John Piper's biography of William Wilberforce takes readers beyond Wilberforce's battle against slavery and explores the beliefs and motivations of this influential evangelical politician.
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About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.organd the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God;Don’t Waste Your Life;This Momentary Marriage;A Peculiar Glory;andReading the Bible Supernaturally.
Jonathan Aitken is a well-known British author and former politician. He was a Member of Parliament for twenty-three years, serving in the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and also as Minister of State for Defense. His political career ended when he pleaded guilty to charges of perjury as a result of having told a lie on oath in a civil libel lawsuit. During an eighteen-month prison stay, he converted to Christ. He is president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a director of Prison Fellowship International, and executive director of The Trinity Forum in Europe. He is the author of twelve books, including the award-winning Nixon: A Life and Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed.
Read an Excerpt
His Early Life
Wilberforce was born August 24, 1759, in Hull, England. His father died just before Wilberforce turned nine years old. He was sent to live with his uncle and aunt, William and Hannah, where he came under evangelical influences. His mother was more high church and was concerned her son was "turning Methodist." So she took him out of the boarding school where they had sent him and put him in another. He had admired George Whitefield, John Wesley, and John Newton as a child. But soon he left all the influence of the evangelicals behind. At his new school, he said later, "I did nothing at all." That lifestyle continued through his years in St. John's College at Cambridge. He was able to live off his parents' wealth and get by with little work. He lost any interest in biblical religion and loved circulating among the social elite.
He became friends with his contemporary William Pitt, who in just a few years, at the age of twenty-four in 1783, became the Prime Minister of England. On a lark, Wilberforce stood for the seat in the House of Commons for his hometown of Hull in 1780 when he was twenty-one. He spent £8,000 on the election. The money and his incredible gift for speaking triumphed over both his opponents. Pitt said Wilberforce possessed "the greatest natural eloquence of all the men I ever knew."
Thus began a forty-five year investment in the politics of England. He began it as a late-night, party-loving, upper-class unbeliever. He was single and would stay that way happily until he was thirty-seven years old. Then he met Barbara on April 15, 1797. He fell immediately in love. Within eight days he proposed to her, and on May 30 they were married, about six weeks after they met — and stayed married until William died thirty-six years later. In the first eight years of their marriage they had four sons and two daughters. We will come back to William as a family man, because it sheds light on his character and how he endured the political battles of the day.
"The Great Change": The Story of His Conversion
I have skipped over the most important thing — his conversion to a deep, Christian, evangelical faith. It is a great story of the providence of God pursuing a person through seemingly casual choices. On the long holidays when Parliament was not in session, Wilberforce would sometimes travel with friends or family. In the winter of 1784 when he was twenty-five, on an impulse he invited Isaac Milner, his former schoolmaster and friend from grammar school, who was now a tutor in Queens College, Cambridge, to go with him and his mother and sister to the French Riviera. To his amazement Milner turned out to be a convinced Christian without any of the stereotypes that Wilberforce had built up against evangelicals. They talked for hours about the Christian faith.
In another seemingly accidental turn, Wilberforce saw lying in the house where they were staying a copy of Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745). He asked Milner about it, and Milner said that it was "one of the best books ever written" and suggested they take it along and read it on the way home. Wilberforce later ascribes to this book a huge influence on his conversion. When he arrived home in February 1785 he "had reached intellectual assent to the biblical view of man, God and Christ." But he would not yet have claimed what he later described as true Christianity. It was all intellectual. He pushed it to the back of his mind and went on with political and social life.
That summer Wilberforce traveled again with Milner, and they discussed the Greek New Testament for hours. Slowly his "intellectual assent became profound conviction." One of the first manifestations of what he called "the great change" — the conversion — was the contempt he felt for his wealth and the luxury he lived in, especially on these trips between Parliamentary sessions. Seeds were sown almost immediately at the beginning of his Christian life, it seems, of the later passion to help the poor and to turn all his inherited wealth and his naturally high station into a means of blessing the oppressed.
"Highly Dangerous Possessions"
Simplicity and generosity were the mark of his life. Much later, after he was married, he wrote, "By careful management, I should be able to give at least one-quarter of my income to the poor." His sons reported that before he married he was giving away well over a fourth of his income, one year actually giving away £3,000 more than he made. He wrote that riches were, "considering them as in themselves, acceptable, but, from the infirmity of [our] nature, as highly dangerous possessions; and [we are to value] them chiefly not as instruments of luxury or splendor, but as affording the means of honoring [our] heavenly Benefactor, and lessening the miseries of mankind." This was the way his mind worked: Everything in politics was for the alleviation of misery and the spread of happiness.
The Regret That Leads to Life
By October he was bemoaning the "shapeless idleness" of his past. He was thinking particularly of his time at Cambridge — "the most valuable years of life wasted, and opportunities lost, which can never be recovered." He had squandered his early years in Parliament as well: "The first years I was in Parliament I did nothing — nothing that is to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object." He was so ashamed of his prior life that he wrote with apparent overstatement, "I was filled with sorrow. I am sure that no human creature could suffer more than I did for some months. It seems indeed it quite affected my reason." He was tormented about what his new Christianity meant for his public life. William Pitt tried to talk him out of becoming an evangelical and argued that this change would "render your talents useless both to yourself and mankind."
Ten Thousand Doubts and Good Counsel
To resolve the anguish he felt over what to do with his life as a Christian, he resolved to risk seeing John Newton on December 7, 1785 — a risk because Newton was an evangelical and not admired or esteemed by Wilberforce's colleagues in Parliament. He wrote to Newton on December 2:
I wish to have some serious conversation with you. ... I have had ten thousand doubts within myself, whether or not I should discover myself to you; but every argument against it has its foundation in pride. I am sure you will hold yourself bound to let no one living know of this application, or of my visit, till I release you from the obligation. ... PS: Remember that I must be secret, and that the gallery of the House is now so universally attended, that the face of a member of parliament is pretty well known.
It was a historically significant visit. Not only did Newton give encouragement to Wilberforce's faith, but he also urged him not to cut himself off from public life. Wilberforce wrote about the visit:
After walking about the Square once or twice before I could persuade myself, I called upon old Newton — was much affected in conversing with him — something very pleasing and unaffected in him. He told me he always had hopes and confidence that God would sometime bring me to Him. ... When I came away I found my mind in a calm, tranquil state, more humbled, and looking more devoutly up to God.
Wilberforce was relieved that the sixty-year-old Newton urged him not to cut himself off from public life. Newton wrote to Wilberforce two years later: "It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation." When one thinks what hung in the balance in that moment of counsel, one marvels at the magnitude of some small occasions in view of what Wilberforce would accomplish for the cause of abolition.
The battle and uncertainties lasted on into the new year, but finally a more settled serenity came over him, and on Easter Day 1786, the politician for Yorkshire took to the fields to pray and give thanks, as he said in a letter to his sister Sally, "amidst the general chorus with which all nature seems on such a morning to be swelling the song of praise and thanksgiving." It was, he said almost ten years later, as if "to have awakened ... from a dream, to have recovered, as it were, the use of my reason after a delirium."
With this change came a whole new regimen for the use of his months of recess from Parliament. Beginning not long after his conversion and lasting until he was married eleven years later, he would now spend his days studying "about nine or ten hours a day," typically "breakfasting alone, taking walks alone, dining with the host family and other guests but not joining them in the evening until he 'came down about three-quarters of an hour before bedtime for what supper I wanted.'" "The Bible became his best- loved book and he learned stretches by heart." He was setting out to recover a lot of ground lost to laziness in college.CHAPTER 2
God Has Set Before Me Two Great Objects"
Now we turn to what makes Wilberforce so relevant to the cause of racial justice in our day — namely, his lifelong devotion to the cause of abolishing the African slave trade, and then slavery itself. In 1787 Wilberforce wrote a letter in which he estimated that the annual revenue from the export of slaves from the western coast of Africa for all nations exceeded £100,000. Seventeen years later in 1804 he estimated that for the Guiana importation alone, 12,000 to 15,000 human beings were enslaved every year the trade continued. One year after his conversion, God's apparent calling on his life had become clear to him. On October 28, 1787, he wrote in his diary, "God Almighty has placed before me two great Objects, the Suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [morals]."
Soon after Christmas, 1787, a few days before the parliamentary recess, Wilberforce gave notice in the House of Commons that early in the new session he would bring a motion for the abolition of the slave trade. It would be twenty years before he could carry the House of Commons and the House of Lords in putting abolition into law. But the more he studied the matter and the more he heard of the atrocities, the more resolved he became. In May 1789 he spoke to the House about how he came to his conviction: "I confess to you, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for Abolition. ... Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition."
He embraced the guilt for himself when he said in that same year, "I mean not to accuse anyone but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty — we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others."
In 1793 he wrote to a supporter who thought he was growing soft and cautious in the cause: "If I thought the immediate Abolition of the Slave Trade would cause an insurrection in our islands, I should not for an instant remit my most strenuous endeavors. Be persuaded then, I shall still less ever make this grand cause the sport of the caprice, or sacrifice it to motives of political convenience or personal feeling." Three years later, almost ten years after the battle was begun, he wrote:
The grand object of my parliamentary existence [is the abolition of the slave trade]. ... Before this great cause all others dwindle in my eyes, and I must say that the certainty that I am right here, adds greatly to the complacency with which I exert myself in asserting it. If it please God to honor me so far, may I be the instrument of stopping such a course of wickedness and cruelty as never before disgraced a Christian country.
Triumph over All Opposition
Of course the opposition that raged for these twenty years was because of the financial benefits of slavery to the traders and to the British economy, because of what the plantations in the West Indies produced. They could not conceive of any way to produce without slave labor. This meant that Wilberforce's life was threatened more than once. When he criticized the credibility of a slave ship captain, Robert Norris, the man was enraged, and Wilberforce feared for his life. Short of physical harm, there was the painful loss of friends. Some would no longer fight with him, and they were estranged. Then there was the huge political pressure to back down because of the international political ramifications. For example, if Britain really outlawed slavery, the West Indian colonial assemblies threatened to declare independence from Britain and to federate with the United States. These kinds of financial and political arguments held Parliament captive for decades.
But the night — or I should say early morning — of victory came in 1807. The moral vision and the political momentum for abolition had finally become irresistible. At one point "the House rose almost to a man and turned towards Wilberforce in a burst of Parliamentary cheers. Suddenly, above the roar of 'Hear, hear,' and quite out of order, three hurrahs echoed and echoed while he sat, head bowed, tears streaming down his face." At 4:00 A.M., February 24, 1807, the House divided — Ayes, 283, Noes, 16, Majority for the Abolition 267. And on March 25, 1807, the royal assent was declared. One of Wilberforce's friends wrote, "[Wilberforce] attributes it to the immediate interposition of Providence." In that early morning hour Wilberforce turned to his best friend and colleague, Henry Thornton, and said, "Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?"
The Battle Was Not Over
Of course the battle wasn't over. And Wilberforce fought on until his death twenty-six years later in 1833. Not only was the implementation of the abolition law controversial and dif ficult, but all it did was abolish the slave trade, not slavery itself. That became the next major cause. In 1821 Wilberforce recruited Thomas Fowell Buxton to carry on the fight, and from the sidelines, aged and fragile, he cheered him on. Three months before his death in 1833 he was persuaded to propose a last petition against slavery. "I had never thought to appear in public again, but it shall never be said that William Wilberforce is silent while the slaves require his help."
The decisive vote of victory for that one came on July 26, 1833, only three days before Wilberforce died. Slavery itself was outlawed in the British colonies. Minor work on the legislation took several more days. "It is a singular fact," Buxton said, "that on the very night on which we were successfully engaged in the House of Commons, in passing the clause of the Act of Emancipation — one of the most important clauses ever enacted ... the spirit of our friend left the world. The day which was the termination of his labors was the termination of his life."
William Cowper wrote a sonnet to celebrate Wilberforce's labor for the slaves which begins with the lines,
Thy country, Wilberforce, with just disdain,
Wilberforce's friend and sometimes pastor, William Jay, wrote a tribute with this accurate prophecy: "His disinterested, self-denying, laborious, undeclining efforts in this cause of justice and humanity ... will call down the blessings of millions; and ages yet to come will glory in his memory."
A Multitude of Christlike Causes
I must not give the impression that all Wilberforce cared about or worked for was the abolition of slavery. In fact, the diversity of the evangelistic and benevolent causes he labored to advance makes his devotion to abolition all the more wonderful. Most of us make the multiplicity of demands an excuse for not giving ourselves to any one great cause over the long haul. Not so with Wilberforce. There was a steady stream of action to alleviate pain and bring the greater social (and eternal!) good. "At one stage he was active in sixty-nine different initiatives."
His involvements ranged widely. He was involved with the British Foreign Bible Society, the Church Missionary Society, the Society for the Manufacturing Poor, and the Society for the Better Observance of Sunday. He worked for the alleviation of harsh child labor conditions (like the use of small boys by chimney sweeps to climb up chimneys), for agricultural reform that supplied affordable food to the poor, for prison reform and the restriction of capital punishment from cavalier use, and for the prevention of cruelty to animals. On and on the list could go. In fact, it was the very diversity of the needs and crimes and injustices that confirmed his evangelical conviction that one must finally deal with the root of all these ills if one is to have a lasting and broad influence for good. That is why, as we have seen, he wrote his book A Practical View of Christianity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce"
Copyright © 2006 Desiring God Foundation.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Enduring for the Cause,
1 His Early Life,
2 "God Has Set Before Me Two Great Objects",
3 A Multitude of Christlike Causes,
4 Extraordinary Endurance,
5 The Deeper Root of Childlike Joy,
6 The Gigantic Truths of the Gospel,
Desiring God: A Note on Resources,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
William Wilberforce (1759 –1833) was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. Despite a misspent youth, he began his political career in 1780 and eventually became the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire. In 1785, he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian, which resulted in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform. In 1787, he came into contact with a group of anti-slave-trade activists who persuaded him to take on the cause of abolition, and he soon became one of the leading English abolitionists. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for 26 years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. In later years, Wilberforce supported the campaign for the complete abolition of slavery, even after 1826 when he resigned from Parliament because of his failing health. This led to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. Wilberforce died just three days after hearing that the passage of the Act through Parliament was assured. Author John Piper gives a succinct and perceptive study of Wilberforce. Some have complained that it is too short. However, the book is intended not to be a complete biography of Wilberforce but to be an explanation of the basis for his perseverance against great obstacles in what looked like a lost cause. It does relay the basic story of this great man's life but focuses primarily how to understand the ultimate source of his greatness and happiness. One may not agree with everything in the book. Piper is a Calvinist and points out that Wilberforce accepted the doctrines of evangelical Calvinism, including the doctrine of justification by faith alone, though he was not parochially minded, saying, “There are no names or party distinctions in heaven.” However, I think that all true Bible believers can agree with Wilberforce’s conclusion, that there is a “perfect harmony between the leading doctrines and the practical precepts of Christianity,” and that it is a “fatal habit to consider Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrine.” I don’t know if this is true or not, but I have heard that Piper’s original material may have been the impetus behind Amazing Grace, the 2006 American-British biographical drama film directed by Michael Apted, about the campaign against slave trade in the British Empire led by Wilberforce. A similar book about Wilberforce which I have read is entitled Statesman and Saint: The Principled Politics of William Wilberforce (2002) written by my friend David J. Vaughan.
Very much enjoyed getting a deeper look into this amazing mans life!
So I am pretty sure you can get all of John Piper's books as an ebook for free on his website, but it costs money on here? That's kind of weird...
All who are interested in the topic of social justice and reform would do well to glean from the life of Wilberforce. John Piper has given the essential highlights neccessary to understand the weight of what Wilberforce was doing in his life and time.