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William Wilberforce, not a household name in America, was British-born and lived his life in England.
Wilberforce was a remarkable man. He was a man who had a few outstanding gifts. One of those was that he was an accomplished speaker. He worked at improving it diligently, indefatigably, for many years. In fact, his work ethic would put most anybody I know to shame. For example, he made a chart of each hour of every day, and broke it down in quarter-hour segments. He indicated in these quarter-hour segments on the chart the time he spent in the Word of God; the time he spent in prayer; the time he spent reading; and the time he spent working toward the great goal he had felt called in his life to achieve, which was to end the slave trade.
When he was converted, one of the first things he did was go to his tailor. He told the tailor he wanted to double the number of pockets in his coats. I think he had eight pockets put in each of his coats. He wanted more pockets in his coats so he could carry more books with him, because he felt it was important to redeem every minute in study and in work for the kingdom of God.
Wilberforce worked at learning how to speak. Already gifted in that direction, he worked on his declamation every day. It was not unusual for many of the greats of the 18th and 19th centuries, both in America and Great Britain and other places, to stand before a mirror where they would speak for hours, leaning how to improve their speaking. That is called declamation. This is how he learned to speak more eloquently.
“William Wilberforce was a great man, a giant of a man.” Yet in appearance, he was four feet, eleven inches; he was slightly hunchbacked; his head was always down on his chest and turned slightly to one side. That was William Wilberforce, who changed the world. One day, when he was running for Parliament, the people couldn’t see him, so somebody set him up on a table. A reporter watching it said, “They put a shrimp up on the table. But as I watched and listened to him, he turned into a whale, a giant of a man.”
Wilberforce had a face that was cherubic, beautiful eyes, a most winsome voice, and a huge, caring heart. However, he wasn’t always that way. He was blessed. His grandfather left him a fortune; his uncle left him another one. He was one of the wealthiest people in England. He hobnobbed in his younger years with all of the greats. He was an intimate friend of the prime minister and with earls and knights, and was very much desired in all kinds of social activities. He was not a Christian, though he was an Anglican at the time. Religion meant nothing to him, really, and as was the case, there was great nominalism in the Church of England at that time.
Born in 1759, Wilberforce was very worldly, charming, witty—a friendly kind of young man. When he was about 25, his mother said that she would like to spend the summer on a tour of Europe. Wilberforce decided to go along and invited one of his old school teachers by the name of Isaac Milner to go with him. Milner, a Christian, suggested to Wilberforce that they read Philip Doddridge’s wonderful devotional classic called The Rise and Progress of Religion as their carriage wended its way through the countries of Europe. This had a big impact on Wilberforce, and he thought about becoming a Christian, but he said if he did, he feared he would lose all of his invitations to the best parties in England—so he decided against it.
The following summer he decided to take another trip by himself without his mother, who watched over him very carefully, because she was concerned for his well being. She did not want him to become too religious—for similar reasons, no doubt, because of his standing in the elite community of Great Britain.
He did invite Isaac Milner to go again with him. This time Milner decided that they would read the Bible on their trip across the continent. Of course, they would read the Greek New Testament, as every reasonably well-educated Englishmen at the time could do. So, they were going along reading the Bible—and the very Word of God pierced this young man’s heart, and he was converted to Christ.
When Wilberforce returned home, his transformed life caused great shock. His friends said that he had lost his mind, he had become mad, and he was melancholy. That was the rumor, but when they saw him, he was the least melancholy man they had ever seen in their lives. Instead, he was filled with joy and also was even more considerate and compassionate and loving. In fact, he was seen to be the most compassionate and loving man in all of England. The people were curious of what had happened to him.
Elected to Parliament at age 21, Wilberforce decided that now that he was a Christian, he should resign his position and do something less secular, more religious—until he shared his feelings with his friend William Pitt. At the time, Pitt and Wilberforce had begun their crusade in Parliament to abolish the slave trade, so he asked Wilberforce if he wanted to preach or if he wanted to change the world?
Conflicted now with the challenge Pitt had offered him, Wilberforce decided to go see John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship that brought slaves from the west coast of Africa to America and to England. When Wilberforce lived with his evangelical relatives, his uncle and aunt, the senior William Wilberforce and his wife Hannah, he had heard Newton tell the stories of how he was converted during a great storm at sea, and had accepted Christ. He became a wonderful minister and the writer of the great hymn Amazing Grace, probably the most popular Christian hymn in the entire world. “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”
Newton told him, “Do not leave your position in Parliament. You would be deserting the calling that God has called you to.” So he decided not to resign his position.
Wilberforce decided he would give his life to the cause of ending slavery in Great Britain. Aware that Great Britian was not ready to abolish slavery, he knew the first step was to abolish the slave trade . . . after that the emancipation of the slaves throughout the British Colonies. Keep in mind that the British Colonies were a kingdom that the sun never set upon. It extended all over the world, from England all the way across to Canada and America, over into the Orient, and the lands over there—Hong Kong and others—down into the South seas, over to South America, to Central America and all of Africa. The British Empire was huge, and there were many millions of slaves, but there was not hardly a part of English business that wasn’t wrapped around slavery in some way or another. Wilberforce was determined to end it.
He decided he would give a talk, and he spent two years studying and preparing to give that talk. When he finally stood up in Parliament to speak, he spoke for four and a half hours, and introduced a bill to end the slave trade in Great Britain. Although the bill was soundly defeated, he did not give up.
He came back the next year, gave another speech, made the motion again, and again it was defeated; next year, defeated; the next year, defeated. He skipped a year, then came back the following year, and gave another speech, and another and another and another—for two decades! Finally, the bill was passed and the British slave trade ended.
But that was only half of his goal. His goal was to end slavery in all of the British colonies, so he set himself to that. He continued his battle, which was to last another 25 years. Now an elderly man, he continued to pray and work, for there were still hundreds of thousands of slaves throughout the British Empire and beyond.
As Wilberforce aged, he continued to persist: every year a speech, every year another vote, every year defeat. Finally, he was unable to continue for health reasons, and he retired to his home in London. While he was struggling with what would be his final illness, a great discussion of the subject of slavery was once again before the House of Commons. A motion was made to end slavery in all of the colonies of Great Britain around the world; the vote was cast; the motion passed.
There was a great outcry of joy among all of those who had worked with Wilberforce for so long to end slavery. They sent a runner to Wilberforce’s home to tell him before he died that at last his great cause had been won. Of course, he rejoiced in the Lord that this had happened and that a lifetime of effort had succeeded.
Let me point out to you that Great Britain ended slavery without a civil war, due to his tremendous drive and commitment to a totally unpopular cause. In England, slavery wasn’t unpopular in one-half of the country and popular in the other half—it was popular everywhere. There was hardly a businessman in England that didn’t have some way of making money off of slavery, and so it was resisted everywhere. In spite of that, they never had a civil war, and slavery ended.
Seven hundred thousand slaves were manumitted when that decision was made in the British Parliament. They were released from their chains; they were delivered from their slavery by the efforts of a little man that people compared to a “shrimp.” That took place not too many years before the shot was heard at Fort Sumter, and the Civil War began in America. It took a war in this country to bring an end to slavery.
When Wilberforce died, his body was interred at Westminster Abbey. There he was buried with the greats of that nation.
Only Christ can set the prisoner free. I don’t know about you, but I have given my life, thus far, to trying to bring about the remission of sin and the deliverance from the chains and tyranny of it.
This is one phase of that effort. We have ten ministries, and the Center for Christian Statesmanship is just one phase of that, which involves, also, getting the government out of the way. I don’t think the government can save anyone. However, I do believe the government can get out of the way and let the Church be the Church in all of America.
There are those that have been working assiduously to remove the influence of Christ from the public square in every way they can. What we hope will happen as our government becomes more amenable to the great virtues that made this country, the nation that we know and love, is that there will be a great revival in this country and that increasing numbers of people will be saved. We can talk about the ills of this country, and I often have—so have you—and there are many. They are on the surface to see; they are on the front pages of the newspaper daily. What you don’t see is that beneath the surface, there is something going on. There is a great increase in the number of real Christians in America.
Wilberforce wrote a book that contrasted the nominal Christianity of the day with real Christianity, and it was published in 20 editions! That was back in the 1700s. His book Real Christianity is still being published today.
Editor’s note: This is the abridged sermon, as delivered by Dr. D. James Kennedy at the Center for Christian Statesmanship’s Tenth Anniversary Gala, September 28, 2005. Reprinted by permission. © 2005 D. James Kennedy