Peculiar Doctrines, Public Morals, and the Political Welfare

Reflections on the Life and Labor of William Wilberforce

2002 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors | Minneapolis

If you want to understand and appreciate The Life and Labor of William Wilberforce, one of the wisest things you can do is to read his own book, A Practical View of Christianity first, and then read biographies. The book was published in 1797 when Wilberforce was 37 years old and had been a member of the British Parliament already for 16 years. The book proved incredibly popular for the time. It went through five printings in six months and was translated into five foreign languages. The book makes crystal clear what drives Wilberforce as a person and a politician. And if you don't see it first in his book, chances are you may not find it clearly in the biographies.

What made Wilberforce tick was a profound Biblical allegiance to what he called the "peculiar doctrines" of Christianity. These, he said, give rise, in turn, to true affections – what we might call "passion" or "emotions" – for spiritual things, which, in turn, break the power of pride and greed and fear, and then lead to transformed morals which, in turn, lead to the political welfare of the nation. He said, "If . . . a principle of true Religion [i.e., true Christianity] should . . . gain ground, there is no estimating the effects on public morals, and the consequent influence on our political welfare." 1

But he was no ordinary pragmatist or political utilitarian, even though he was one of the most practical men of his day. He was a doer. One of his biographers said, "He lacked time for half the good works in his mind." 2 James Stephen, who knew him well, remarked, "Factories did not spring up more rapidly in Leeds and Manchester than schemes of benevolence beneath his roof." 3 "No man," Wilberforce wrote, "has a right to be idle." "Where is it," he asked, "that in such a world as this, [that] health, and leisure, and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate?" 4 In other words, he lived to do good – or as Jesus said, to let his light shine before men that they might see his good deeds and give glory to his Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

But he was practical with a difference. He believed with all his heart that new affections for God were the key to new morals (or manners, as they were sometimes called) and lasting political reformation. And these new affections and this reformation did not come from mere ethical systems. They came from what he called the "peculiar doctrines" of Christianity. For Wilberforce, practical deeds were born in "peculiar doctrines." By that term he simply meant the central distinguishing doctrines of human depravity, divine judgment, the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds. 5

He wrote his book, A Practical View of Christianity, to show that the "Bulk" 6 of Christians in England were merely nominal because they had abandoned these doctrines in favor of a system of ethics and had thus lost the power of ethical life and the political welfare. He wrote:

The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment." 7

He pled with nominally Christian England not to turn "their eyes from the grand peculiarities of Christianity, [but] to keep these ever in view, as the pregnant principles whence all the rest must derive their origin, and receive their best support." 8

Knowing Wilberforce was a politician all his adult life, never losing an election from the time he was 21 years old, we might be tempted to think that his motives were purely pragmatic – as if he should say, "if Christianity works to produce the political welfare, then use it." But that is not the spirit of his mind or his life. In fact, he believed that such pragmatism would ruin the very thing it sought, the reformation of culture.

Take the example of how people define sin. When considering the nature of sin, Wilberforce said, the vast Bulk of Christians in England estimated the guilt of an action "not by the proportion in which, according to scripture, [actions] are offensive to God, but by that in which they are injurious to society." 9 Now, on the face of it that sounds noble, loving, and practical. Sin hurts people, so don't sin.

Wouldn't that definition of sin be good for society? But Wilberforce says, "Their slight notions of the guilt and evil of sin [reveal] an utter [lack] of all suitable reverence for the Divine Majesty. This principle [reverence for the Divine Majesty] is justly termed in Scripture, 'The beginning of wisdom' [Psalm 111:10]." 10 And without this wisdom, there will be no deep and lasting good done for man, spiritually or politically. Therefore, the supremacy of God's glory in all things is what he calls "the grand governing maxim" in all of life. 11 The good of society may never be put ahead of this. It dishonors God and defeats the good of society. For the good of society, the good of society must not be the primary good.

A practical example of how his mind worked would be the practice of dueling. Wilberforce hated the practice of dueling – the practice that demanded a man of honor to accept a challenge to a duel when another felt insulted. Wilberforce's close friend and Prime Minister, William Pitt, actually fought a duel with George Tierney in 1798, and Wilberforce was shocked that the Prime Minister would risk his life and the nation in this way. 12 Many opposed it on its human unreasonableness. But Wilberforce wrote:

It seems hardly to have been noticed in what chiefly consists its essential guilt; that it is a deliberate preference of the favor of man, before the favor and approbation of God, in articulo mortis ["at the point of death"], in an instance, wherein our own life, and that of a fellow creature are at stake, and wherein we run the risk of rushing into the presence of our Maker in the very act of offending him." 13

In other words, offending God is the essential consideration, not killing a man or imperiling a nation. That is what makes Wilberforce tick. He was not a political pragmatist. He was a radically God-centered Christian who was a politician.

We will come back to how the Christian faith worked in his life and politics, but first let's get a brief glimpse of his life.

His Early Life

Wilberforce was born August 24, 1759, in Hull, England. His father died just before Wilberforce turned 9 years old. He was sent to live with his uncle and aunt, William and Hannah, where he came under evangelical influences. His mother was more high church and was concerned her son was "turning Methodist." She took him out of the boarding school where they had sent him and sent him to another. 14 He had admired Whitefield, Wesley, and John Newton as a child. But at this new school he said later, "I did nothing at all there." And that became his lifestyle through St. John's College at Cambridge. He was rich and able to live off his parents' wealth and get by with little work. He lost any interest in Biblical religion and loved circulating among the social elite.

He became friends with his contemporary William Pitt who in just a few years, at the age of 24, became the Prime Minister of England in 1783. Almost on a lark Wilberforce ran for the seat in the House of Commons from his home town of Hull in 1780 at the age of 21. He spent £8,000 on the election. The money and his incredible gift for speaking triumphed over both his opponents. After that Wilberforce never lost an election till the day of his death just before his 74th birthday. In 1784 he ran for the seat of the much larger and more influential Yorkshire and was elected.

Thus began a fifty-year investment in the politics of England. He began it as a late-night, party-loving, upper-class unbeliever. He was single and would stay that way happily until he was 37 years old. Then he met Barbara on April 15, 1797. He fell immediately in love. In the next eight days he proposed to her and on May 30th they were married, about two weeks after they met – and stayed married until William died 36 years later. In the first eight years of their marriage they had four sons and two daughters. We will come back to William as a family man, because it sheds light on his character and how he endured the political battles of the day.

I've just skipped over the most important thing, his conversion to a deep Christian, evangelical faith. It is a great story of the providence of God pursuing a person through seemingly casual choices. On the long holidays when Parliament was not in session Wilberforce would sometimes travel with friends or family. In the winter of 1784, when he was 25, on an impulse, he invited Isaac Milner, a friend he had known in grammar school, and who was now a tutor in Queens College, Cambridge, to go with him and his mother and sister to the French Riviera. To his amazement Milner turned out to be a convinced Christian without any of the stereotypes that Wilberforce had built up against evangelicals. They talked for hours about the Christian faith.

In another seemingly accidental turn, Wilberforce saw lying in the house where they were staying a copy of Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745). He asked Milner about it, and he said that it was "one of the best books ever written" and suggested they take it along and read it on the way home. 15 Wilberforce later ascribes a huge influence in his conversion to this book. When he arrived home in February 1785 he "had reached intellectual assent to the Biblical view of man, God and Christ." But would not have claimed what he later described as true Christianity. It was all intellectual. He pushed it to the back of his mind and went on with political and social life.

That summer Wilberforce traveled again with Milner and discussed the Greek New Testament for hours. Slowly his "intellectual assent became profound conviction" 16 One of the first manifestations of what he called "the great change" – the conversion – was the contempt he felt for his wealth and the luxury he lived in, especially on these trips between Parliamentary sessions. Seeds were sown almost immediately at the beginning of his Christian life, it seems, of the later passion to help the poor and to turn all his inherited wealth and his naturally high station into a means of blessing the oppressed.

Simplicity and generosity were the mark of his life. He wrote much later after he was married, "By careful management, I should be able to give at least one-quarter of my income to the poor." 17 His sons reported that before he married he was giving away well over a fourth of his income, one year actually giving away £3000 more than he made. He wrote that riches were, "considering them as in themselves, acceptable, but, from the infirmity of [our] nature, as highly dangerous possessions; and [we are to value] them chiefly not as instruments of luxury or splendor, but as affording the means of honoring his heavenly Benefactor, and lessening the miseries of mankind." 18 This was the way his mind worked: everything in politics was for the alleviation misery and the spread of happiness.

By October he was bemoaning the "shapeless idleness" of his past. He was so ashamed of his prior life that he writes with apparent overstatement, "I was filled with sorrow. I am sure that no human creature could suffer more than I did for some months. It seems indeed it quite affected my reason." 19 He was tormented about what his new Christianity meant for his public life. William Pitt tried to talk him out of becoming an Evangelical and argued that this change would "render your talents useless both to yourself and mankind." 20

To resolve the anguish he 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 his colleagues in Parliament. He said that he had "ten thousand doubts" about going to see him, and walked twice around the block before he could get up the courage to knock on his door. To his amazement the sixty year old Newton urged him not to cut himself off from public life and wrote him 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." 21 Just imagine what hung in the balance in that moment of counsel in view of what Wilberforce would accomplish.

The battle and uncertainties lasted on into the new year, but finally a more settled serenity came over him, and on Easter Day, 1786, the politician for Yorkshire took to the fields to pray and give thanks, as he said in a letter to his sister Sally, "amidst the general chorus with which all nature seems on such a morning to be swelling the song of praise and thanksgiving." 22

With this change came a whole new regimen for the use of his months of recess from Parliament. Beginning not long after his conversion and lasting until he was married 11 years later he would now spend his days studying "about nine or ten hours a day," typically "breakfasting alone, taking walks alone, dining with the host family and other guests but not joining them in the evening until he 'came down about three-quarters of an hour before bedtime for what supper I wanted.'" 23 "The Bible became his best-loved book and he learned stretches by heart." 24 He was setting out to recover a lot of ground lost to laziness in college.

The Cause of Abolition

Now we turn to what makes Wilberforce so relevant to this Pastors' Conference, namely, his life-long devotion to the cause of abolishing the African Slave Trade. And then the abolition of slavery itself.

In 1787 Wilberforce wrote a letter in which he estimated that the annual export of slaves from the western coast of Africa for all nations exceeded 100,000. 25 Seventeen years later in 1804 he estimated that 12,000-15,000 human being were enslaved for every year the Guiana trade continued. 26 One year after his conversion God's apparent calling on his life had become clear to him. On October 28, 1787, he wrote in his diary, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [=morals]." 27

Soon after Christmas, 1787, a few days before the recess, Wilberforce gave notice in the House of Commons that early in the new session he would move the abolition of the slave trade. It would be 20 years before he could carry the House of Commons and the House of Lords in putting abolition into law. But the more he studied the matter and the more he heard of the atrocities, the more resolved he became. In May, 1789 he spoke to the House about how he came to his conviction, "I confess to you, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for Abolition. . . . Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition." 28

He embraced the guilt for himself when he said in that same year, "I mean not to accuse anyone but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty – we ought to all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others." 29

In 1793 a supporter thought he was growing soft and cautious in the cause and he wrote, "If I thought the immediate Abolition of the Slave Trade would cause an insurrection in our islands, I should not for an instant remit my most strenuous endeavors. Be persuaded then, I shall still less ever make this grand cause the sport of the caprice, or sacrifice it to motives of political convenience or personal feeling." 30

Three years later, almost ten years after the battle was begun, he wrote:

The grand object of my parliamentary existence [is the abolition of the slave trade]. . . Before this great cause all others dwindle in my eyes, and I must say that the certainty that I am right here, adds greatly to the complacency with which I exert myself in asserting it. If it please God to honor me so far, may I be the instrument of stopping such a course of wickedness and cruelty as never before disgraced a Christian country. 31

Of course the opposition that raged for these 20 years and beyond was that the financial benefits to the traders and to the British as a whole seemed huge because of what the plantations in the West Indies produced. They could not conceive of any way to produce without slave labor. This meant that Wilberforce's life was more than once threatened. When he criticized the credibility of a slave ship captain, Robert Norris, the man became threatening and Wilberforce feared for his life. Short of physical harm there was the painful loss of friends. Some would no longer fight with him, and they were estranged. Then there was the huge political pressure to back down because of the international political ramifications. For example, if Britain really outlawed slavery, the West Indian colonial assemblies threatened to declare independence from Britain and to federate with the United States. These kinds of financial and political arguments held Parliament captive for decades.

But the night – or I should say morning – of victory came in 1807. The moral cause and the political momentum for abolition had finally become irresistible. At one point "the House rose almost to a man and turned towards Wilberforce in a burst of Parliamentary cheers. Suddenly, above the roar of 'Hear, hear,' and quite out of order, three hurrahs echoed and echoed while he sat, head bowed, tears streaming down his face." 32 At 4:00 am, February 24, 1807, the House divided, Ayes, 283, Noes, 16, Majority for the Abolition 267. And on March 25, 1807 the royal assent was declared. One of Wilberforce's friends wrote, "[Wilberforce] attributes it to the immediate interposition of Providence." 33 In that early morning hour Wilberforce turned to his best friend and colleague, Henry Thornton, and said, "Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?"

Of course the battle wasn't over. And Wilberforce fought on 34 until his death 26 years later in 1833. Not only was the implementation of the abolition law controversial and difficult, but all it did was abolish the slave trade, not slavery itself. That became the next major cause, and the decisive vote of victory for that one came on July 26, 1833, only three days before Wilberforce died. Slavery itself was outlawed in the British colonies.

William Cowper wrote a sonnet to celebrate Wilberforce's labor for the slaves which begins with the lines, 35

Thy country, Wilberforce, with just disdain,
Hears thee by cruel men and impious call'd
Fanatic, for thy zeal to loose the enthrall'd
From exile, public sale, and slavery's chain.
Friend of the poor, the wrong'd, the fetter-gall'd,
Fear not lest labor such as thine be vain.

And Wilberforce's friend and sometimes pastor, William Jay, wrote a tribute with this accurate prophecy, "His disinterested, self-denying, laborious, undeclining efforts in this cause of justice and humanity . . . will call down the blessings of millions; and ages yet to come will glory in his memory." 36

His Perseverance

Consider then the remarkable perseverance of this man in the cause of justice. This is what engages me and makes me wonder and long to have a heavy dose of what he had.

There was a ray of hope in 1804 that things might be moving to a success (three years before it actually came), but Wilberforce wrote, "I have been so often disappointed, that I rejoice with trembling and shall scarcely dare to be confident till I actually see the Order in the Gazette." 37 But these repeated defeats of his plans did not defeat him. His adversaries complained, that "Wilberforce jumped up whenever they knocked him down." 38 One of them in particular put it like this: "It is necessary to watch him as he is blessed with a very sufficient quantity of that Enthusiastic spirit, which so far from yielding that it grows more vigorous from blows." 39

When John Wesley was 87 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. . . ." 40 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." 41 In other words, with 15 years to go in the first phase of the battle he knew only a marathon mentality, rather than a sprinter mentality, would prevail in this cause.

Six years later on his 41st birthday as he rededicates himself in 1800, he prays, "Oh Lord, purify my soul from all its stains. Warm my heart with the love of thee, animate my sluggish nature and fix my inconstancy, and volatility, that I may not be weary in well doing," 42 God answered that prayer and the entire Western World may be glad that Wilberforce was granted constancy and perseverance in well doing.


What makes Wilberforce's perseverance through four decades of political perseverance in the single-minded cause of justice so remarkable is not only the length of it but the obstacles that he had to surmount in the battle for abolition, first to the slave trade and then to slavery itself. I have mentioned the massive financial interests on the other side, both personal and national. It seemed utterly unthinkable to the Parliament that they could go without what the plantations of the West Indies provided. Then there was the international politics and how Britain was positioned in relation to the brand new nation, the United States of America, and France and Portugal and Brazil. If one nation, like Britain, unilaterally abolished the slave trade, but not the others, it would simply mean – so the argument ran – that power and wealth would be transmitted to the other nations and Britain would be weakened internationally.

Then there was the public criticism and vicious slander. It is true that when Wilberforce won the first victory over the slave trade in February, 1807 at the age of 47, as John Pollock says, "His achievement brought him a personal moral authority with public and Parliament above any living man." 43 But, as every public person knows, and as Jesus promised, 44 the best of men will be maligned for the best of actions.

On one occasion in 1820, thirteen years after the first victory, he took a very controversial position with regard to Queen Caroline's marital faithfulness and experienced a dramatic public outrage against him. He wrote in his diary July 20, 1820. "What a lesson it is to a man not to set his heart on low popularity when after 40 years disinterested public service, I am believed by the Bulk to be a Hypocritical Rascal. O what a comfort it is to have to fly for refuge to a God of unchangeable truth and love." 45

Probably the severest criticism he ever received was from a slavery-defending adversary named William Cobett, in August of 1823, who turned Wilberforce's commitment to abolition into a moral liability by claiming that Wilberforce pretended to care for slaves from Africa but cared nothing about the "wage slaves" – the wretched poor of England.

You seem to have a great affection for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing Negroes. . . . [But] Never have you done one single act in favor of the laborers of this country [a statement Cobett knew to be false]. . . . You make your appeal in Picadilly, London, amongst those who are wallowing in luxuries, proceeding from the labor of the people. You should have gone to the gravel-pits, and made your appeal to the wretched creatures with bits of sacks around their shoulders, and with hay-bands round their legs; you should have gone to the roadside, and made your appeal to the emaciated, half-dead things who are there cracking stones to make the roads as level as a die for the tax eaters to ride on. What an insult it is, and what an unfeeling, what a cold-blooded hypocrite must he be that can send it forth; what an insult to call upon people under the name of free British laborers; to appeal to them in behalf of Black slaves, when these free British laborers; these poor, mocked, degraded wretches, would be happy to lick the dishes and bowls, out of which the Black slaves have breakfasted, dined, or supped. 46

But far more painful than any of these criticisms were the heartaches of family life. Every leader knows that almost any external burden is bearable if the family is whole and happy. But when the family is torn, all burdens are doubled. Wilberforce and his wife Barbara were very different. "While he was always cheerful, Barbara was often depressed and pessimistic. She finally worried herself into very bad health which lasted the rest of her life." And other women who knew her said she "whined when William was not right beside her." 47

When his oldest William was at Trinity College, Oxford, he fell away from the Christian faith and gave no evidence as Wilberforce wrote in his diary of "the great change." He wrote on January 10, 1819, "O that my poor dear William might be led by thy grace, O God." On March 11 he poured out his grief,

Oh my poor William. How strange he can make so miserable those who love him best and whom really he loves. His soft nature makes him the sport of his companions, and the wicked and idle naturally attach themselves like dust and cleave like burrs. I go to pray for him. Alas, could I love my Savior more and serve him, God would hear my prayer and turn his heart." 48

He got word from Henry Venn that William was not reading for his classes, but was spending his father's allowance foolishly, buying an extra horse. Wilberforce agonized and decided to cut off his allowance, have him suspended from school and put with another family, and not allow him home. "Alas my poor Willm! How sad to be compelled to banish my eldest son." 49 Even when William finally came back to faith, it grieved Wilberforce that three of his sons became very high-church Anglicans with little respect for the dissenting church that Wilberforce, even as an Anglican, loved so much for it evangelical truth and life. 50

On top of this family burden came the death of his daughter Barbara. In the autumn of 1821, at 32, she was diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis). She died five days after Christmas. Wilberforce wrote to a friend, "Oh my dear Friend, it is in such seasons as these that the value of the promises of the Word of God are ascertained both by the dying and the attendant relatives. . . . The assured persuasion of Barbara's happiness has taken away the sting of death." 51 He sounds strong, but the blow shook his remaining strength, and in March of 1822, he wrote to his son, "I am confined by a new malady, the Gout." 52

The word "new" in that letter signals that Wilberforce labored under some other extraordinary physical handicaps that made his long perseverance political life all the more remarkable. He wrote in 1788 that his eyes were so bad "[I can scarcely] see how to direct my pen." The humorous side to this was that "he was often shabbily dressed, according to one friend, and his clothes sometimes were put on crookedly because he never looked into a mirror. Since his eyes were too bad to let him see his image clearly, he doesn't bother to look at all! 53 But in fact, there was little humor in his eye disease. In later years he frequently mentioned the "peculiar complaint of my eyes," that he could not see well enough to read or write during the first hours of the day. "This was a symptom of a slow buildup of morphine poisoning." 54

This ominous assessment was owing to the fact that from 1788 on doctors prescribed daily opium pills to Wilberforce to control the debility of his ulcerative colitis. The medicine was viewed in his day as a "pure drug" and it never occurred to any of his enemies to reproach him for his dependence on opium to control is illness. 55 "Yet effects there must have been," Pollock observes. "Wilberforce certainly grew more untidy, indolent (as he often bemoaned) and absent-minded as his years went on though not yet in old age; it is proof of the strength of his will that he achieved so much under a burden which neither he nor his doctors understood." 56

In 1812 Wilberforce decided to resign his seat in Yorkshire – not to leave politics, but to take a less demanding seat from a smaller county. He gave his reason as the desire to spend more time with his family. The timing was good, because in the next two years, on top of his colon problem and eye problem and emerging lung problem, he developed a curvature of the spine. "One shoulder began to slope; and his head fell forward, a little more each year until it rested on his chest unless lifted by conscious movement: he could have looked grotesque were it not for the charm of his face and the smile which hovered about his mouth." 57 For the rest of his life he wore a brace beneath his clothes that most people knew nothing about. 58

A Key to His Perseverance

What was the key to Wilberforce's perseverance under these kinds of burdens and obstacles? One of the main keys was his child-like, child-loving, self-forgetting joy in Christ. The testimonies and evidence of this are many. A certain Miss Sullivan wrote to a friend about Wilberforce in about 1815: "By the tones of his voice and expression of his countenance he showed that joy was the prevailing feature of his own mind, joy springing from entireness of trust in the Savior's merits and from love to God and man. . . . His joy was quite penetrating." 59

The poet Robert Southey said, "I never saw any other man who seemed to enjoy such a perpetual serenity and sunshine of spirit. In conversing with him, you feel assured that there is no guile in him; that if ever there was a good man and happy man on earth, he was one." 60 In 1881 Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, "Though shattered in constitution and feeble in body he is as lively and animated as in the days of his youth." 61 His sense of humor and delight in all that was good was vigorous and unmistakable. In 1824 John Russell gave a speech in the Commons with such wit that Wilberforce "collapsed in helpless laughter." 62

This playful side made him a favorite of children as they were favorites of his. His best friend's daughter, Marianne Thornton, said that often "Wilberforce would interrupt his serious talks with her father and romp with her in the lawn. 'His love for and enjoyment in all children was remarkable.'" 63 Once, when his own children were playing upstairs and he was frustrated at having misplaced a letter, he heard great din of children shouting. His guest thought he would be perturbed. Instead he got a smile on his face and said, "What a blessing to have these dear children! Only think what a relief, amidst other hurries, to hear their voices and know they are well." 64

He was an unusual father for his day. Most fathers who had the wealth and position he did rarely saw their children. Servants and a governess took care of the children, and they were to be out of sight most of the time. Instead, William insisted on eating as many meals as possible with the children, and he joined in their games. He played marbles and Blindman's Bluff and ran races with them. In the games, the children treated him like one of them. 65

Robert Southey visited the house when all the children were there and wrote that he marveled at "the pell-mell, topsy-turvy and chaotic confusion" of the Wilberforce apartments in which the wife sat like Patience on a monument while her husband "frisks about as if every vein in his body were filled with quicksilver." 66 Another visitor in 1816, Joseph John Gurney, a Quaker, stayed a week with Wilberforce and recalled later, "As he walked about the house he was generally humming the tune of a hymn or Psalm as if he could not contain his pleasurable feelings of thankfulness and devotion." 67

There was in this child-like love of children and joyful freedom from care a deeply healthy self-forgetfulness. Richard Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, wrote after a meeting with Wilberforce, "You have made me so entirely forget you are a great man by seeming to forget it yourself in all our intercourse." 68 The effect of this self-forgetting joy was another mark of mental and spiritual health, namely, a joyful ability to see all the good in the world instead of being consumed by one's own problems (even when those problems are huge). James Stephen recalled after Wilberforce's death, "Being himself amused and interested by everything, whatever he said became amusing or interesting. . . . His presence was as fatal to dullness as to immorality. His mirth was as irresistible as the first laughter of childhood." 69

Here was a great key to his perseverance and effectiveness. His presence was "fatal to dullness and immorality." In other words, his indomitable joy moved others to be good and happy. He sustained himself and swayed others by his joy. If a man can rob you of your joy, he can rob you of your usefulness. Wilberforce's joy was indomitable and therefore he was a compelling Christian and Politician all his life.

Hannah More, his wealthy friend and patron of many of his schemes for doing good, said to him, "I declare I think you are serving God by being yourself agreeable. . . to worldly but well-disposed people, who would never be attracted to religion by grave and severe divines, even if such fell in their way." 70 In fact, I think one of the reasons Wilberforce did not like to use the word "Calvinist," though his doctrines seem to line up with what the Whitefield- and Newton-like Calvinists preached, was this very thing: Calvinists had the reputation of being joyless.

A certain Lord Carrington apparently expressed to Wilberforce his mistrust of joy. Wilberforce responded:

My grand objection to the religious system still held by many who declare themselves orthodox Churchmen. . . 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. 71

Here is a clear statement of Wilberforce's conviction that joy is not optional. It is an "injunction . . . strongly enforced in the New Testament." Or as he says elsewhere, "We can scarcely indeed look into any part of the sacred volume without meeting abundant proofs, that it is the religion of the Affections which God particularly requires. . . . Joy . . . 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." 72

So for Wilberforce joy was both a means of survival and perseverance on the one hand, and a deep act of submission and obedience and worship on the other hand. Joy in Christ was commanded. And joy in Christ was the only way to flourish fruitfully through decades of temporary defeat. "Never were there times," he wrote, "which inculcated more forcibly than those in which we live, the wisdom of seeking happiness beyond the reach of human vicissitudes." 73

The word "seeking" is important. It is not as though Wilberforce succeeded perfectly in "attaining" the fullest measure of joy. There were great battles in the soul as well as in parliament. For example, in March of 1788 after a serious struggle with colitis he seemed to enter into a "dark night of the soul." "Corrupt imaginations are perpetually rising in my mind and innumerable fears close to me in on every side. . . " 74 We get a glimpse of how he fought for joy in these times from what he wrote in his notebook of prayers,

Lord, thou knowest that no strength, wisdom or contrivance of human power can signify, or relieve me. It is in thy power alone to deliver me. I fly to thee for succor and support, O Lord let it come speedily; give me full proof of a thy Almighty power; I am in great troubles, insurmountable by me; but to thee slight and inconsiderable; look upon me O Lord with compassion and mercy, and restore me to rest, quietness, and comfort, in the world, or in another by removing the hence into a state of peace and happiness. Amen. 75

Less devastating than "the dark night" were the recurrent disappointments with his own failures. But even as we read his self-indictments we hear the hope of victory that sustained him and restored him to joy again and again. For example, in January 13, 1798 he wrote in his diary, "Three or four times have I most grievously broke my resolutions since I last took up my pen alas! alas! how miserable a wretch am I! How infatuated, how dead to every better feeling yet – yet – yet – may I, Oh God, be enabled to repent and turn to thee with my whole heart, I am now flying from thee. Thou hast been above all measure gracious and forgiving. . . ." 76 Therefore when we say his happiness was unshakable and undefeatable because it was beyond the reach of human vicissitudes, we don't mean it was beyond struggle; we mean it reasserted itself in and after every tumult in society of in the soul.

The Foundation for Joy

So the last question we ask is: What was it based on? Where did it come from? If his child-like, child-loving, self-forgetting, indomitable joy was a crucial key to his perseverance in the life-long cause of abolition, where is such joy to be found? How can we join him in that kind of joy and that kind of relentless, persevering pursuit of justice?

The main burden of Wilberforce's book, A Practical View of Christianity, is to show that true Christianity, which consists in these new, indomitable spiritual affections for Christ, is rooted in the great doctrines of the Bible about Sin and Christ and Faith. "Let him then who would abound and grow in this Christian principle, be much conversant with the great doctrines of the Gospel." 77 More specifically, he says:

If we would . . . rejoice in [Christ] as triumphantly as the first Christians did; we must learn, like them to repose our entire trust in him and to adopt the language of the apostle, 'God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ' [Galatians 6:14], "who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" [1 Corinthians 1:30]. 78

In other words, the joy that triumphs over all obstacles and perseveres to the end in the battle for justice is rooted most centrally in the doctrine of justification by faith. Wilberforce says that all the spiritual and practical errors of the nominal Christians of his age – the lack of true religious affections and moral reformation –result from the mistaken conception entertained of the fundamental principles of Christianity. They consider not that Christianity is scheme "for justifying the ungodly" [Romans 4:5], by Christ's dying for them "when yet sinners" [Romans 5:6-8], a scheme "for reconciling us to God – when enemies [Romans 5:10]; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled. 79

From the beginning of his Christian life in 1785 until he died in 1833 Wilberforce lived off the "great doctrines of the gospel," especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone based on the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is where he fed his joy. And the joy of the Lord became his strength (Nehemiah 8:10). And in this strength he pressed on in the cause of abolishing the slave trade until he had the victory.

Therefore, in all zeal for racial harmony and the rebuilding of white evangelical and black culture let us not forget these lessons: Never minimize the central place of God-centered, Christ-exalting doctrine; labor to be indomitably joyful in all that God is for us in Christ by trusting his great finished work; and never be idle in doing good – that men may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Hears thee by cruel men and impious call'd

Fanatic, for thy zeal to loose the enthrall'd

From exile, public sale, and slavery's chain.

Friend of the poor, the wrong'd, the fetter-gall'd,

Fear not lest labor such as thine be vain.

Thou hast achieved a part: hast gained the ear

Of Britain's senate to thy glorious cause;

Hope smiles, joy springs; and though cold Caution pause,

And weave delay, the better hour is near

That shall remunerate thy toils severe,

By peace for Afric, fenced with British laws.

Enjoy what thou has won, esteem and love

From all the Just on earth, and all the Blest above.

  1. William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, ed. by Kevin Charles Belmonte (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), p. 211. 

  2. John Pollock, Wilberforce (London: Constable and Company, 1977), p. 223. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, p. 90. 

  5. "The grand radical defect in the practical system of these nominal Christians, is their forgetfulness of all the peculiar doctrines of the Religion which they profess – the corruption of human nature – the atonement of the Savior – the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit." Ibid. pp. 162-163. 

  6. His favorite word for the majority of nominal Christians in Britain in his day. 

  7. Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, p. 198. 

  8. Ibid. p. 70. 

  9. Ibid. p. 147. 

  10. Ibid. p. 149. 

  11. Ibid. p. 81. 

  12. Pollock, Wilberforce, p. 162. 

  13. Wilberforce, Real Christianity, p. 115- 116. 

  14. Pollock, Wilberforce, p. 5. 

  15. Ibid, p. 34. 

  16. Ibid, p. 37. 

  17. Betty Steele Everett, Freedom Fighter: The Story of William Wilberforce (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1994), p. 68. 

  18. Wilberforce, Real Christianity, p. 113. 

  19. Pollock, Wilberforce, p. 37. 

  20. Ibid, p. 38. 

  21. Ibid

  22. Ibid. p. 39. 

  23. Ibid. p. 43. 

  24. Ibid. p. 44. 

  25. Ibid. p. 72 

  26. Ibid. p. 191. 

  27. Ibid. p. 69. 

  28. Ibid. p. 56. 

  29. Ibid. p. 89. 

  30. Ibid. p. 123. 

  31. Ibid. p. 143. 

  32. Ibid. p. 211. 

  33. Ibid. p. 212. 

  34. In 1823 Wilberforce wrote a 56-page booklet, "Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies." Ibid. p. 285. 

  35. Thy country, Wilberforce, with just disdain, 

  36. William Jay, The Autobiography of William Jay, edited by George Redford and John Angell James (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974, original, 1854), p. 315. 

  37. Pollock, Wilberforce, p. 189. 

  38. Ibid. p. 123. 

  39. Ibid. p. 105. 

  40. Ibid

  41. Ibid. p. 116. 

  42. Ibid. p. 179. 

  43. Ibid. p. 215. Wilberforce's own assessment of the resulting moral authority was this (written in a letter March 3, 1807): "The authority which the great principles of justice and humanity have received will be productive of benefit in all shapes and directions." 

  44. Matthew 10:25, "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household." 

  45. Pollock, Wilberforce, p. 276. 

  46. Ibid. p. 287. 

  47. Everett, Freedom Fighter, pp. 64-65. 

  48. Pollock, Wilberforce, p. 267. 

  49. Ibid. p. 268. From the diary, April 11, 1819. 

  50. The official biography written by his sons is defective in portraying Wilberforce in a false light as opposed to dissenters, when in fact some of his best friends and spiritual counselors were among their number. After Wilberforce's death three of his sons became Roman Catholic. 

  51. Ibid. p. 280. 

  52. Ibid

  53. Everett, Freedom Fighter, p. 69. 

  54. Ibid. p. 81. 

  55. Ibid. See pp. 79-81 for a full discussion of the place of opium in his life and culture. "Wilberforce resisted the craving and only raised his dosage suddenly when there were severe bowel complaints. In April 1818, 30 years after the first prescription, Wilberforce noted in his diary that his do this 'it's still as it has long been', a pill three times a day (after breakfast, after tea, and bedtime) each of four grains. Twelve grains daily is a good but not outstanding dose and very far from addiction after such a length of time." 

  56. Ibid. p. 81. 

  57. Ibid. p. 234. 

  58. "He was obliged to wear 'a steel girdle cased in leather and an additional part to support the arms. . . . It must be handled carefully, the steel being so elastic as to be easily broken.' He took a spare one ('wrapped up for decency's sake in a towel') wherever he stayed; the fact that he lived in a steel frame for his last 15 or 18 years might have remained unknown had he not left behind at the Lord Calthorpe's Suffolk home, Ampton Hall, the more comfortable of the two. 'How gracious is God,' Wilberforce remarked in the letter asking for its return, 'in giving us such mitigations is and helps for our infirmities.'" Ibid. pp. 233-234. 

  59. Ibid. p. 152. 

  60. Jay, The Autobiography of William Jay, p. 317. 

  61. Pollock, Wilberforce, p. 267. 

  62. Ibid. p. 289 

  63. Ibid. p. 183. 

  64. Ibid. p. 232. 

  65. Everett, Freedom Fighter, p. 70. 

  66. Pollock, Wilberforce, p. 267. 

  67. Ibid. p. 261. 

  68. Ibid. p. 236. 

  69. Ibid. p. 185. 

  70. Ibid. p. 119. 

  71. Ibid. p. 46. 

  72. Ibid. pp. 45-46. 

  73. Ibid. p. 239. 

  74. Ibid. p. 82. 

  75. Ibid. pp. 81-82. 

  76. Ibid. p. 150. He confesses again after a sarcastic rejoinder in the Commons, "In what a fermentation of spirits was I on the night of answering Courtenay. How jealous of character and greedy of applause. Alas, alas! Create in me a clean heat O God and renew our right spirit within me" (p. 167). 

  77. Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, p. 170. 

  78. Ibid. p. 66. 

  79. Ibid. p. 64.