“Men of authority and influence may promote good morals. Let them in their several stations encourage virtue . . . let them favor and take part in any plans which may be formed for the advancement of morality.”
– William Wilberforce
On this week that marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wilberforce, it is fitting to reflect on his legacy. In so doing it is obvious that we would think of his tireless work to end the slave trade and eventually abolish slavery altogether. While those achievements are herculean in their scope and impact, I believe we do Wilberforce a disservice by not putting his legacy into context. Was he just a great emancipator or was there more to this consummate politician?
To answer this question requires a deeper look into Wilberforce’s thoughts and reflections on faith. Wilberforce was not just a devoutly religious man. His devotion was not to a nebulous, transcendent God but to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his magnum opus, “A Practical View of Christianity,” Wilberforce laid out the Biblical and moral grounds for all of the great social works that marked his political career. He made it clear that these works were not mere benevolence but an act of worship and obedience to a holy God. He also made it clear that these works were in and of themselves not the gospel of Jesus Christ but a natural result of the belief and working out of that gospel. Wilberforce would have been the first to say that doing good works cannot save anyone only faith in Christ can accomplish that. He would also add, however, that it is a mighty poor adherent to Christ who does not show Christ’s compassion to his fellow-man in need. Such was the strength and character of the 19th century reformer.
Another aspect to Wilberforce’s legacy that we should note is that he was a politician at heart. To label someone a politician in modern vernacular is tantamount to an insult. Yet when we examine the style of politics that Wilberforce practiced we see something entirely different. This was of course shaped and molded by his faith but it demonstrates a point that many modern politicians have forgotten and that is that politics is service. Wilberforce saw himself a servant of the people and he did what he did to benefit them and not to consolidate power or enrich himself. The proof of this is in his philanthropy. By the time he retired from political life, he had all but exhausted his personal wealth giving to the needs of the poor at home and abroad. To Wilberforce, politics was not a dirty game but a vocation and a calling to call the moral conscience of the culture to account and to enact the change needed to remedy the ills of society.
Wilberforce will always be remembered for his abolition of slavery and rightfully so. When we think of him, however, lets also remember his commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his tireless service of others. What was Wilberforce’s end game? To answer this question you need only read the gospel of Matthew 22:37-39:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”