Tribute to William Wilberforce, #1

The movie about William Wilberforce opens today. I suppose that’s because, with the time zone difference, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave is technically today. Actually it was 4 A.M. February 24, 1807. Wilberforce was the chief human instrument in God’s hands for overturning what he called “this horrid trade.” In honor of this anniversary it is fitting to take a few glimpses at the man.

Two glimpses encourage us to be ready to give our encouragements to good causes. John Newton, author of the hymn "Amazing Grace," and John Wesley gave crucial words to Wilberforce. Here’s a snapshot.

To resolve the anguish Wilberforce felt over what to do with his life as a Christian, he resolved to risk seeing John Newton on December 7, 1785—a risk because Newton was an evangelical and not admired or esteemed by Wilberforce’s colleagues in Parliament. He wrote to Newton on December 2:

I wish to have some serious conversation with you. . . . I have had ten thousand doubts within myself, whether or not I should discover myself to you; but every argument against it has its foundation in pride. I am sure you will hold yourself bound to let no one living know of this application, or of my visit, till I release you from the obligation. . . . PS Remember that I must be secret, and that the gallery of the House is now so universally attended, that the face of a member of parliament is pretty well known. (Robert Isaac Wilberforce and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, abridged edition [London,
1843], p. 47.)

It was a historically significant visit. Not only did Newton give encouragement to Wilberforce’s faith, but he also urged him not to cut himself off from public life. Wilberforce wrote about the visit:

After walking about the Square once or twice before I could persuade myself, I called upon old Newton—was much affected in conversing with him—something very pleasing and unaffected in him. He told me he always had hopes and confidence that God would sometime bring me to Him. . . . When I came away I found my mind in a calm, tranquil state, more humbled, and looking more devoutly up to God (ibid., p. 48).

Wilberforce was relieved that the sixty-year-old Newton urged him not to cut himself off from public life. Newton wrote to Wilberforce two years later: “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” (ibid). One marvels at the magnitude of some small occasions. Think what hung in the balance in that moment of counsel, in view of what Wilberforce would accomplish for the cause of abolition.

Another encouragement came from John Wesley in the last letter he ever wrote before he died. When Wesley was eighty-seven years old (in 1790) he wrote to Wilberforce and said, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of man and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you” (ibid.).Two years later Wilberforce wrote in a letter, “I daily become more sensible that my work must be affected by constant and regular exertions rather than by sudden and violent ones" (ibid., p. 116). In other words, with fifteen years to go in the first phase of the battle, he knew that only a marathon mentality, rather than a sprint mentality, would prevail in this cause. Thank God for Wesley’s counsel to Wilberforce.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.