William Wilberforce and the Launchers of Love

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I read recently a great story about William Wilberforce, the English Christian politician who labored about 200 years ago to overthrow slave trade in Britain. It illustrated what happens in your relationships with people when you see the world the way Jesus sees it. Wilberforce was surrounded by people who were hardened against personal faith in Christ by the formalities of their churches and their nominally Christian boarding schools. But his way of looking at the world was that they were in great need of personal faith in Christ as their Savior.

So he would keep a list of people that he was talking to about personal faith, with ideas on how to approach them. What really struck me in this story was that Wilberforce would often spend an hour following dinner thinking about how he might develop what he called “launchers”—openings in conversation with friends so as to “launch” into a discussion of faith. Isn’t that remarkable! I thought things were easier two hundred years ago. Maybe not. Have you ever struggled with natural “launchers?”  You are not alone. It’s been done for centuries. One entry in his journal shows how he pondered over reaching people:

[Mr.] S… and Mrs.: What books [are they] reading? To give them good ones—Walker’s Sermons. Call on Mrs. S. and talk a little. Lend her Venn’s last Sermon. Education of their children, to inquire about. Prayer, etc. Their coming some Sunday to Battersea Rise to hear Venn. Call often, and be kind. (Quoted from Murray Pura and Donald Lewis, “On Spiritual Symmetry: The Christian Devotion of William Wilberforce,” in Alive to God, ed. by J.I. Packer and Loren Wilkinson, [Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 185.)

He sometimes worried that he was not effective. But it seems that he often communicated more than he thought. One story goes that

Once, after talking for some time to an ill friend, “Lord N…,” Wilberforce was aware that he had not broached the issue of religion. Another friend came in and asked the invalid how he was. Lord N… replied: “As well as I can be, with Wilberforce sitting here and telling me I am going to hell.” (p. 185)

So here is a world class statesman, who labored for decades in the frustrating, secular business of politics to overcome the slave trade in Great Britain, taking time with a friend to warn him about a reality that he would never have seen except that he learned from Jesus to see the world in a totally different way.

With the echo of Missions Week and 2000 by 2000 still ringing in our ears, let’s be like William Wilberforce. Let’s care about the plight of the oppressed now. And let’s care even more about the eternal oppression of judgment and hell. If we love people, we will be like Wilberforce and spend time thinking about “launchers.” Then we will launch with prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit, knowing that he, and he alone, can open the eyes of people’s hearts to see the glory of God in Christ.

Launching with you,

Pastor John