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Christian Faith in Action: William Wilberforce Heart of the Church

by Pete Schrank


We see in the press every day the claim that this person or this action is racist. As followers of Christ, we are obligated to speak out and support those that seek justice. The word justice is found 131 times in the Bible in both the Old and New Testament. The first reference from Proverbs 21:15 “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” This verse seems appropriate for the topic of William Wilberforce and his faith in action.


William Wilberforce was born in Hull, England on August 24, 1759. When William was just nine years old, his father died. William was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, and during this time was exposed to Evangelical Christian teaching. At age 21, he was elected to Parliament and almost immediately went to work to abolish slavery in the British Empire.   William had the council of many famous Christian leaders; i.e., John Newton, the former slave ship captain, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. He also corresponded with John Wesley, who was one of the founders of the Methodist faith. The Quakers joined forces with William as well.


Though discouraged at one point, William even contemplated leaving Parliament, but John Newton convinced him that God had placed him there for a purpose.   God has a purpose for all of us. We may not have a clear view of this purpose like William Wilberforce or Pastor Ray, but we are called to deliver our own witness, whatever that may be.


Back to the story of William. In 1805, Wilberforce put forward his thirteenth motion for the abolition of the slave trade, only to have it rejected again. Mr. Hatsell, the clerk of the House of Commons, said to him, “You ought not to expect to carry a measure of this kind.” He had been disparaged by false scandal, threatened by slave ship captains and business leaders.


Finally, in February of 1807, a motion in favor of abolition was carried in the House of Commons, winning by a huge majority of 283 to 16. Wilberforce’s long, hard battle had succeeded. But this was only applied to England and not the entire British Empire. It took another 24 years, and just three days before William Wilberforce’s death, to completely abolish the slave trade.


The abolition of slavery was not the only battle that Wilberforce fought. He wrote a book about using his Christian faith to guide his politics. Wilberforce gave away a fourth of his annual income to the poor, as well as partially supporting Charles Wesley’s widow from 1792 until her death in 1822. He, and the Clapham Community, stood for education for the masses, prison reform and improvement in factory conditions. They fought child labor, savage game laws and flogging in the army. They even intervened on behalf of persons outside of Britain, including the American Indians. They founded the Church Missionary Society, as well as the British and Foreign Bible Society.


All of these things Jesus asked us to do; clothe the poor, feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, and give justice to all of the oppressed, are the responsibility of all that call themselves Christians.