William Wilberforce: A Factory of Good Works

I love the way politician William Wilberforce united his faith to his legislative action.  For those who don’t know Wilberforce, he was the single driving force in England to end the slave trade.  He was a peer of John Newton, pastor and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  He was a bold advocate for public justice, but one who spent countless hours in personal meditation on the truth of God’s word.  In other words, his appeals for justice were fruit the Spirit at work in his life.

Consider John Piper’s description of Wilberforce in his biographical sermon, “Peculiar Doctrines, Public Morals, and the Political Welfare.”  He shows how good works overflowed from this man who was filling his mind with Christian truth and walking in the power of the Spirit.

What made Wilberforce tick was a profound Biblical allegiance to what he called the “peculiar doctrines” of Christianity. These, he said, give rise, in turn, to true affections – what we might call “passion” or “emotions” – for spiritual things, which, in turn, break the power of pride and greed and fear, and then lead to transformed morals which, in turn, lead to the political welfare of the nation. He said, “If . . . a principle of true Religion [i.e., true Christianity] should . . . gain ground, there is no estimating the effects on public morals, and the consequent influence on our political welfare.” [1]

But he was no ordinary pragmatist or political utilitarian, even though he was one of the most practical men of his day. He was a doer. One of his biographers said, “He lacked time for half the good works in his mind.” [2] James Stephen, who knew him well, remarked, “Factories did not spring up more rapidly in Leeds and Manchester than schemes of benevolence beneath his roof.” [3] “No man,” Wilberforce wrote, “has a right to be idle.” “Where is it,” he asked, “that in such a world as this, [that] health, and leisure, and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate?” [4] In other words, he lived to do good – or as Jesus said, to let his light shine before men that they might see his good deeds and give glory to his Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

But he was practical with a difference. He believed with all his heart that new affections for God were the key to new morals (or manners, as they were sometimes called) and lasting political reformation. And these new affections and this reformation did not come from mere ethical systems. They came from what he called the “peculiar doctrines” of Christianity. For Wilberforce, practical deeds were born in “peculiar doctrines.” By that term he simply meant the central distinguishing doctrines of human depravity, divine judgment, the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds. [5]

Wilberforce’s public service is not only a model for Christian politicians, but a model for all Christians.  He was a factory of God works, as his friends attested, and in this way he shows the kind of worldly good the gospel can effect when a man is gripped by the “peculiar doctrines” of Jesus Christ.

May we consider his life and imitate his faith.  (Piper’s biography is available online and in print.  I would encourage you to read or listen to it).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss