Columnists > Voices

Humble courage

William Wilberforce reasoned with opponents but did not rant at them

Issue: "Barrier riffs," Feb. 10, 2007

You'll probably hear something about William Wilberforce this month, because an important 200th anniversary is coming. On Feb. 23, 1807, the double-decade determination of Member of Parliament Wilberforce finally brought results when the House of Commons voted to abolish the British slave trade. Year after year, voted down, he had not responded bitterly, and this time the other MPs stood and gave three hurrahs as Wilberforce bowed his head and wept at the culmination of his long battle.

Others are cheering in 2007. Washington, D.C., has a Wilberforce Forum, under Chuck Colson's auspices, and that organization plus the Trinity Forum sponsored Wilberforce Weekends last month. A major film biography of Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, is scheduled to hit theaters across the United States on the bicentennial, Feb. 23. A documentary, The Better Hour: William Wilberforce, A Man of Character Who Changed The World, is scheduled for television broadcast this fall in the United States and the United Kingdom. Members of the state legislature in Alaska have a Clapham Fellowship, named after the British group Wilberforce headed.

Furthermore, John Templeton is funding a national essay contest on Wilberforce for U.S. schoolkids: It's scheduled to begin in September 2007 with awards coming in spring of 2008. I hope students will learn about Wilberforce's theology, including his complaint about those who "either overlook or deny the corruption and weakness of human nature. They acknowledge there is, and always had been, a great deal of vice and wickedness [, but they] talk of frailty and infirmity, of petty transgressions, of occasional failings, and of accidental incidents. [They] speak of man as a being who is naturally pure. He is inclined to virtue."

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Wilberforce contrasted that view with "the humiliating language of true Christianity. From it we learn that man is an apostate creature. He has fallen from his high, original state. . . . He is indisposed toward the good, and disposed towards evil. . . . He is tainted with sin, not slightly and superficially, but radically, and to the very core of his being. Even though it may be humiliating to acknowledge these things, still this is the biblical account of man."

His realistic view of man allowed him to deal with many kinds of disappointment-including the agonizing one that many of his initially reform-minded parliamentary colleagues gave in to political lures. As a young man Wilberforce was one of 40 MPs called the Independents who covenanted "not to accept a plum appointment to political office, a government pension, or the offer of hereditary peerage." And yet as years went by, only Wilberforce and one other stuck to that resolution. (Sounds like the Republican Revolutionaries of 1994.)

His realism also helped when he faced sharp attacks. James Boswell, famed now for his biography of Samuel Johnson, wrote of Wilberforce, "I hate your little whittling sneer./ Your pert and self-sufficient leer . . . begone, for shame,/ Thou dwarf with big resounding name." (Wilberforce stood only five feet tall.) Other famous writers, including Lord Byron, also wrote hit pieces. But Wilberforce did not respond in kind. Instead of speaking of his own accomplishments, he often said that one line of prayer summarized his only hope: "God be merciful to me a sinner."

Wilberforce emphasized teaching about Christianity but not imposing it, and wrote that Christians should "boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many who bear the name of Christian are ashamed of Him. Let them be active, useful, and generous toward others. Let them show moderation and self-denial themselves. Let them be ashamed of idleness. When blessed with wealth, let them withdraw from the competition of vanity and be modest, retiring from ostentation, and not be the slaves of fashion."

He proceeded boldly but not arrogantly, knowing that he could commend belief but not command it. He stated, "The national difficulties we face result from the decline of religion and morality among us. I must confess equally boldly that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies . . . as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ. I believe that their prayers may yet prevail."

Amen.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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