Wilberforce & the Revival of Christian Culture

As Christians we are called to the task of cultural renewal, transforming the world around us by fulfilling the Great Commission mandate to make disciples of all nations. But this is not primarily accomplished by political or activist means, rather it is fully dependent on the power of God.

I wrote recently that the great question of our time for the believer is how the Word of God relates to our life in the world. As Christians, and especially Christian leaders – in church, media and arts, law, politics, business, education or any other sphere – the way we answer that question will have lasting implications for society and our children’s children.

Sadly, many Christian leaders, through ignorance or disinterest, neither fathom the extent of the danger presently confronting the church, nor see the opportunity of our age. They have been unwittingly steeped in synthesis thinking – a pattern of thought that accommodates itself to humanistic views of reality that place man and his desires, not God and His Word, at the root and centre of life in the world. However earnestly such people may love Jesus and mean well, this syncretistic mind and hybridized worldview reduces the gospel to either a psychological formula that promises ‘your best life now,’ concerned with getting what we want from life, or a pietistic spirituality that largely allows the world to go its own way and looks forward to being delivered into heaven and out of this age – preferably as soon as possible.

Life and history become something from which the Christian is being delivered, not something we are called to engage and see restored and renewed in Christ. The kingdom of God is shunted off to the eschaton and God’s present reign is restricted to ‘my soul’ and some limited church activities. As a result our Christian communities are often entangled in all kinds of perspectives on life and culture whose root is found in the empty philosophies of the mortal enemies of the true, full gospel of the rule and reign of King Jesus.

With this truncated gospel and failure of understanding and leadership, a paralyzing defeatism has taken hold of large parts of the church of Christ – often in the name of true piety and spiritual pilgrimage. This has made many Christians of my acquaintance across the continents discouraged, sometimes despairing and often completely worn down by the present state of affairs in the church and social order.

There are other Christians, of course, who are of a more activist cast of mind; they see and react to this spiritual immaturity and lethargy, but pin their hopes for the world on realising ‘social justice’ (as understood by the culture) or enacting a particular change in social policy (politics), or getting a Christian elected into a significant office. Yet they are usually disappointed with the result even if they achieve a measure of success for their cause or candidate. Typically (though admitting of exceptions), the Christians who reach public office equally possess the same synthesis mind (not a scriptural one) so that what was “Christian” about them to their supporters begins to quickly vanish behind a secular veil and has little to no impact on political life or public policy.

Moreover, even if on the rare occasions in our present time a Christian is successful in advancing a scripturally directed piece of social policy, we soon see that political and social policies in themselves do not deal with the central problem of our social order today – the increasingly self-conscious desire in people to conduct our cultural and political activities apart from life in God’s covenant, in terms of the Word by which He created the world. The root need is for a gospel transformation of all of life, in every sphere, in terms of the word of God – in family, church, state and all cultural life.

We must remember, however, that Western cultural life wasn’t always in a clear or self-conscious apostasy from God’s Word, as it is today, and the present direction need not continue. Indeed, to assume that it will is to buy into the religious myth of historicism and progressivism – that there is a certain inherent and inevitable direction to cultural development that must sweep aside all transcendent notions of truth and moral value.

While there has yet to be a thoroughly and consistently Christian age of history in any nation, we can look back to be resourced by the past to help us move again in a scriptural direction for the present. Several great Christians have understood this critical need for an integral life of lived-out faith in terms of the totality of God’s Word which has manifested incredible cultural and political fruit which we are still feeding on.

One very worthy model for us was William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, though best remembered for his life-long battle with – and final victory over – the establishment slave-trade, was also one of the key founders of British evangelicalism who understood both the covenant of God and the centrality of that Word of God to all of life. Moreover, he grasped these vital truths in a time of great religious apostasy in Europe. For example, in his important book A Practical View of Christianity, he foresaw the evils that would spill out of the French Revolution:

A brood of moral vipers is now hatching, which, when they shall have attained their mischievous maturity, will go forth to poison the world. But fruitless will be all attempts to sustain, much more to revive, the fainting cause of morals, unless you can in some degree restore the prevalence of evangelical Christianity.[1]

Wilberforce clearly saw that you cannot fight cultural decay and religious apostasy by merely political or social means – yet this did not lead him to sit on his hands in political and social life, quite the contrary. He rightly perceived that what was needed alongside undaunted and faithful action, was a concurrent renewal of a total and radical faith in Christ. The decline away from an applied Christian faith was very apparent in his age. Bishop J. C Ryle, writing of Wilberforce’s own era, noted:

England seems barren of all that is really good. How such a state of things can have arisen in a land of free bibles and professing Protestantism is almost past comprehension. Christianity seems to lie as one dead. Morality, however much exalted in pulpits, is thoroughly trampled under foot in the streets. There is darkness in the court, the Parliament, and the bar – darkness in country, and darkness in town – darkness among rich and darkness among poor – a gross, thick, religious and moral darkness – a darkness that might be felt. It may suffice to say that adultery, sexual immorality, gambling, swearing, Sabbath-breaking and drunkenness are hardly regarded vices at all. They are the fashionable practices of people in the highest ranks of society, and no one is thought the worse of for indulging in them. And what were the churches doing? Well, they exist but they could hardly be said to be alive. They do nothing; they are sound asleep…When such is the state of things in churches and chapels, it can surprise no one to learn that the land is deluged with infidelity and scepticism.[2]

In such a context, Wilberforce was taken hold of by God, gripped by His Word and Spirit, and raised up to do battle for the gospel-culture of Christ – for the liberties and beauty of the gospel – that is, for the kingdom of God. This meant integrated faithful service that encompassed everything from personal evangelism and preaching to political and cultural reform, which he called the reformation of manners.

Critically Wilberforce, the man and his mission, did not arise out of a vacuum – he was an inheritor of scriptural faith. One of Wilberforce’s evangelical forerunners must be mentioned who equally faced down tyranny and oppression and was probably the only truly evangelical Head of State Britain has ever had – the recklessly-maligned Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was born near Cambridge in Huntington in 1599. He was radically converted to Christ around 1629 and in an incredible story of courage, faith and God’s providence, eventually became Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. He was a Puritan (a pejorative name first given to ostracized evangelical Anglicans), and he fought in a dark and absolutist age for the kingdom of Christ and obedience to the covenant of God in the nation. He was, in many respects, engaged in a life-and-death struggle for gospel life and freedom during a turbulent and profligate time.

Cromwell is important not only for his role in the breaking of royal absolutism in politics; the effective founding of Parliamentary supremacy; the establishment of the British Navy and Empire; and for his fervent faith; but for the fact that he was an evangelical Christian who (whatever judgements might be made of his imperfections and mistakes) rose to the highest office and sought to consistently honor Christ and His Word in socio-cultural and political life.

He lived in troubled and frightening times, when invasion and tyranny were a constant threat, yet he steadfastly sponsored Christian preaching and lectureships, schools, universities, charities, poverty relief and much more, with an unashamed insistence on the authority of God’s Word for all life. In fact he himself regularly preached sermons to Parliament. Because of this faithful activity, Britain was never the same again. Without Cromwell and the seventeenth-century Puritans one cannot envisage the Great Awakening of their faith in the evangelical revival amongst men like Wilberforce, whose life also left Britain and her commonwealth radically changed for the good. One Canadian Wilberforce biographer, seeing the connection between the Puritans and Wilberforce and their refusal to artificially divide personal piety from cultural transformation, wrote:

For [Wilberforce], as for the Puritans, religion was not a set of rules but a life-force: a vision and compulsion which saw the beauty of a holy life and moved toward it, marveling at the possibilities and thrilling to the satisfaction of a god-centred life … neither the Puritan’s nor Wilberforce separated concern for personal holiness from concern for national holiness and national reform.[3]

Wilberforce himself was born in 1759 into a wealthy merchant family, and like Cromwell, attended Cambridge. He was 17 when he arrived there and had little desire at that point for serious study. By this time he had lost the earnest childhood faith passed to him by his aunt and uncle. As a result he spent much of his youth in a dissolute lifestyle. And while he would come to regret his juvenile time-wasting, he did build some important friendships at Cambridge, in particular with William Pitt, the future Prime Minister.

In 1780, Wilberforce successfully stood for election in his hometown of Hull ­– aged 21 and still a student. He soon became one of the rising stars in Parliament, where his natural speaking ability was readily noticeable. Pitt said that Wilberforce possessed “the greatest natural eloquence of all the men I ever knew.” In 1784 Wilberforce stood again for election, this time leaving the safe seat of Hull for an influential seat in Yorkshire – the largest county in England. He won the seat and so, by the time a very wealthy and politically independent Wilberforce was 25, he was a Member of Parliament for one of the most prestigious seats in the country and his good friend, William Pitt, was about to become Prime Minister! It is easy to see in hindsight how God was moving His servant into position.

In the providence of God, through a friendship with one Isaac Milner, a Christian scholar and something of an apologist who accompanied Wilberforce on a tour of Europe, by the summer of 1785, Wilberforce’s many intellectual doubts and objections to the Christian faith had been removed. Over a short period he came to place his faith completely in Christ. Yet at that time, due to the deep influence of dualistic Greek philosophy on Christianity in the West, one of his major considerations and concerns was whether he could become a faithful evangelical Christian and remain in politics. Wasn’t politics a profane and ‘secular’ vocation?

Nagged by these concerns Wilberforce arranged to meet with the only evangelical clergyman his wider family had some acquaintance with in London – John Newton, the former slave trader and author of Amazing Grace – a man Wilberforce remembered from his childhood days in Wimbledon. By God’s grace, in a conversation of incredible historical importance, Newton persuaded Wilberforce that he could be a Christian and remain in politics. He later told Wilberforce that: “It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation.”

The life of Wilberforce is a truly amazing story that every Christian should read. The abolition of the slave trade for which he is most remembered (amongst his many other incredible achievements and reform endeavors) would take the rest of his life, through much hardship, sickness and sorrow. John Wesley, the redoubtable Methodist preacher and reformer, understood the perseverance that Wilberforce would require, and in one of the final actions of his life, aged 88, he wrote his last ever letter to the young Wilberforce on Feb 24th 1791:

Unless the divine Power has raised you up to be Athanasius contra mundum I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise.… Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of man and devils. But if God is for you, who can be against you. Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.[4]

Wilberforce was finally victorious in getting the abolition bill passed into law, and hugely influential in the work of gospel-centred cultural reformation in Britain. Indeed the social order and mission vitality of the Victorian age is impossible to imagine without Wilberforce and evangelical faith. But he did not accomplish what he did alone. The life-long friends that gathered around him, called the Clapham Sect, labored together for the kingdom of Christ. One historian wrote that:

They possessed between them an astonishing range of capacities: encyclopaedic knowledge, a capacity for research, sparkling wit and literary style, business sagacity, foreign policy expertise, legal ability, oratory and parliamentary skill. No prime minister had such a cabinet as Wilberforce could summon to his assistance.[5]

At one point, Wilberforce was said to be involved in over sixty different ministries. Together they set up the British and Foreign Bible society, the Church Missionary Society, the Sunday School Society, schools for the poor - they even set up the RSPCA. Moreover, at the political level, he pursued the revision of an inhumane penal code to reduce the number of hangings, and with royal approval established the Society for the Suppression of Vice. As one historian put it so well, “William Wilberforce is proof that a man can change his times, though he cannot do it alone.” [6]

But the kingdom of God is not simply a matter of passionate activity. As Wesley warned Wilberforce, pursuing scriptural cultural reformation by our own resources and strength, as though cultural action alone were sufficient, would be a great mistake ending in exhaustion and disappointment. Wilberforce understood that there would be no preservation of justice nor the growth of godly social order without a transformation of people’s hearts and minds – beginning with the individual. Charles Colson correctly noted that:

Wilberforce ultimately prevailed because he understood the futility of attempting to end a systemic evil without also changing citizens' values and dispositions. 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.[7]

Today we live again in frightening and dark times. Opposition and challenges are found on every side with the very historic freedoms of gospel witness under threat. Wickedness so often seems to prevail. But we must never lose sight of the fact that Christ is the light of life, and we are assured that the darkness cannot overcome that light. Though victory requires laying down our lives in service to the Word of God and kingdom of Christ in all aspects of life, Wilberforce knew more than most men that spiritual darkness cannot be overcome simply by social and political activity, though this must never be neglected.

Life and truth can only prevail when a new direction in the religious root of man’s being – the heart – takes shape and his life and thinking is renewed in terms of the Word of God and a scriptural worldview. In dependence on the Holy Spirit, this transformation requires faithful service to the Word in every area of life on the part of Christians, from family life and education, to political, cultural and charitable service, to evangelism and preaching. A radical and integral faith in Christ’s complete and total Lordship requires an integral mission that leaves no area untouched by the power of the Word of God. This is Wilberforce’ legacy and the secret of his great influence.

It is clear that we are a long way from this scriptural mission today. The church in our time therefore needs to be resourced by the faith and wisdom of men like Wilberforce and Cromwell. We need to imitate their faith and in our days mark a new starting point, pursue a new scriptural direction, pray for new vigour, and find a new clarity, a new basis for thought and action rooted in the Lordship of Christ. In all this our hope is not in human effort, but in the omnipotent working of the Holy Spirit and the power of the gospel. An aging Wilberforce reflected this faith at the end of his life when he wrote:

I must confess … that my own solid hopes for the wellbeing of my country depend not so much on her navies and armies, nor on the wisdom of her rulers, nor on the spirit of her people, but on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ. I believe that their prayers may yet prevail.[8]

In such a hope we shall prevail because Christ Jesus is Lord and the God of peace shall soon crush Satan under our feet.

 

[1] William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity (Glasgow: William Collins, 1833), 234.

[2] J.C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1978).

[3] Murray Andrew Pura, Vital Christianity (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2003), 96.

[4] John Wesley, George Eayrs, Letters of John Wesley: A Selection of Important and New Letters with Introductions and Biographical Notes by George Eayrs (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), p 489-490

[5] Garth Lean, God’s Politician: William Wilberforce’s Struggle (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980), 104.

[6] John Pollock, William Wilberforce: A Man who Changed his Times, (MacLean, VA: Trinity Forum, 2006), 88.

[7] Charles Colson and Anne Morse, “The Wilberforce Strategy,” Christianity Today 51, no. 2 (2007): 132.

[8] Wilberforce, A Practical View, ix.