By Paul Mathers
William Wilberforce was 25 years old and a member of British Parliament when a Christian friend led him to Christ while traveling on vacation between parliamentary sessions. The first manifestation of his "great change" was the disgust he felt over the luxury in which he lived, and especially vacations like the one he happened to be on.
"No man," wrote Wilberforce, "has a right to be idle. Where is it that in such a world as this, health, and leisure, and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate?" And Wilberforce was not idle. Fueled by God’s love, he labored for years to abolish the slave trade in England.
Faith in Christ ignited a life-long passion to use his wealth and his political clout to bless the impoverished and the oppressed. "By careful management,” He wrote, “I should be able to give at least one-quarter of my income to the poor." In fact, he gave away far more than a fourth.
Pressured in Parliament to turn his back on his faith, and uncertain how to handle his public life as a Christian, Wilberforce paid a visit to John Newton, the former slave ship captain turned minister and abolitionist who wrote Amazing Grace. This was risky as Newton was not admired in Parliament. Wilberforce circled the block twice, working up the courage to knock on the door. To his surprise, Newton urged him not to leave public life, but to glorify God in it. Newton later wrote: "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."
Though plagued with physical ailments, Wilberforce worked ceaselessly and studied scripture up to 10 hours a day. He believed the life God had given him must not be squandered, and he lived it with joy: The poet Robert Southey wrote, "I never saw any other man who seemed to enjoy such a perpetual serenity and sunshine of spirit. In conversing with him, you feel... that if ever there was a good man and happy man on earth, he was one."
"Joy. . .” Wilberforce wrote, “is enjoined on us as our bounden duty and commended to us as our acceptable worship. . . A cold . . . unfeeling heart is represented as highly criminal." And again, "My grand objection to the religious system still held by many. . . is, that it tends to render Christianity so much a system of prohibitions rather than of privilege and hopes, and thus the injunction to rejoice, so strongly enforced in the New Testament, is practically neglected, and Religion is made to wear a forbidding and gloomy air and not one of peace and hope and joy.”
Joyful, Wilberforce sat with his head in his hands, tears streaming down his face in 1807 when, after decades of efforts to sway public opinion, the slave trade was outlawed. He turned to his colleague and friend, Henry Thornton, and said, "Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?"
Slavery itself was next, but not until 1833, after age and illness had forced Wilberforce to retire. The law abolishing slavery passed four days before he died. On his death bed, Wilberforce heard it and said, "Thank God." Christ, through one transformed life, had transformed the world.