On this the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wilberforce, I offer my tribute by engaging with the biography written by former leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague - which I finished on Saturday.
I have wondered about starting a WWW club for William Wilberforce Wannabees like myself but maybe I'll settle for listing some of his qualities which I wannabee like:
Heir to a massive fortune Wilberforce was generous to a fault. When in discussion with Hannah More about the educational needs of poor children, he responded "If you will be at the trouble, I will be at the expense" (213). And as he moved into retirement, he brought with him "the same group of shuffling servants he could not bear to sack" (491). His was a life lived with "unfailing generosity amidst unavailing chaos" (428).
And yet amidst the chaos he gave attention to some details - like the way he would "make long lists of how he could help his friends" (213) and then spend Sunday afternoon studyng the list and deciding how to act upon it. Or, the occasion when he wrote out an alphabetical list of his faults (208) and his intention to have God help him with them.
Again and again and again, instead of saying 'God', Wilberforce simply writes "Providence" with a capital P (92, 205...) . For him this was the essence of God's activity in his life, for "Providence governs the world" (352). It is that lovely blend of sovereignty and grace captured so well in the testimony of Nehemiah "the gracious hand of my God was upon me (Neh 2.8, 18). I like it. But I notice the P-word cannot even make it into the Index of McGrath's classic text on Theology. It embarasses us. In the colloquial, Christians far prefer to use the word "luck" - OR they consider that the bad things happening in the world will always trump any sense of providence and thereby eclipse it. No! On so many fronts Wilberforce lived a miserable life (his own health, his own failures, the death of children, other children squandering all his money so that he died virutally penniless...) - and yet near the end it could be said "For 45 years he had believed in Providence; he was not going to stop now" (495).
His conversion, the "Great Change", was so gradual and it took place in a thoughtful way. The head was engaged - something was understood first - and then heart and hand were transformed forever. This profound conversion, together with the other Claphamites, led on to "one of the greatest varieties and volumes of charitable activity ever launched by any group of people in any age" (220). Yes, Ephesians 2:8,9 ... and 10 in a way that changed a century. FROM the London Missionary Society (LMS), the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Sunday School Union, TO the 'Society for Superseding the Necessity for Climbing-Boys in Cleansing Chimneys', the 'Friendly Female Society for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows and Single Women of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days', and the Society for the Suppression of Vice.
There can be no substitute for the words of John Newton to Wilberforce in the movie: "Do it, Wilber. Do it." I've been saying them to my kids ever since. But there is something about John Wesley's words (among his final ones before he died) to Wilberforce as well: "Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you who can be against you. Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary in well doing" (195).
In addition to these there is room for a chapter on Slavery (ch 6: "The Trade in Flesh and Blood") which could be required reading in either a high school or university course. Similarly p178f on the secret of his effectiveness as a speaker could find its way into a course on preaching/speaking quite readily. There is the intrigue about Wilberforce proposing to Barbara (20 years younger than him - "a woman capable of bearing prosperity without intoxication" 280), 8 days after meeting her - and married 6 weeks later! GULP?!
I should have seen this next one coming... I think I am going to further celebrate his birthday by watching Amazing Grace tonight - yet again!