Sunday, August 12, 2007

Lessons from the Life of William Wilberforce

Recently I've begun picking up biographies again. Reading biographies has been one of the most formative parts of my spiritual life over the years, but until this summer I hadn't read any for a long while. The great benefit of Christian biographies is that they give the pleasant diversion of immersing oneself in another's story (without the omnipresent vapidity of television stories), and all the while directing the reader's attention toward virtue and truth. There is a powerful inspiration that comes from knowing that the Christian life can be lived well, that heights of faith are not merely for the select few, and that God can do wonders through the smallest of people.
The stories of J. Hudson Taylor, Brother Andrew, George Mueller, and St. Francis of Assisi, among others, have powerfully enriched my life. The most recent story to come to my attention, however, is that of William Wilberforce, the great orator and Member of Parliament who spearheaded the drive to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. (A movie of his life, Amazing Grace, was released earlier this year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary vote that halted the British slave trade. To understand current attempts to continue the Wilberforce legacy in fighting the global slave trade in our day, see the most recent issue of Mission Frontiers:
This particular biography was Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte (a fellow Mainer), and I quite enjoyed it. I kept a list of "lessons" from Wilberforce's story, a habit I plan to continue for future biography-readings. So here's my list, emphasizing a few details that particularly delighted me, such as Wilberforce's love for birds and his exemplification of neomonasticism with his Clapham friends. It's certainly not a fair substitute for an in-depth reading of the life of this spiritual giant, but I hope it's of benefit to you.

Never give up. (WW’s fight to end the slave trade went on for nearly 20 years, and it would be nearly another twenty before slavery itself was abolished).

What is morally right is always worth pursuing, no matter what the cost or the consequences. (WW was bitterly attacked for his stand, both personally and politically; but he persevered, submitting his bills every year, even through bouts of illness that nearly killed him).

True religion fills every part of one’s life.

Religion deserves every power of our rational attention.

There is nothing so life-changing and transformative as the Word of God.

'Moral' ends are only moral when reached by moral means.

Take the duty of your role in life seriously. (WW attended every meeting of Parliament he was able to, even in an age when it was common for MPs to skip sessions in order to attend frivolous social events).

Look for the good in every person’s character, even in your detractors. (One of WW’s great gifts was in bringing his political opponents, like Charles Fox, to join him closely in the fight against slavery. WW always seemed to have something good to say about nearly every one of his colleagues).

The reformation of society by turning people’s hearts toward virtue is an attainable goal, and worthy of every effort we can give it. (The second great goal of WW’s life was ‘the reformation of manners,’ that is, the restoration of a moral center to society. His aim was to make goodness fashionable again, and through a variety of means he did, astonishingly, accomplish this end. He is seen as perhaps the most influential shaper of the moral revolution in England that ushered in the Victorian Age.)

Society will most readily become virtuous if the leading, culture-shaping classes become virtuous.

Consider seriously your present position as the position where Providence as placed you, and use it toward ministry here and now. (Despite thoughts about leaving Parliament for the clergy after his conversion, he stayed where he was and used his seat to fight for righteous ends.)

It is always worth one’s time to read the great thoughts of both ages past and the present day. (WW was astonishingly well-read, especially in the classics (Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Horace, etc.) and in writers more contemporary to his own day (Milton, Locke, Newton, etc.)).

Study the criticisms of those who criticize you; they may make you better.

Relationships are utterly important. Spend time developing them, both for the enrichment of your own life and strength, the potential to minister to them, and the hope of accomplishing great things together.

Do not be afraid to confront your friends when they are in the wrong, but never let bitterness uproot the love you have for them. Be quick to reconciliation. (At least twice, WW stood against his dear friend William Pitt on important matters of state. He took his position on moral principle, though it wounded their friendship for a time).

Do everything you can to fight for the cessation of suffering, both of those around you and those at the ends of the earth. (WW was involved not only in fighting slavery in Britain’s domains, but also advocated for its ending in America and continental Europe. He seemed to have a genuine concern for the internal good of Africa. He also gave his time, efforts, and wealth to hundreds of other philanthropic concerns throughout his life).

Use the gifts God has given you to their greatest extent in the path of doing good.

The pursuit of happiness is good, but the pursuit of other people’s happiness as a civic way of life will produce a better society, and, in the end, more happiness for all.

Spend yourself in hospitality; you will be richer for it in the end. (WW’s house was famous for its hospitality; he was seldom without guests).

Do not let your youth hold you back from accomplishing great things. (WW became a Member of Parliament when he was 21. His close friend William Pitt, one of the greatest political leaders Britain has ever known, became Prime Minister at 24.)

Busyness is no excuse not to keep the Sabbath. The busier you are, the more you will have need of a Sabbath, and the more you will be able to manage your busyness by practicing it. (WW, despite being laden with affairs of state, the entertaining of guests, answering personally the letters he received, and his rigorous academic study, took a Sabbatical hour each day and one full day a week).

Cultivate a love of nature. (One of WW’s favorite places was the Lake District in northwest England).

Take long walks.

Learning and appreciating the varieties of birds is a splendid and admirable way to spend one’s time. (WW’s favorite bird, it seems, was the nightingale. He passed on his love of birds (and of animals in general) to his son Samuel, later the Bishop of Oxford and chaplain to Queen Victoria).

Your ministry to the outer world, whatever it may be, ought not to trump your ministry to your own family. (In 1812 he gave up his powerful seat representing Yorkshire country in order to spend more time with his family; he then switched to a much less demanding seat in Parliament).

Cultivate habits of eloquence and substantive thought, even in everyday conversation. (WW was one of the most famous conversationalists of his day. Guests would come to his house primarily to hear him talk).

Do not give in to the pressures of fashion or class. (WW resisted buying or being given a peerage of nobility all his life, though it was common for wealthy MPs to do so).

Gather a community of thoughtful, loving, believing friends around you, and work together toward common ends. (WW lived in the little village of Clapham for fifteen years with a small group of close Christian friends, among whom was Hannah More, the great reformer of education).

Practice daily times of family worship.

Stay informed and be in prayer about the missionary progress of the kingdom of God. (WW was a personal friend of the pioneer missionary and translator Henry Martyn, and every Sunday evening he spent his time reading missionary updates and biographies).

Live generously. (WW gave away the equivalent of millions of dollars over the course of his life. Not only did he fund the education of hundreds of promising young students (including all three Bronte sisters and their father) and create numerous philanthropic initiatives, he also paid off the debts of hundreds of men who came to him with personal pleas for help).

To take for truth what cannot be but true…

And bind the task assign’d thee to thine heart:

Happy the man there seeking and there found,

Happy the nation where such men abound.

- William Cowper