Think About It

A Man Who Changed His Times: Part I

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | August 24, 2013

“It’s easy to make a fortune, but harder to make a difference.”
A businessman to a friend of J. Douglas Holladay

On October 28, 1787, William Wilberforce wrote in his diary, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.” It didn’t matter that he was a young 28-year-old member of the British Parliament. It didn’t matter that the French Revolution was on the horizon. It didn’t matter that Britain’s own social conditions were deplorable. He was on a mission.

Only three days before Wilberforce died, 46 years after he made that audacious declaration, the bill for the abolition of slavery throughout the entire British Empire passed. “In the process,” according to J. Douglas Holladay, “Wilberforce went from being one of the most vilified men in Europe to one of the most loved and revered in the world.”

According to Holladay, “Wilberforce led the single most effective stand against evil and injustice in all history” as “an indefatigable reformer and supreme abolisher of Britain’s odious slave trade.”

In February 1996 at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the celebrated contemporary biographer John Pollock delivered an acclaimed lecture on how Wilberforce lived a life of such significance. In that lecture he shared these seven principles from Wilberforce’s life.

First, Wilberforce’s whole life was animated by a deeply held, personal faith in Jesus Christ. Wilberforce had faith in a personal God who is concerned with individual human lives, justice and the transformation of societies. He and his friends viewed themselves as “pilgrims on a mission of mercy.” 

Second, Wilberforce had a deep sense of calling that grew into the conviction that he was to exercise his spiritual purpose in the realm of his secular responsibility. He refused to view life in the “two-tiered religious caste system” of the secular and sacred. He believed his deep spirituality could find legitimate expression to make a difference outside the church.

Third, Wilberforce was committed to the strategic importance of a band of like-minded friends devoted to working together in chosen ventures. He understood the synergy of engaging a core of persons mutually committed to the mission. His particular band of associates was labeled “the Saints” by some in Parliament as a term of endearment and by others as a term of disdain.

Fourth, Wilberforce believed deeply in the power of ideas and moral beliefs to change culture through a campaign of sustained public persuasion. Once Wilberforce and his friends presented a petition to Parliament signed by ten percent of the British people. He even persuaded the famous potter, Josiah Wedgewood, to create a special medallion. At the center of the small plate was a kneeling slave in shackles, and inscribed around the edge was the question, “Am I not a Man and Brother?”

Fifth, Wilberforce was willing to pay a steep cost for his courageous public stands and was remarkably persistent in pursuing his life task. For 47 years Wilberforce’s effort cost him his health, reputation and political ambitions. Many felt he could have easily become the Prime Minister if he had sought the position.

Sixth, Wilberforce’s labors and faith were grounded in a genuine humanity rather than blind fanaticism. Examples abound of Wilberforce’s disarming wit, unassuming modesty, contagious joy. His deep passion grew out of his own inner peace.

Seventh, Wilberforce forged strategic partnerships for the common good irrespective of differences over methods, ideology, or religious beliefs. Though he never compromised on principle, he often compromised on tactics. His mission never changed though his methods often did.

Though Wilberforce was just over five feet tall and often frail, in his later years weighing well under 100 pounds, an Italian diplomat once called him at an opening of Parliament “The Washington of humanity.”

William Wilberforce really was a man who changed his times.

Think about it.


Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu 
Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer
Follow on Twitter: @DrDonMeyer
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