"Let true Christians, then, with becoming earnestness, strive in all things to recommend their profession, and to put to silence the vain scoffs of ignorant objectors. Let them boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many who bear the name of Christians are ashamed of Him. And let them consider as devolved on them the important duty of suspending for a while the fall of their country, and perhaps of performing a still more extensive service to society at large, not by busy interference in politics, in which it cannot but be confessed there is much uncertainty, but rather by that sure and radical benefit of restoring the influence of religion and of raising the standard of morality."
There are very few human beings who can be said to have radically affected the course of history. There are fewer still who have affected it positively, and only a handful who have changed the world through Christ. William Wilberforce is one of a select group, but he did not start out that way.
In his early years, Wilberforce gave scant evidence of such a destiny. Born into a prosperous family in Hull, England in 1759, Wilberforce eventually graduated from Cambridge with a reputation as a clever, brash elitist. Immediately after graduation, at the age of twenty-one, he ran for a seat in Parliament and won.
Euphorically arriving in London, Wilberforce became a quick favorite at banquets, private clubs, and society functions. He lived for debating, drinking, dancing, gambling---wrapped up in whatever relationships might advance his political goals. An outgoing conversationalist, Wilberforce was infatuated with the sound of his own voice. But unlike some talkers, he was so witty and entertaining, most people liked the sound of it too. This resulted in a politician who was vain, narcissistic, and selfishly ambitious.
In 1784, his best friend from Cambridge, William Pitt was elected prime minister. Already a member of Parliament, Wilberforce decided to run for election in Yorkshire, the largest and most influential constituency in Britain. The campaign was grueling and the outcome was uncertain until Wilberforce addressed a large crowd in a miserable rain. One prominent onlooker stated that “at first the five-foot politician looked like a shrimp; but as he spoke, he grew in listeners' eyes until the shrimp became a whale.”2 He won the election.
The Shaping of a Christian Dynamo
Following his victory, Wilberforce joined his mother and several family members for a tour of the Continent. Impulsively, he invited his old schoolmaster, Isaac Milner, to join them. The vacation was a pivotal point in Wilberforce's life. He and Milner began debating religion, and Milner challenged him to begin reading his Bible. This Wilberforce did until the next year when he again invited Milner on a tour. During this vacation, to the irritation of others in their party, the two studied a Greek New Testament voraciously.
Wilberforce's life was never the same after that. He handed over his achievements, ambitions, friendships, future---everything became the property of Jesus Christ. He wrestled with the decision of whether he should now leave politics for some more spiritual profession, but John Newton, the old slave trader turned preacher, encouraged him to follow Christ but not to abandon public office.
"The Lord has raised you up," wrote Newton, "to the good of His church and for the good of the nation."3 Soon after this, the young politician wrote in his journal that Almighty God had set before him two great life objectives---the abolition of the slave trade in Britain and the reformation of morals.
Wilberforce married late and his wife was more the doting mother than a skilled hostess or great conversationalist. Some said he should have married a more suitable partner---one who could have complemented him as a statesman and politician. But he always loved his wife and accepted her for who she was.
A snapshot of the family on a typical morning reflects some characteristics of Wilberforce's family life. Breakfast is often mass confusion as the children scurry about, grabbing what food they can. A number of guests show up on this morning, and Wilberforce welcomes each warmly. They are all attempting to carry on a conversation, voices raised almost to a shout. In the middle of the ruckus sits Mrs. Wilberforce, appearing upset but trying valiantly to retain her composure.
A servant rushes about, but seems uncertain and disoriented. Another affectionately jokes with the children, happily oblivious to the guests' needs. One attendant is very old and can hardly drag herself around. She is a family acquaintance whose only income is derived from her attempts at working for the Wilberforces. A poorly dressed, sloppily groomed man stands patiently at the door, waiting in case his master needs a carriage ride after breakfast. (Wilberforce paid the man's way out of debtor's prison).
Thus, it is obvious why this ungainly staff is so fiercely loyal to their master. Though observers have advised Wilberforce to fire the whole bunch and hire a group of efficient staff, this would be alien to his nature.
As the lively breakfast conversation settles to a dull roar, several of the children grab Wilberforce and immediately he is out on the expansive lawn running foot races with them. It is difficult to understand how he manages it---underneath his clothing he wears a heavy metal brace to support a weak, twisted back. Wilberforce is learning to live the Christian life hilariously. But underneath the hilarity is a whirlwind of spiritual motivation that will sweep up a nation in its enthusiasm.
All around him, Wilberforce saw a British people who were known for their rudeness, coarseness, brutality, and ever-expanding greed. The British empire stretched far and wide, but her wealth and power came at a great moral price. Abuses such as the slave trade and the bloody subduing of uprisings marked England's foreign policy. At home, ridiculously brutal judicial penalties, crushing child labor laws, and a murderous penal system reflected the hardened lifestyles of the nation's leaders.
Wilberforce began writing down his deepening convictions about holy living. During a six-week recess from politics in 1797 he completed a book with the very long title: A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity.
The publisher was quite skeptical about the sales potential of such a book. To humor Wilberforce he agreed on a first print run of 500 copies.
In a few days it was sold out. By 1826 fifteen editions had been published in England and twenty-five in America. Foreign editions in French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and German hit the streets. Thousands claimed their lives were changed as they read a message as old as time and heard a powerful politician espouse a humble, holy lifestyle that was as rare as could be in "Christian" Britain.
Gathering a Godly Nucleus
Throughout his career, Wilberforce sought after projects that would have the most permanent and far-reaching results for the kingdom of God. However, it can never be said that Wilberforce was a lone ranger.
William Wilberforce achieved much, but it was almost always in concert with others. He and his partners were called the Saints---first in derision, eventually in praise.
Henry Thornton, a wealthy banker, bought a large home in Clapham called the Battersea Rise house. Clapham was a small quiet village near London---an ideal location. In 1792, he suggested that Wilberforce, a close friend, come to live there and Wilberforce moved into the large estate.
A multi-talented group of friends gradually joined them in Clapham. Granville Sharp, who won in court a case to free slaves within Britain, lived in the neighborhood. Zachary Macauley, a slave-overseer and estate manager before his conversion, settled close by. John Shore, later Lord Teignmouth, joined them after his retirement from the Governorship of India. And James Stephen, a skilled lawyer and eventually Wilberforce's brother-in-law, lived across the green.
Several others were included in the intimate fellowship who did not actually live in Clapham. These included Thomas Babington, Zachary Macauley's brother-in-law, and Hannah More, well-known poet and playwright.
These friends were welcome to show up at one another's homes uninvited. They enjoyed meals together and constant chatter late into the night. Thornton's library became the comfortable site of countless planning sessions, both for personal matters and for public causes. The meetings became known as cabinet councils, and amazing things were accomplished for the kingdom of God as a result of these times.
The group did not always agree on matters even of biblical doctrine, but they were able to look past their differences to the decisions of the majority or what would be best for others. Most members were somewhat affluent and held influential positions. However, they were not pretentious and their personal weaknesses weren't hidden---they sometimes even gently opposed one another's habits or policies. Following one such rebuke, Wilberforce said, "Go on, dear sir, and welcome. I wish not to abate anything of the force or frankness of your [criticisms]. Openness is the only foundation and preservative of friendship." 4
These men and their families learned how to get along with one another as well as with individuals of many backgrounds and dispositions. Getting to know people and influencing them toward right thinking was their business, and they brought formidable skills to the table. Between them, they possessed encyclopedic knowledge, a capacity for research, literary style and ability, business know-how, legal experience, oratory and parliamentary skill, and first-hand awareness of happenings in the British empire.
Unleashing the Clapham Saints
As stated earlier, one of the great life goals of Wilberforce was the abolishment of the slave trade. He had been outraged by pamphlets revealing the capture and treatment of slaves as written by clergyman, Thomas Clarkson. But the trade was an enormous money maker for the British empire. Beginning in about 1713, British ships had transported blacks as slaves across the Atlantic. In 1771 alone it was reckoned that 50,000 slaves were carried in British ships alone. As many as 40% of the slaves died in passage.
Beginning in 1787, Wilberforce and company began building their case against slavery. Granville Sharp devoted his tenacious legal mind to the problem. Reverend Thomas Clarkson conducted several exhausting and dangerous treks to the African coast to gather first-hand evidence about the slave trade. Zachary Macaulay searched through the mounds of evidence, organizing the facts which would indict the traders. He became such a walking encyclopedia that when his friends needed information they'd jokingly tell each other to "look it up in Macaulay."5 James Stephen, the fiery West Indian who had seen slavery first-hand, also added his passion to the battle.
In 1788, while Wilberforce was seriously ill, his friend Prime Minister Pitt introduced a resolution to discuss abolition in Parliament. The paltry result of this was a bill passed to regulate the number of slaves that could be transported per ship.
In 1789 and -90 Wilberforce and his friends spent up to ten hours per day working on their case. In 1791 they presented a bill in Parliament against the trade. It was a bitter two-day fight. Members shouted each other down mercilessly and when the vote was cast, commerce won the day. Britain retained the lucrative slave trade.
At this point, others joined Wilberforce, including Henry Thornton, Thomas Babington, writer Hannah More, and a gifted orator named Thomas Gisborne. Realizing they were highly opposed by "special interest" parliamentarians, the group decided to take their argument to the British people. The abolitionists handed out thousands of leaflets describing the evils of slavery, they spoke at public meetings, circulated petitions, wrote letters, and organized a boycott of slave-harvested sugar.
In 1792 a bill for the curtailment of slavery was passed, but the motion was qualified by the word "gradually", thus postponing indefinitely any clear action. The opposition had won again.
At this point, Britain was distracted by the French Revolution...then a war with France. Almost every year Wilberforce introduced motions for abolition and every year Parliament threw them out. In the meantime, the little group founded a colony called Sierra Leone where freed slaves could live and work. Though the colony struggled, the Clapham group made every effort to help it succeed. Zachary Macauley brought several sons of Sierra Leone chiefs home to visit England, and the children of the Saints played freely with them in a day when black children were not permitted to mix with white.
Prime Minister Pitt died in 1805. William Grenville, his successor, was a strong abolitionist. After discussing the issue with Wilberforce, Grenville reversed the usual pattern and introduced the abolition bill in the House of Lords first. After a month of bitter, emotional wrangling, the bill passed at 4 A.M. on the morning of February 4, 1807.
It then went on to the House of Commons. On the night of its second reading, politicians were unusually stirred. Individuals began rising to their feet, praising the decades-long struggle against the slave trade. The entire House stood, cheering and applauding Wilberforce. Realizing the long battle was finally over, Wilberforce bent over in his chair, his head cradled in his hands, the tears coming so fast he couldn't even acknowledge the cheers.
In the Thornton's library, the Saints celebrated together far into the night. The thousands of hours of crushing labor had paid off. Working together, they had been able to overcome one of the most powerful special interest groups in Britain.
But their work wasn't over. Next came an eighteen-year battle for the total emancipation of slaves. Wilberforce continued to lead the cause until 1825 when he resigned because of failing health. The bill finally passed in 1833, and within a week afterward, Wilberforce passed away.
A Litany of Lifesaving Reforms
During Wilberforce's lifetime, the abolition issue was only one of many the Clapham Saints joined together to accomplish. At this time, India was a British province with a culture that was quite cruel in some ways. Indian widows were burned on their husband's funeral pyres, unwanted daughters were objects of brutality, and the caste system resulted in human horror stories. Many British leaders in India lived without integrity and profited at the expense of the nationals. One elderly Englishman kept sixteen Indian mistresses simultaneously. In light of such circumstances, it is not surprising that parliamentary opposition to the introduction of Christian missionaries was fierce.
Wilberforce was appalled at the exclusion of missionaries by the East India Company. He stated that, next to the slave trade, this was the foulest blot on the moral character of Britishers, and he and his friends were determined to open the country of India to Christian missionaries. Charles Grant, one of Wilberforce's Saints, accepted an appointment as Director of the East India Company. He had worked there before as immorally as many other British leaders of the time. However, after losing his two sons within nine days from fever, he had been converted. John Shore was also persuaded to return to India as Governor-General. Though both set an example of moral integrity, neither was able to accomplish much regarding Britain's closed door policy regarding missionaries.
With an eighteen month deadline, the Saints in England decided that they would fight to change national policy from the inside. Immediately they kicked into active mode.
Macaulay began drafting a series of leaflets to publicize the situation. Babington organized hundreds of petitions. Grant prepared what were called Observations to be presented to Parliament. Shore returned from India to furnish evidence to the Lords of the need for missionary work. Wilberforce interviewed Perceval, the evangelically minded Prime Minister, and engaged in a series of political breakfasts and a letter-writing campaign.
Then disaster hit; Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated. Without his support, the cause went down to defeat in 1813. Never willing to acquiesce, the men of Clapham pushed the petitions with such fervency that soon 1,837 petitions bearing over half a million signatures were ready.
In the Parliamentary debate to follow, ten of Wilberforce's allies spoke. Then Wilberforce rose to speak---for three full hours. But instead of being put to sleep, the House members were awakened, then enthralled and finally convinced. They voted to guarantee the liberty of the propagation of the Christian faith in India.
The group also intervened on behalf of the victims of the Napoleonic Wars, the Greeks then fighting for freedom, the North American Indians, the Haitians, and the Hottentots...
On the home front, they campaigned against the work hazards of chimney sweeps, investigated conditions in the coal mines, and emphasized the need to improve the condition and shorten the hours of children laboring in the cotton mills. They organized the Society for the Education of Africans, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, and the Society for the Relief of Debtors, and they contributed much strategically placed money toward these causes. They participated in prison reform; and, during the war with France, they assisted war widows and needy sailors. Besides these things, they founded both the Church Missionary Society and the British and Foreign Bible Society.
The British Bible Society was founded in 1804. In 1802 a great need for Welsh Bibles in Wales developed. The Society for Promoting Bible Knowledge and the Religious Tract Society were both more than willing to help, but their fund-raising ability was far too low. Joseph Hughes, the secretary of the Tract Society, suggested that an organization be formed for the purpose of distributing Bibles, not only for the people of Wales but for those of other areas. The wheels churned slowly as the idea took hold.
Early in 1803, the Tract Society decided to seek the interest and support of Wilberforce and his friends regarding their idea. Later on that year, Wilberforce and Charles Grant breakfasted with Hughes, and they promised to talk to the other Clapham Saints about the possibility of a Bible Society.
Finally on March 7, 1804, with Wilberforce's group solidly behind the project, the British and Foreign Bible Society was born. Lord Teignmouth (John Shore) agreed to become the first president, Granville Sharp the chairman of the committee, and Henry Thornton the treasurer. Zachary Macauley, James Stephen, Thomas Babington, and Charles Grant were founding members and joined other men selected for the committee. Wilberforce took a back seat in this venture, though he supported it in many ways.
As these men worked together, relying completely on God for success, incredible things began to happen. Only eighteen years later 3,500,000 Bibles had been circulated to various countries. Less than forty years after this, the Bible budget of the Society was a whopping 167,000 pounds. By 1945, Bibles had been printed into more than 760 languages and dialects.
John Patten summarized well the legacy of Wilberforce and his Saints. "Are we then to say that the Clapham community is merely a relic of the past, the lovely memory of a vanished day? Even if it were only that, it would become us to salute it for its splendid faith and its gallant onslaught upon evil. But it is more than a memory---it is inspiration. Everything authentic is timeless, and the genuineness of that community keeps it fresh and stimulating. As we consider that company of men, the spirit in which they worked and what they achieved, we may stumble upon the secret of their power."6
Implications for Today's Christian Leaders
1. We know the secret of the power of the Clapham leaders. It was the power the Apostle Paul spoke of when he explained that Christ's grace was more than sufficient because it shows its powerful perfection in our weakness. The great apostle went on to claim that he was “well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when he was humanly weak, he depended on God’s power that much more.” 7
Wilberforce lived in poor health throughout most of his career. Besides a digestive system a doctor described as weak as calico, he also suffered with a spinal deformation which required the constant wearing of a heavy metal brace. Yet he wouldn't allow these things to cripple his ministry.
Every one of Wilberforce's group suffered from weaknesses or struggles of one type or another. Besides this, there was the enormous emotional stress of fighting year after year, decade after decade, for causes that appeared utterly hopeless. Their complete dependence upon God was remarkable, and God responded by enabling them to change the course of history.
2. Throughout history, it is true that God has accomplished things through individuals, but in most cases even the individuals were a part of a small core of people who either worked with them, prayed for them, supported them, or held them accountable. It was often when people felt completely alone that discouragement closed in or they failed morally---we recall Job and his accusing friends; David by himself on the rooftop, Samson and the Philistines, Elijah fleeing from Jezebel, Jonah and Nineveh---all went through times of depression or failing during times of being or feeling alone.
On the other hand, Moses had Aaron, Joshua, Miriam, and others; Elijah had his small school of prophets; David had Nathan and his close advisers, Paul had Barnabas, Timothy, Silas, Luke and other partners, even Jesus had the Twelve.
• Considering more recent eras, the Cambridge Seven were young British university students who built each other up for great effectiveness as missionaries throughout the world.
• During a rainstorm in 1806 a small group of young men in Massachusetts met under a haystack for a prayer meeting. This resulted in a commitment to foreign missions that eventually led all of them to India as missionaries.
• The “Auca Five” gave up their lives trying to spread the gospel to the Auca tribe in South America.
• C.S. Lewis and several other Christian writers formed a potent group [the Inklings] whose writings are still considered spiritual classics.
The list goes on and on... These were all leaders who joined together for effectiveness.
3. Why can a small group of Christians be so effective?
A) Sometimes it takes too much time and effort for leaders to mobilize a large group or a whole church body, and if there are disgruntled or procrastinating members progress can easily grind to a halt. Small groups can gather individuals whose character and capabilities are known. They can also tailor a group whose ministry passion and goals are similar. Wilberforce's group was incredibly effective because each one complemented the others and they were mutually devoted to pouring themselves into the vital missions they felt called to accomplish.
B) We are almost overrun with small groups in many churches today. There seems to be a group for every personal need in existence. Many of these fulfill a necessary function in lives. However, most tend to turn inward---they do not look outside themselves.
How many of these groups have been formed for the sole purpose of doing as much good to others as possible within a particular field of endeavor? There is nothing wrong with seeking our own benefit through a small group, but in our rush to do this have we overlooked the many ways we could plan to serve people through a cadre of close friends?
C) A lone individual burdened about a great cause can easily become discouraged by the looming problems or the enormity of the task, but a group can keep each other going during the hard times or the times when tedium inexorably sets in.
God uses interesting math when he states to His people that one of them would chase a thousand of the enemy and two could put ten thousand to flight (Deut. 32:30). Verses like this one seem to indicate that, when there is a challenge, there is much greater strength and capability in several persons working in tandem than in one.
D) Multiplied hours of deliberating and planning went into the projects of Wilberforce and his fellow-leaders. Group planning helped to avoid the oversights and imbalance that may occur when a person is working alone.
The Saints were constantly picking one another's brains for insights and strategies. They also applied the brakes on each other when a member proposed a move in a direction which could be rash or unwise. Though members were experts in their own fields, usually they were humble enough to be teachable and to accept the advice and cautions of the group.
E) A small group dedicated to building the kingdom of God shouldn't ride off in all directions. The group should form with the idea of accomplishing a particular mission, though this may encompass a broad field.
For example, Wilberforce began with two overarching goals: the abolition of the slave trade and the improving of Christian morals in Britain. It sometimes took decades, but he and his friends accomplished a massive number of objectives related to the original goals. (Some may see the winning of legislation to allow missionaries into India as a departure from the group's mission, but it should be remembered that at that time India was considered a possession of Great Britain so even in this they were improving the moral condition of the British empire).
In conclusion, we hear a lot in our society about empowerment. The term appears to mean giving people the authority, the encouragement, and the motivation to achieve. Christian leaders and writers such as Ken Blanchard, Bill Easum, and Gene Wilkes insist that Christian hierarchy must be replaced by self-directed teams.8
Wilberforce and his team realized Christ had given them the ultimate mission and had empowered them with his own authority and anointing to accomplish things that seemed impossible. Are you willing to begin asking God if he has a small group for you through which He could accomplish great things?
1 William Wilberforce, cited in A Practical View of Christianity, Kevin Belmonte (ed) Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996, pp. 250-251.
2 James Boswell, cited in These Remarkable Men, John Patten, London: Lutterworth Press, 1945, p. 32.
3 John Newton, cited in Chosen Vessels, Charles Turner (ed) by Charles Colson, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, 1986, p. 48.
4 William Wilberforce, cited in God's Politician: William Wilberforce's Struggle, Leon Garth, Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1987, p. 106.
5 William Wilberforce, cited in Chosen Vessels, Charles Turner (ed) by Charles Colson, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, 1986, p. 50.
6 John Patten, cited in These Remarkable Men, London: Lutterworth Press, 1945, pp. 142-143.
7 2 Corinthians 12:10, New American Standard Bible.
8 Wilkes, Gene, Jesus On Leadership, Wheaton: Tyndale, 1998, p. 225.
Note: Though there are numerous books detailing Wilberforce’s political accomplishments, there are few primary sources tracing the Christian faith of William Wilberforce. Much of the content of this chapter was gleaned from the book These Remarkable Men and from the more recent volume, by Leon Garth, which condenses from the sources available about Wilberforce’s daily life of faith.
Charles Colson’s material was interesting and served as a minor source, along with Seventy Great Christians Changing Their World. Colson’s chapter on Wilberforce from Great Leaders of the Christian Church was unfootnoted, possibly because he also chose to attempt, as this writer did, to write the particular material more in the form of biographical storytelling.
Colson, Charles, "William Wilberforce, " Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John Woodbridge (ed) Chicago: Moody Press, 1988.
Hanks, Geoffrey, 70 Great Christians Changing the World, Edinburgh, Scotland, Christian Focus Publications, 1992.