Speaking to Wilberforce

Just yesterday, on February 23rd, the new film entitled Amazing Grace was released. It is the dramatic story of how God used a man named William Wilberforce to advance his kingdom in British Parliament and society. Having studied a bit of Wilberforce in grad-school, I can hardly wait to see the film.

William Wilberforce, wealthy and eloquent rising star of the British Parliament, paced nervously around a square near John Newton’s home before knocking at the door. The politician had recently become a Christian and was unsure whether he should retire from public life. Wilberforce sent a sealed letter to Newton asking to see him and requested that he not tell anyone of their planned rendezvous. When he finally plucked up the courage in December 1785 to see the pastor/hymn-writer, he did so with “ten thousand doubts,” and with great secrecy and subterfuge.1

Just a month earlier, Wilberforce wrote to tell a friend of “the great change” in his life. He expressed the fear that their friendship would be lost and mentioned his intention to withdraw from public life to better serve God. His friend’s reply was gracious, but challenging:

“If a Christian may act in the several relations of life, must he seclude himself from all to become so? Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.”2

Wilberforce was still undecided, so he went to see Newton, whose preaching he had heard as a boy when staying with his relatives. Newton declared that he had never given up hope about God’s work in Wilberforce since the time he met him as a boy, and counseled him not to withdraw from public life: “The Lord has raised you up for the good of his church and for the good of the nation.”3 His words were not in vain. Within months, Wilberforce’s thinking was clear: “My walk” he wrote in his diary “is a public one; my business is in the world; and I must mix in assemblies of men, or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.”4 A sense of Christian responsibility took hold: “A man who acts from the principles I profess reflects that he is to give an account of his political conduct at the judgment seat of Christ.”5

Sometimes we may despair of accomplishment in ministry, thinking our words are scarcely adequate to meet the resistance of the day. We fail to see the great potential and blessed susceptibility of our hearers. Many of the people whom we serve stand at the crossroads of life, and a simple word of encouragement and admonition can have exponential effect. We never know how profoundly God may use our words in the advance of his kingdom.


1 Quoted in Wilberforce’s letter to Newton, cited in Kevin Belmonte, Hero for Humanity (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 85.
2 Belmonte, 88.
3 Garth Lean, God’s Politician: William Wilberforce’s Struggle (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980), 35.
4 Belmonte, 96.
5 Hancock, 15.

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