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William Wilberforce: Erring on the Side of Graciousness

By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird William Wilberforce had two main goals: the abolition of slavery and the reform of morals.

 

Abraham Lincoln once said that every school child should know about William Wilberforce.[i]  Preston Manning, former Parliamentary Opposition Leader, recently gave a talk in Abbotsford on the gracious political persistence of Wilberforce.  For twenty long years from 1787 to 1807, Wilberforce campaigned relentlessly for the abolition of the slave trade.  It was incredibly painful and often deeply discouraging.  What kept him from giving up as he faced defeat after defeat?  Wilberforce had previously lived a self-indulgent life as a very wealthy upper class Englishman.  What motivated him to stopped wasting his life in drinking, gambling and endless parties?  Wilberforce was a popular Member of Parliament who wowed crowds with his remarkable singing and wit.  Prime Minister William Pitt said that Wilberforce had the greatest natural eloquence of all the men he had ever known.[ii]  What caused Wilberforce to choose the unpopular path of putting principle above politics, and conscience over ambition?

With the death of Wilberforce’s father at just age 40, William’s comfortable world was radically shaken.  At only eight, after his mother’s serious illness, he was shipped off to his Uncle William and Aunt Hannah in Wimbledon.  Unbeknownst to his mother, he became exposed to a deep faith, even becoming mentored by Rev. John Newton, the former slave-ship captain and author of the song Amazing Grace.  Some trace Wilberforce’s hatred of slavery back to this earliest encounter.  When Wilberforce’s wealthy grandfather got wind of his new spirituality, he threatened to disinherit him.  So Wilberforce’s mother promptly rescued him and did her best to cure him through endless parties and upper class distractions.  For a while, the cure was effective.  After his grandfather’s death, Wilberforce inherited the family fortune which funded his election as a very young English MP.  His good friend William Pitt Jr, at the age of only 24, became the youngest prime minister in English history.

While spending the winter at the fashionable French and Italian Rivieras, he was suddenly called back to London in support of William Pitt’s Parliamentary Reform Bill. While crossing the Swiss Alps, Wilberforce read The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge.  Both Doddridge and John Wesley were instrumental in reintroducing the forgotten teachings of Richard Baxter about self-examination, solitude, devotions, and diligence.[iii]  In discussing Doddridge’s book with his former tutor Isaac Milner, Wilberforce’s life was never the same.  He rediscovered his childhood faith at an adult level.  Wilberforce, with Milner’s assistance, began reading the bible in the original Greek.  He wanted to find out for himself what the Christian faith was actually about.  He discovered that it was not about a system of gloomy prohibitions.  True faith is about peace and hope and joy.  The Amazing Grace movie, which Preston Manning often shows to young leaders, vividly portrays that when Wilberforce fell in love with Jesus, he also fell in love with God’s creation.  As a 18th-century flower child, he saw flowers as the smiles of God’s goodness.[iv]

Rather than drop out of politics as he was tempted to do, Wilberforce turned his new-found faith into practical action.  Prime Minister Pitt wrote him, saying: “Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.”  We are called by Jesus to be salt and light in the public arena.  Reconnecting with his old mentor John Newton, Wilberforce realized that God could use him to end the slave trade: “God almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.”  Eighteenth-century England was rife with epidemic alcohol abuse, child prostitution, child labour, and animal exploitation.  There were over 14,000 slaves in England alone, but hundreds of thousands more in the rich Caribbean colonies where it was out of sight and out of mind.[v]  The future King of England George IV was famous for his immorality and gambling debts, keeping lockets of hair from all 7,000 women that he had seduced.[vi]  He and his brothers dismissed abolitionists like Wilberforce as fanatics and hypocrites.[vii]

Preston Manning has for years encouraged Christians who want to make a difference in society to follow the example of William Wilberforce.Preston Manning, President and CEO for the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, told me that Wilberforce, in abolishing slavery, conducted a classic campaign integrating moral, economic and political issues.  As a committed Christian, Wilberforce followed Jesus’ teaching to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”  He was careful how he introduced this taboo subject of abolition.  Rather than politically discrediting others, said Manning, it is better like Wilberforce to err on the side of graciousness.  Because England was the foremost slave-trading nation on earth, it was initially unthinkable to give it up, let alone discuss it.[viii]  Such moral reform appeared to many like commercial suicide.  One merchant accurately put it, the African slave trade was “the foundation of our commerce,…the life of our navigation, and first cause of our national industry and riches.”[ix]  Eighty per cent of overseas British income came from the Caribbean slave plantations.[x]  In Bristol, after the initial defeat of Wilberforce’s bill, bells were rung, a bonfire was lit, and a half-day holiday was awarded to sailors and workers.[xi]  The passion for slave-produced sugar had killed their conscience.  Trinidadian Prime Minister Eric Williams said that it was strange that an article like sugar, so sweet and necessary to human existence, should have occasioned such crimes and bloodshed![xii]

While fighting the slave trade, Wilberforce also invested in improving the life of England’s poor, giving one quarter of his income, representing the equivalent of $300,000 away each year.  He started cancer hospitals, eye clinics and many faith-based schools for the poor.[xiii]  One civic leader begged them to not bring ‘any religion into the country, it was the worst thing in the world for the poor, for it made them lazy and useless.’[xiv]  Wilberforce knew that without prayer, all his anti-slavery work would be in vain: “Of all things, guard against neglecting God in the secret place of prayer.”[xv]

While the slave trade was abolished in 1807, the slaves were not liberated until just before Wilberforce’s death.  800,000 Afro-Caribbeans were set free on July 31st 1834. Some abandoned slavery because of changes in the industrial free market.  Wilberforce however opposed slavery for godly, humanitarian reasons.  While moving a motion for abolition, Wilberforce said “Africa! Africa! Your sufferings have been the theme that has arrested and engages my heart – your sufferings no tongue can express; no language impart.”[xvi]

Sadly there are still today twenty-seven million people trapped in slavery and human trafficking.  May Wilberforce’s godly example cause us to choose to make a lasting global difference.

 

The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, D.Min

-published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News, the Light Magazine, Academia.edu, and Church for Vancouver

-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada

for better for worse-Click to check out our newest marriage book For Better For Worse: discovering the keys to a lasting relationship on Amazon. You can even read the first two chapters for free to see if the book speaks to you.

 

-The sequel book Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit is available online with Amazon.com in both paperback and ebook form.  Dr. JI Packer wrote the foreword, saying “I heartily commend what he has written.” The book focuses on strengthening a new generation of healthy leaders. Drawing on examples from Titus’ healthy leadership in the pirate island of Crete, it shows how we can embrace a holistically healthy life.

In Canada, Amazon.ca has the book available in paperback and ebook. It is also posted on Amazon UK (paperback and ebook), Amazon France (paperback and ebook), and Amazon Germany (paperback and ebook).

Restoring Health is also available online on Barnes and Noble in both paperback and Nook/ebook form.  Nook gives a sample of the book to read online.

Indigo also offers the paperback and the Kobo ebook version.  You can also obtain it through ITunes as an IBook.

To receive a signed copy within North America, just send a $20 cheque (USD/CAN) to ED HIRD, 102 – 15168 19th Avenue, Surrey, BC, V4A 0A5, Canada.

– In order to obtain a signed copy of the prequel book Battle for the Soul of Canada, please send a $18.50 cheque to ED HIRD, 102 – 15168 19th Avenue, Surrey, BC, V4A 0A5. For mailing the book to the USA, please send $20.00 USD.  This can also be done by PAYPAL using the e-mail ed_hird@telus.net . Be sure to list your mailing address. The Battle for the Soul of Canada e-book can be obtained for $4.99 CDN/USD.

-Click to purchase the Companion Bible Study by Jan Cox (for the Battle of the Soul of Canada) in both paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca 


[i] Ted Baehr, Susan Wales and Ken Wales, The Amazing Grace of Freedom: the Inspiring Faith of William Wilberforce. (New Leaf Press, Green Forest, AR, 2007), p. 23.

[ii] Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace (Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2007), p. 41.

[iii] William Hague, William Wilberforce: the Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner,(HarperCollins Publishers, London, UK, 2007), p. 74.

[iv] Hague, p. 205.

[v] Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace (Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2007), p. 94.

[vi] Metaxas, p. 72.

[vii] Metaxas, p. 158

[viii] Eric Williams, Slavery and Capitalism, (Andre Deutsch Limited, London, UK, 1964), p. 34.

[ix] Hague, p. 119.

[x] Hague, p. 119.

[xi] Hague, p. 225.

[xii] Williams, p. 27.

[xiii] Hague, p. 221.

[xiv] Hague, p. 213.

[xv] Baehr, Wales, and Wales, p. 110.

[xvi] Metaxas, p. 151.


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Hark The Herald Angels Sing!

By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird

There is something about the Christmas season that starts you singing.  Many people hardly ever sing in public.  Yet Christmas can turn them into instant musicians, belting out Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger, or I wish you a Merry Christmas.  My best friend as a teenager was a self-professed atheist, but he loved to sing Christmas Carols.  I will always remember going door-to-door with my atheist friend singing Silent Night, Holy Night and raising money for the local Christmas Stocking Fund.

One of the best loved carols of all time is Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  Charles Wesley, the brother of the famous John Wesley, wrote this carol in 1739.  Charles wrote over 6,500 hymns, making him the most prolific hymn-writer of all time.  Charles was born on December 18th, 1707, the 18th of 18 children.  His father, Samuel Wesley, an Anglican priest in Epworth, had a very profound impact on his life.  Both Charles and his brother John had a first class education at Oxford, where Charles worked on his MA  On May 21st, 1738, Charles underwent a life-changing conversion which significantly released within him his gift of song-writing.  Almost every day Charles would be writing another brand-new hymn.  Both Charles and his brother John were ordained Anglican priests.  In those days, Anglicans never sung hymns in church.  They only sang the psalms.  Hymn-singing and carol-singing was seen as a very radical thing to do.

At times, Charles and John Wesley would encounter great opposition as they went around singing and preaching the gospel.  In February 1747 at Devizes, the two brothers were attacked by a mob which surrounded their house, broke the windows, tore off the shutters, and flooded the house with water pumped from a fire engine.  In response, Charles wrote a hymn which they sang as they left town.  Sometimes the beautiful songs themselves would tame the unruly mob, and turn them away from violence.

Hundreds of thousands of lives were affected by these two musical brothers.  Some historians credit the Wesleys with having prevented the French Revolution from reoccurring in 18th century England.  Instead England went through a spiritual revolution that greatly improved the lot of the working class.  At that time, adults and even children could be legally hanged for 160 different offenses –from picking a pocket to stealing a rabbit.  In London, 75% of all children died before age 5.  Among the poor, the death rate was even higher.  In one orphanage, only one of 500 orphans survived more than a year.  Alcohol abuse was rampant, even among children, with over 11 million gallons of Gin consumed in 1750.  Charles and John Wesley believed that changed hearts could lead to a changed society.  Their impact on 18th century society was phenomenal in the areas of health, politics, prisons, economics, education, music, and literature.

Few people realize that the carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing took over 120 years to finish.  The tune that we now use to sing this carol was actually composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840.  Fifteen years later, an English musician W.H. Cummings applied Mendelssohn’s music to Wesley’s carol.  Felix Mendelssohn was a Jewish believer in Jesus who is famous for reintroducing Johann Sebastian Bach to the musical world, as well as for his oratios Elijah and St. Paul.

As we sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing each Christmas, let us do so with a new thanksgiving for the sacrifices and dedication of those who have given us the heritage of Christmas Caroling.  My Christmas prayer is that the words ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King’ may touch the hearts of many men, women, and children during the Holidays.

 

The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin

-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada

for better for worse-Click to check out our newest marriage book For Better For Worse: discovering the keys to a lasting relationship on Amazon. You can even read the first two chapters for free to see if the book speaks to you.

 

-The sequel book Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit is available online with Amazon.com in both paperback and ebook form.  Dr. JI Packer wrote the foreword, saying “I heartily commend what he has written.” The book focuses on strengthening a new generation of healthy leaders. Drawing on examples from Titus’ healthy leadership in the pirate island of Crete, it shows how we can embrace a holistically healthy life.

In Canada, Amazon.ca has the book available in paperback and ebook. It is also posted on Amazon UK (paperback and ebook), Amazon France (paperback and ebook), and Amazon Germany (paperback and ebook).

Restoring Health is also available online on Barnes and Noble in both paperback and Nook/ebook form.  Nook gives a sample of the book to read online.

Indigo also offers the paperback and the Kobo ebook version.  You can also obtain it through ITunes as an IBook.

To receive a signed copy within North America, just send a $20 cheque (USD/CAN) to ED HIRD, 102 – 15168 19th Avenue, Surrey, BC, V4A 0A5, Canada.

– In order to obtain a signed copy of the prequel book Battle for the Soul of Canada, please send a $18.50 cheque to ED HIRD, 102 – 15168 19th Avenue, Surrey, BC, V4A 0A5. For mailing the book to the USA, please send $20.00 USD.  This can also be done by PAYPAL using the e-mail ed_hird@telus.net . Be sure to list your mailing address. The Battle for the Soul of Canada e-book can be obtained for $4.99 CDN/USD.

-Click to purchase the Companion Bible Study by Jan Cox (for the Battle of the Soul of Canada) in both paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca