A few years ago I found myself on CNN, promoting a book I'd just written titled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but Were Afraid to Ask). I was expecting some hardball questions, such as “If God is good and powerful, why does He allow so much evil in the world?” But instead, to my great surprise, the interviewer asked me about William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist. I’d almost forgotten I’d even mentioned Wilberforce in my book, but suddenly I was talking to a national TV audience about him.
Not long afterward a publisher asked me if I wanted to write a biography about Wilberforce. And of course, I did. During my research for the book, I made a remarkable discovery: Wilberforce’s leadership in the move to abolish the slave trade was just a fraction of what he accomplished during his life. He was the most successful social reformer in the history of the world. As I write in my new book, 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, the life of Wilberforce “stands as an incredible example of what one human being — submitted to God’s purpose for his life — is capable of doing.”
Before he became a reformer, young Wilberforce was a member of exclusive social clubs where, like other privileged young men of his era, he ate, drank and gambled his nights away. A renowned wit with a winning personality, Wilberforce enjoyed rousing political debates, and at an early age won a seat in Parliament.
But then he went on vacation with a childhood friend named, Isaac Milner, a Christian believer. The two fell into serious discussions of faith and by the end of their trip, Wilberforce found that he believed in God and the work of Christ with his whole mind.
The question was, what should he do next? Should he stay in the “dirty” world of politics, or enter the ministry? At this tremendously crucial juncture, Wilberforce visited his old friend, John Newton, the slave ship captain turned hymn-writing preacher and evangelist. Newton advised Wilberforce to stay in politics — a highly unusual step for a serious Christian in those days. Perhaps, Newton predicted, God would use him there in a mighty way.
And so he did. Less than two years later, after much prayer and thought, Wilberforce penned these famous words in his diary: “God Almighty has set before me two Great Objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners” — that is to say, the reformation of the culture along moral grounds. Child labor, alcoholism, prostitution, animal cruelty — all of these evils permeated British society, and all of them needed to be addressed.
Wilberforce believed that God had called him to fight these great moral evils. Nevertheless, over the next two decades, he and his allies suffered one crushing defeat after another in Parliament. But they soldiered on, bathing their efforts in prayer and working to change the hearts and minds of the British people. In 1807, after nearly 20 years' work, they succeeded in outlawing the slave trade. Wilberforce, now a very famous man, also set an example of making goodness fashionable, as he put it — helping the poor and spending quality time with his children. His biblically-based ideas influenced British culture at a time when the British Empire was tremendously powerful.
How God used this one man to change the world is almost unbelievable. But like Wilberforce, you and I should be asking ourselves: Am I using my God-given gifts for His great purposes in the proper arena? Am I obeying Him in all areas of my life?
My book 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness is my way of hoping to introduce teens and young men especially to William Wilberforce and other great heroes. You can find out more about it at BreakPoint.org, and I hope you will.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: May 6, 2013