, 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act which banned slave trading in the British Empire.

Amazing Grace, the upcoming movie about Wilberforce doesn't hurt the public interest meter either.

Ahead of the movie, I'm currently reading through John Piper's biography of William Wilberforce entitled Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce. I've been intrigued by Wilberforce ever since reading about him in another Piper book called Roots of Endurance a few years ago. Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce isn't a long book (6 chapters, 80 pages) but it fleshes out a little more detail about Wilberforce's life and work.

What stands out to me, even in the first few chapters of the book, is the wonderful way God intervened in Wilberforce's life and directed him to his life's work. Note Wilberforce's own words in describing his early days in Parliament as an unbeliever.

"The first years I was in Parliament I did nothing - nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object."

Many of us waste opportunities and years seeking our own distinction. In the case of Wilberforce, this occurred before conversion but this can also be true of converted hearts as well. Yet, as with Wilberforce, God is patient in dealing with us. He helps us see the folly of building our own towers of achievement and gently leads us to give our lives to something bigger than ourselves.

Some years later, at the age of 25, Wilberforce experienced true spiritual conversion. He was so dramatically affected that he considered leaving his political career to pursue pastoral ministry. He was advised by his friend John Newton, Anglican clergyman and writer of the popular hymn Amazing Grace, to remain in Parliament. Here's what Newton wrote to Wilberforce.

"It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation"

Upon heeding this good advice, Wilberforce turned his attention to the cause of social justice, specifically the abolition of slave trading. He was no longer purposeless but rather as he wrote in his diary, he had two great objectives.

"God Almighty has placed before me two Great Objects, the Suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [morals]"

Just a couple of points about this.

First, thank God for wise counsel from friends. We need the kind of friends who can come alongside to help us figure out the hard questions of our lives. Little did he know at the time, but John Newton's encouragement to Wilberforce literally shaped the course of history.

Second, it is noteworthy that Wilberforce's zeal for God led him to initially consider abandoning his political career to pursue ministry. It speaks to the gravity of his newfound faith upon his life. However, it also betrays Wilberforce's initial view of vocational ministry as superior to his life's work in the politics. Unfortunately, I suspect it's a common problem even today. Many view vocational ministry as the inevitable calling for the spiritually mature. I'm certain most of us know better than to subscribe to this view. But I wonder if we aren't functionally hindered by this kind of thinking, in part because we have no picture of what spiritual maturity in our daily work looks like. As Christians working in business, academia, public life or maybe at home, let's help each other connect the dots between the faith we hold so dear and the daily work we're involved with.

Here are a couple of questions to chew on -

Even if you're not planning to change the course of history, do you view your work as noble service to God?
How do you connect the dots between your faith and your daily work? What do you find challenging in doing so?


Meng said...

I have always been facinated by these godly men who decided in their time that slavery was wrong and fought against it. It was such the norm in their time esp in the deep south of the US even good christian men had slaves. I hope the movie will make it over here.

"Some years later, at the age of 25, Wilberforce experienced true spiritual conversion. He was so dramatically affected that he considered leaving his political career to pursue pastoral ministry. He was advised by his friend John Newton, Anglican clergyman and writer of the popular hymn Amazing Grace, to remain in Parliament. Here's what Newton wrote to Wilberforce.

"It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation"

As I read this, I am reminded of 1 Cor 7 where Paul repeats in several instances "to remain in the poistion/situation in which God had called us." I heard of a pastor who would lay hands on "laymen" to sent them out; much like an ordination to their respective careers.

Although its hard to be reminded everyday that my vocation is my mission field; I think its a great privelege to meet and interact with so many people each day who do not know Christ. I suspect more so than if one was in "full time".

Ted Gossard said...

Andre, Great thoughts here. Thanks!

I saw a preview of the movie. But was very tired. The free popcorn and pop weren't enough to keep me awake. So I slept through half of it! A common problem I have when watching movies (though at home, not in a theater!).

The acting was superb. I wish his Christianity would have been brought out more overtly in the movie. It is certainly there.

Am reading his book, Real Christianity right now. Resonates today.

L.L. Barkat said...

I first read about Wilberforce with my eldest daughter. We were mostly amazed at how he kept working towards his goal... even though it wasn't reached until right before he died. So many times, caught in the darling object of creating our own distinction, we give up on what our true work should be... because we don't seem to be getting the "credit" or the "reward."

andre said...

Meng, thanks for your comment. Your comment on it being a privilege to meet unbelievers is a good one. What a great attitude to have.

andre said...


You slept through the preview?!? Not exactly a ringing endorsement, my friend.

Picking up on what you said, did you feel the producers muted representation of Wilberforce's faith in the movie? If so, it's a shame since it's clear that it was the driving force for his mission as a social reformer.

andre said...


Great point - the abolition of slavery altogether, not just slave trading was achieved just a couple of months prior to his death, I think.

His relentless commitment and perseverance was a hallmark of his political career. I don't think it could have been sustained were he seeking his own distinction. But because he had a sense that he was called by someone greater than himself and was working toward a cause bigger than himself, he was able to keep going.

Craver VII said...

Well, we should strive to be concious of the faith connection in everything we do, even though sometimes the mind drifts. :-)

I have not received any sort of epiphany for changing the world, though. God changes the world, and I figure that if I stay close to Him, I could maybe be there when it happens.

Ted Gossard said...

Andre, I could fall asleep with Jesus speaking. That is nothing at all against the film. I was just very tired. I can really be into something than go off into the land of nod with no intent to do so.

So my thought on them muting Wilberforce's faith may be off somewhat, at least. But from what I picked up, I think they did, at least to some extent. And I agree; that is a misrepresenation of Wilberforce.

Hollywood's rendition (I believe it was) of Shadowland, did the same thing (I was told today). The C.S. Lewis on it, is not really C.S. Lewis. His faith is all but gone. The BBC rendition of it left none of that out, I heard.

A shame when this happens.

andre said...


Thanks for stopping by. Your comment -
"we should strive to be conscious of the faith connection in everything we do..."

Great there anything you do that helps you see the "faith connection" in what your work? I wonder if there jobs that make it more challenging to do so. ..for instance, I think Mark Goodyear once challenged me on whether you can glorify God as a bartender. What do you think?

Craver VII said...

Christian bartender?

Well, God has shown that his grace has burst through many types of boundaries. Yes, God can work through a Christian who for whatever reason finds himself tending bar. And why not? In Genesis, Joseph told his brothers, "What you meant for evil, God used for good."

But it would be a hard sell to convince me that God is calling a Christian to become a bartender, in order that the Lord may glorify Himself. If one of my sons said he wanted to be a bartender, I'd slap him so hard his head would spin around three or four times. Then he would say, "Ah yes, bad idea."

As to your other question, I would encourage the Christian to ask himself, "Is there any area of my work that I do not see the faith connection? If so, why not?"

andre said...


Thanks for your wise thoughts on this. Doing a self audit of our hearts by asking the question you suggest is a great way of keeping the right focus.

Also, asking why do the work we do and who we do it for can be very telling.

L.L. Barkat said...

The last thread, about what kind of work is okay and what kind of work is not... I find that to be a rather tricky question. Esther honored God as part of a foreign, pagan man's harem. Daniel honored God while working in the political administration of a country involved in demon worship (Paul notes in Corinthians that the false gods are demons, based on Deuteronomy 32:16-17).

So... perhaps some work is not good for Christians; still they can act redemptively inside the work nonetheless.

andre said...


You make a very, very interesting point about working redemptively, even in the context of an unfruitful environment.

Perhaps the topic of a future post?