Few men have changed history as profoundly as the English parliamentarian William Wilberforce. Beginning in 1791, and moved by his conversion to Christ, he began the crusade to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain. It was a crusade that would try his soul and cost him his health for the next twenty years.
Though his name was on the lips of America’s founding fathers, and his actions inspired abolitionists in this country, Wilberforce has been all but lost to history on this side of the Atlantic. Thankfully, that is about to change. This Friday, America will rediscover this great hero with the release of the wonderful new film, Amazing Grace.
I want to encourage you and your friends to go and see this outstanding film made by Bristol Bay Productions, which also produced the much-acclaimed movie Ray. I hope the film will spark a passion in you to rekindle the spirit of Wilberforce in our day. To that end, we will be focusing each day this week on the life and work of this amazing man for whom our Wilberforce Forum is named.
At the most basic level, to speak of Wilberforce is to speak of biblical worldview in action. When Wilberforce came to Christ early in his political career, he thought about leaving Parliament and public life altogether. Thankfully, William Pitt—who went on to become Great Britain’s youngest prime minister—convinced him otherwise. Pitt wrote to Wilberforce: “Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple and lead not to meditation only, but to action.”
And for the rest of his life, Wilberforce’s Christianity meant action. His fiercely unpopular crusade against the slave trade consumed his health and cost him politically—but he could not stand idly by and see the imago Dei, the image of God, enslaved and abused in the holds of ships. He endured verbal assaults and was even challenged to a duel by an angry slave-ship captain.
When the French Revolution began, what had been merely an unpopular position became a dangerous one in Britain. Wilberforce’s detractors charged that the humanist revolution would sweep England, and Wilberforce, with his passion for the slaves, was made suspect.
Nonetheless, Wilberforce persevered. Writing about political expediency and whether to give up the fight, Wilberforce notes, “a man who fears God is not at liberty” to give up.
But Wilberforce’s worldview led him to engage in more than just the issue of slavery. He sold his home and dismissed servants to have more money to give to the needy. He fought for prison reform. He founded or participated in sixty charities. He convinced King George III to reissue a proclamation encouraging virtue and reinstated the Proclamation Society to help see such virtue encouraged. He cared for God’s creation, founding the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; and he championed missionary efforts, like the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society.
All of us would do well to take Pitt’s words to Wilberforce to heart: Surely the principles and practice of Christianity lead not just to meditation, but to action. This is part of the spirit of Wilberforce, a spirit we would do well to rekindle in our day. Watching the film will rekindle it with you, as it did with me.