By Tom Strode
Evangelical Christians can learn much from William Wilberforce’s example about God’s power in working through His people to overcome grave social evils, says Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land.
Land and other evangelical leaders commented on the lessons to be learned from Wilberforce on the occasion of the theatrical opening this weekend of “Amazing Grace,” a new movie about the British abolitionist. The movie is being released on the 200th anniversary of Parliament’s vote to ban the English slave trade.
Elected to Parliament at 21 years of age, Wilberforce followed his Christian convictions to lead a lengthy campaign against a commerce in human beings that had the support of nearly all of English society. After a 20-year fight, his efforts finally resulted in the 1807 outlawing of the slave trade. In 1833, only three days before Wilberforce died, he learned that slavery soon would be abolished in the British Empire.
“The enduring lesson of Wilberforce is that one man committed to Christ can end up making a majority,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “As 1 John 5:5 says, ‘Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?’
“Wilberforce is a constant reminder that God’s arithmetic is not man’s and that God can use human vessels to right great wrongs and correct grave injustices when those human beings are willing to let God work in and through them,” Land told Baptist Press.
The odds Wilberforce faced “appeared to be humanly insurmountable,” said Land, who saw the movie at a January screening. “Yet, Wilberforce, armed with his faith in God and his firm conviction that he was fighting for truth and justice, quickened the conscience of an empire and eventually led it to do the right thing, first in abolishing the slave trade and then in abolishing slavery itself.
“We should draw strength from this today as we seek to contend for justice for the unborn and to free those who still find themselves in human bondage through sex trafficking and slave labor,” Land said. “No matter how powerful the forces of opposition may be, in the end they are not as powerful as the God we serve. Wilberforce’s faith and persistence were ultimately rewarded with a glorious victory for all that is true and right against great iniquity.”
Pro-life advocates are still seeking to reverse a culture of death 34 years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. An engaged battle against sex trafficking and other forms of slavery began only in recent years. The modern slave trade is both domestic and international, with more than 25 million people estimated to be trapped in slavery.
Wilberforce’s long effort “reminds us that we must tirelessly persevere in battles against modern moral horrors: abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, AIDS — and, tragically, African slavery,” Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson wrote in Christianity Today magazine.
“At the same time, like the Great Abolitionist, we must open our neighbors’ eyes to the truth: A moral basis is essential to support a just society,” he said in a commentary written with Anne Morse.
“Wilberforce ultimately prevailed because he understood the futility of attempting to end a systemic evil without also changing citizens’ values and dispositions,” Colson and Morse wrote. “He knew he not only had to work for justice; he also had to convince people of the need for the moral consensus that flowed from a biblical worldview.”
The editors of Christianity Today said one of the lessons today’s evangelicals can learn from Wilberforce is the need to “ground our political action in the gospel mandate to make disciples of all nations. The abolitionist movement did not begin as an effort to free slaves and shut down the business of trade in human flesh. It began as a missionary effort.”
British pastor James Ramsey’s effort to evangelize slaves on a Caribbean island led him to write a book about the conditions of those in bondage, according to the editorial. The book helped produce an abolitionist movement in England that included the young legislator Wilberforce.
“Wilberforce never forgot that missions was at the root of their movement; when the British East India Company’s charter came up for renewal in 1813, he fought successfully to insure that Christian teachers would be sent to India along with the company’s entrepreneurs,” according to the editorial.
“Christians should never fear to engage a moral crisis, but we should always ground our work in the gospel mandate.”
This article, written by Tom Strode, the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, was posted by the Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission on Feb 23, 2007.