At 4:00 AM on February 24, 1807, the British Parliament overwhelmingly voted to abolish the slave trade and then “rose almost to a man and turned towards [William] Wilberforce in a burst of Parliamentary cheers…while he sat, head bowed, tears streaming down his face.”1
This extraordinary moment was the culmination of 20 years of relentless, determined personal and legislative exertion to bring this evil trade to an end. After that Wilberforce would fight another 26 years until the evil of slavery itself was also defeated. Parliament voted to emancipate slaves three days before Wilberforce’s death on July 29, 1833.
William Wilberforce is one of histories great examples of unswerving dedication and undefeatable endurance in the cause of justice.
But if you had known him at age 20, you wouldn’t have predicted his end. William entered adulthood as a dilettante and socialite. He was naturally warm, gregarious, eloquent, and a great singer—the life of any party. He was an unmotivated student at Cambridge, not helped by the fact that through inheritance he was independently wealthy.
On a lark he ran for a seat in Parliament at age 21. He spent the equivalent of $500,000 of his own money on the campaign and won. Years later, his own assessment was, “the first years I was in Parliament I did nothing — nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object.”2
But in 1785, that all changed when William was powerfully converted to Jesus. It was nothing short of a revolution. Life and time and talent, and influence and wealth were to be stewarded and wielded for the cause of Jesus’ kingdom. Everything took on a new weight and urgency. Jesus Christ transformed this dissolute aristocratic party boy into a resolute force against evil and for truth in the moral wilderness of his day.
And it is important to remember that it was not the cause of abolition that changed and focused William Wilberforce. It was the change in the “darling object” of William’s heart. Jesus replaced William as William’s delight. And that treasure exchange resulted not only in William’s personal salvation, but also in the emancipation of millions of men and women and hundreds of other gospel causes that William championed.
As we thank God for William Wilberforce today, let him remind us that Christian Hedonism is serious business. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21). And if Jesus is our treasure, our darling object, it cannot help but result in a world and eternity of good.