Spotlight on William Wilberforce - Matthew 5:1-16
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin with a quote from a politician: ‘Intelligent accounts of foreign countries, which have been recently published, indicate that religion and the standard of morality are declining everywhere abroad even more rapidly than in our own country, At the same time, the progress of irreligion, and the decay of morals in our own country must alarm every considerate mind and forebode the worst consequences, unless the growing evil can be halted.’ I am sure that many here tonight would no doubt agree with those sentiments. Children in Britain are now considered to be amongst the unhappiest and most neglected in the Western world. One in Three 17-30 year old women in England are now classed as heavy drinkers-binging on 4 or more drinks at least once a fortnight. One in Six 16-64 year old women is addicted or ill as a result of alcohol. And so we hear from these famous women: "At its worst, it meant ending up with my knickers around my head in a bed I didn't recognise, surrounded by vomit and having not the faintest idea where I was "Anne Robinson;" I was in hospital 32 times and nearly died. I was drinking three or four bottles of vodka a day" Mary Coughlan, Singer; "I had no friends left. I was more and more isolated, more and more paranoid. My health was gone "Marian Keyes, Author. In 1921 there was 1 crime recorded for every 370 inhabitants in England and Wales, in 2001 it was 1 in ten. That could have been a description of us today at the beginning of the 21st century, but in fact it was a description by William Wilberforce of Britain in the 18th century.
So let me tell you a little more of the moral cesspit of Europe-Britain. London’s theatres were surrounded by clusters of brothels; it was estimated that one out of four women in the city were prostitutes. High society was one merry- go-round of adulterous affairs. An upper class couple might not see each other for weeks during the social season and no self-respecting hostess would make such a gaff as to invite husband and wife to the same social event.
At the other end of the social scale the poor were crammed together in the most appalling conditions, slaves to the mighty emerging industrial revolution. Pale children worked as many as 18 hours a day in the coal mines bringing home a few pence a month for their parents, much of it to be spent on gin. One eighth of deaths in London were due to excessive drinking. Prison conditions were deplorable, overflowing with debtors, murderers, children and rapists all thrown together. Public executions provided mass entertainment. Bull baiting was another, often tortured with acid to keep them lively. Country fairs were scenes of the cruellest animal torture. At one such event the Duke of Bedford and Lord Barrymore (no relation!) staged a bet for £500 in which Barrymore produced a man who would, and did, eat a live cat before the cheering crowd.
The established church was all but dead. Dr Samuel Johnson commentated that he had never met a clergyman in the Church of England who was religious. God, it was thought was more like an absentee landlord, and it was simply a matter of doing the best you can- ethics not religion was the key.
Then there was the slave trade. In 1787 it was estimated that the annual export of slaves from the west coast of Africa for all nations was beyond 100,000. Slowly the horrors of what was involved in men and women being crammed together, head to toe for three months amongst stale sweat, vomit and urine began to be revealed to the public.
This was the world into which William Wilberforce was born in Hull in 1759. His father died when Wilberforce was just 9 years old and so he was sent to live with his evangelical aunt and uncle, which caused his mother to have apoplexy just in case he might turn into one of those dreaded ‘Methodists’. Well, he didn’t. He went the way of all his upper class friends. He lived off his parent’s wealth as a student at Cambridge, drinking and gambling their money away and although bright did very little work. He became best friends with his contemporary, William Pitt who at the age of 24 became Prime Minister in 1783. Almost for a lark, Wilberforce stood for parliament as MP for Hull in 1780 at the age of 21 and won. He spent £8,000 on the election which helped. But what also helped was his incredible gift for public speaking- he was a star. In fact he soon became a bit of a celebrity for he had the most magnificent singing voice too and was a favourite of the Prince of Wales, and on this merit alone he became a popular figure in all the leading social circles. In those days you didn’t invite Elton John to your party, you invited Wilberforce. If he had kept this up, there is little doubt he could have become Prime Minister. So what changed him?
That in fact is the question I want to focus on tonight. You will be hearing much about his fight for the abolition of the slave trade over the next few months, which I will but touch upon here. Rather I want to look at the man, what motivated him to achieve the most remarkable accomplishments against all odds. That something was his Christian faith.
So let me tell you what happened to Wilberforce. It all began with a holiday. Whilst on the continent for a break after being elected to Parliament, Wilberforce ran into his old schoolmaster from Hull Grammar School, Isaac Milner, who was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the post now occupied by Stephen- a Brief History of Time- Hawkin. Milner was a Bible-believing evangelical Christian. During their trip through the Alps in their carriage, Wilberforce poured scorn on such beliefs, and although bright as he was, Milner could not match the wit and tongue of Wilberforce. But he did challenge him to a proper discussion. Well, rising to the bait, Wilberforce decided to do his homework and began to read the Bible every day, and then very slowly the change began to occur- a testimony to the power of God’s book. Wilberforce still went about his social life but became more and more dissatisfied with its shallowness and superficiality. "Surely, there must be more to life than this?" he said. And maybe that is something you have thought that about the way you are living. Well in the autumn 1785 he went on holiday with Milner again, but this time it was serious- out came the Greek New Testament! By November when he returned to London he knew he had to make a straight choice: on the one hand his ambition, friends and fame- on the other a personal commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Now let me say this, when you start to take the One true God seriously as he is found in his Son, Jesus, he will certainly start to take you seriously and he will not give you much rest. He certainly didn’t with Wilberforce. Here are some entries from his diary: 27 Nov: ‘I must awake to my dangerous state, and never be at rest till I have made my peace with God. My heart is so hard, my blindness so great, that I cannot get a due hatred of sin, though I see I am all corrupt, and blinded to the perception of spiritual things.’ He was bothered that he was not bothered enough. He knew with his mind he was guilty before the God who made him and was tumbling headlong into hell, but he did not feel it. And that could well be you. The following night he wrote: ‘Lord, I am wretched and miserable, and blind, and naked. What infinite love, that Christ should die to save such a sinner, and how necessary is it He should save us altogether, that we may appear before God with nothing of our own.’ What was his stumbling block, and maybe yours? Not intellectual doubt-the evidence for Christ is overwhelming- it was personal- 29 Nov, ‘Pride is my greatest stumbling block.’ He said. This went on and on, then in December he knew he needed help and like Nicodemus, he went out at night to search for a clergyman who did believe, and found him. He was a former slave trader turned evangelical preacher and hymn writer- John Newton who wrote ‘Amazing Grace.’ And so Wilberforce came to a personal knowledge and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, discovering for himself how amazing that grace really was. And rather prophetically Newton said to him, ‘The Lord has raised you up to the good of his church and for the good of his nation.’
He knew he couldn’t be a secret Christian and had to make his faith known. So he told his friend the Prime Minister who tried to talk him out of it. Wilberforce tried to talk him into it and continued to pray for his friend until the day Pitt died, much to Wilberforce’s distress not a Christian believer. He walked before the coffin at his funeral. But throughout their lives they remained good and trusted friends.
Now that he was a Christian he set out to make up for lost time and the laziness of his student days. During the long parliamentary recesses he would spend up to 9 hours a day in study. The Bible was his best loved book and he would learn long stretches of it by heart. For Wilberforce true Christianity was practical Christianity. It began with a change on the inside leading to a radical change on the outside. He displayed all the virtues described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Until his marriage at the age of 37 he regularly gave away 25% of his income for the poor, Christian schools and those in need. He paid the bills of those in prison under the harsh debt laws, releasing them to live productive lives. In 1801 when war with France and bad harvests created widespread hunger, he gave away £3,000 more than his actual income. In other words, what God had given him-whether his mind or money he was to use for God’s glory and increasing the happiness of others. And so he and his Christian friends organised the Society for the Education of Africans, the Society for the Bettering the Condition of the Poor, the Society for Relief of Debtors to name just some of the things he was involved in- let alone the sending of evangelical chaplains to Australia like Richard Johnson from Hull. All that was on top of his incredible feat in helping get rid of the slave trade.
So now he was a Christian what was he to do with his life? One night it came to him. He wrote: ‘Almighty God has set before me two great objectives-the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners’- that is the change of people’s hearts and lives, and that as we shall see, he believed could only come about by the power of the Christian message applied by God’s Spirit. Talk about being ambitious!
From a purely human point of view he and his friends were on to a loser in trying to abolish the slave trade. Too much money was involved and too many vested interests threatened. But that was not to deter Wilberforce. Soon after Christmas 1787 he gave notice in the House of Commons that early in the new session he would move the abolition of the slave trade. It would be twenty years before this would be put into law, and a further 26 years before all slaves would be set free- 46 years in total! And so began the most massive campaign embarked upon in Britain, involving rallies, economic boycotts, extensive research and writing, dogged political determination and hours of prayer and preaching. Year after year Wilberforce brought a bill to the house only to be defeated time and time again. One of the most devastating occasions was in 1796 when it actually looked like victory was in reach. On the third reading of the bill, a new comic opera was taking place in Covent gardens, and some of Wilberforce’s supporters decided to go to that instead, with the result that the bill was defeated by only four votes! Can you imagine how Wilberforce must have felt? Devastated! During this time Wilberforce really did fear for his life. He was a slightly built man, just over five feet tall. He was publicly mocked and insulted. James Boswell snidely wrote this poem about him: ‘Go, W- with narrow skull, Go home and preach away in Hull. No longer in the Senate cackle in strains that suit the tabernacle; I hate your little wittling sneer, your pert and self-sufficient leer. Mischief to trade sits on your lip, insects will gnaw the noblest ship. Go, W- begone, for shame, thou dwarf with big resounding name.’ But Wilberforce continued until in 1807 when the moral cause and the political momentum for abolition became finally irresistible and the bill for abolition was passed with 283 votes for and 16 against. And instead of deciding to take it easy, he turned to his friend Henry Thornton and said, "Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?" Do you know what the answer was? The National lottery, which like today was ruining the lives of thousands. But it was not until three days before his death in 1833, the year this church was built, that slavery was outlawed in the British colonies. When he was told, he propped himself up on a bony elbow, smiled and said: ‘Thank God that I should have lived to witness the day in which England is willing to give £20 million for the abolition of slavery’-that was the amount paid in restitution to the slave traders. The following Monday he went to be with the Lord he had loved and served for so much of his life.
To be consistent in a pressurised public life is hard enough, but what of his private life? This too had more than its fair share of pain. Wilberforce’s wife was a different personality altogether. She was often depressed and pessimistic- a real whinger, and worried herself into bad health which dogged her for the rest of her life. His oldest son, William went to Trinity College, Oxford and fell away from the Christian faith and wined and dined his money away, not bothering with his studies. And this can be the heaviest burden of all for a Christian parent to bear. So Wilberforce wrote in March 1819, ‘Oh my poor William. How strange he can make so miserable those who love him best and who he really loves. His soft nature makes him the sport of his companions, and the wicked and idle naturally attach themselves like dust and cleave like burs. I go to pray for him. Alas, could I love my Saviour more and serve him; God would hear my prayer and turn his heart.’ Wilberforce cut off his allowance and this helped bring his son to his senses and eventually back to his faith. But even with this it was a great sadness to see his other three sons abandon the evangelical faith which he embraced in order to become ceremonial high churchman. And on top of it all came the death of his daughter Barbara, at the age of 32 in 1821. She was diagnosed with TB and tragically died five days after Christmas.
Then there were Wilberforce’s own physical ailments. He wrote in 1788 that his eyes were so bad, ‘I can scarcely see how to direct my pen.’ The funny side was that he was often shabbily dressed with everything put own skewed because he never looked into a mirror, since his eyes were so bad he couldn’t see himself anyway!’ As the years past the eye disease got worst. He had an ulcerated colon for which the doctors prescribed pure morphine and so he unwittingly became an opium addict. Following a lung problem, came a curvature of the spine and for the rest of his life he wore a brace beneath his clothes which most people knew nothing about.
But what of his other aim- the reformation of manners? One of the ways Wilberforce went about achieving this was to target his friends who had power and influence. He wanted to see them converted and know the Saviour he had come to know. For Wilberforce politics could only go so far, he wrote: ‘The only solid hopes for the well-being of our country depend not so much on her fleets and armies, the wisdom of her rulers, or the spirit of her people, as on the realisation that she still contains many, who, in a degenerate age, love and obey the Gospel of Christ.’ He knew that anything else was cosmetic and short lived. What was needed was for men and women to be brought into restored relationship with their Maker through Jesus Christ and changed by his Spirit. And so he decided to write an evangelistic book, which is now called, ‘Real Christianity’. It took him nine years to write and his publisher thought that it wouldn’t sell very well and so only printed 500 copies. It was published in April 1797 and by August went into five editions and 7,500 copies were sold. It is a brilliant, well argued and passionate presentation of the truth of the Christian faith and the utter stupidity and uselessness of man made religion. You see, unlike many of our politicians and educationalists today, Wilberforce had a realistic, that is, biblical, view of human nature, an understanding of the real problem and God’s remedy. He saw that all men and women were in fact slaves. Their freedom was a delusion- they were slaves to sin and the devil-that alone explained the dreadful things in the world. As Jesus said, ‘It is out of the human heart which comes all that defile a person’. Wilberforce saw so clearly that this could only be changed by divine intervention. This God had provided. He gave his Son to bear away the judgement we all deserve, suffering the hell of the cross as our sins were placed upon him. This, the Bible calls, ‘justification’ as we are declared forgiven and to be right before God as we put our trust solely in Christ. You can’t be a Christian without having done that. He sends his Spirit to live within us, to change our direction and clean up our lives- this is called sanctification. And so our lives are now to be lived for God and others, not for ourselves. Wilberforce had no time for that churchgoing whereby people say one thing and do another which is a blight on the Gospel in every age. And he longed for people to know this truth. The wonderful thing is that through his book many did.
This is what enabled Wilberforce to keep on keeping on when many would have given up. He knew God and he actually enjoyed him. This was one of the distinguishing marks of Wilberforce-joy; and so he was a delight to be with. The poet Robert Southey said, "I never saw any other man who seemed to enjoy perpetual serenity and sunshine of spirit. In talking with him you feel assured that there is no guile in him; that if every there was a good man and happy man on earth, he was one.’ Sp this was no kill joy- he loved life because he loved the giver of life- God.
Of course he had his dark moments too, sometimes very dark, but in these he turned to the only source of real joy- His Lord. In March 1788 as he struggled with colitis and no doubt the morphine poisoning he prayed, ‘Lord, thou knowest that no strength, wisdom or contrivance of human power can relieve me. It is in thy power alone to deliver me. Look upon me O Lord with compassion and mercy; and restore me to rest, quietness and comfort in the world, or in another by removing the hence into a state of peace and happiness. Amen’
So here we are tonight some two centuries later- living in the same city, the same world with many of the same problems, but a world in many ways made better by men like William Wilberforce. Some of us are professing Christians, so let me ask this question: if Wilberforce were to be allowed to come down here tonight from heaven and look at the way we live our lives, what makes us tick, what we give our money to, our time and energies- would he recognise us as one of his own or would he be at a loss as to why we call ourselves Christians at all? You and I only have one life to live- this is it- so what are we going to do with it? The younger ones- Mark two and students have, God willing, a whole life ahead of you. Are you going to be like the early Wilberforce- live for short term pleasure-booze, birds or boys- or are you going to make your life actually count for something by following Christ? The same goes for those of us who are older. Are we going to be resting on our laurels, reminiscing about what we used to do as Christians when we were young, but being very careless about what we are doing now? Or are we determined to go out in a blaze of glory as did Wilberforce?
Some others here aren’t Christians. So let me ask you: what makes you tick? Do you hold to the belief that you come from nowhere and are going nowhere-then what will motivate you to make this world a better place when it is all going to disappear one day anyway? Or are you willing to do what Wilberforce did and take seriously the claims of Christ and look into this Christianity for yourself? It is either true or nonsense. But if it is true you can’t afford to ignore it? How did Jesus put it: ‘I have come that they may have life in all its fullness’? Well, if ever there was such a full life, it was the life of William Wilberforce and it could well be your life too.
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