Wilberforce is famous for the abolition of slavery. But not many people realise that he had an even greater passion — to see a radical change in eighteenth century society, especially among the upper classes.
A year or so after his spiritual awakening, he declared: ‘God Almighty has placed before me two great objectives: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners’.
In the early years following Wilberforce’s conversion, he felt that if he came out publicly as an evangelical he’d lose the respect and friendship of many important people and feared he would be far less effective. At that time evangelical Christians were considered to be fanatics.
In 1787, he persuaded his close friend Prime Minister William Pitt and the God-fearing King George III to make a royal proclamation ‘to discountenance and punish all manner of vice, profaneness and immorality’.
Proclamation Societies started to spring up all over the country and anyone was welcome to join them. This all did some good, but Wilberforce was frustrated by the lack of progress.
He listened to his minister and mentor John Newton preach and spent much time talking with him about the biblical doctrines of sin, judgement and salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.
This helped Wilberforce to realise that the job of transforming society could only ever be achieved by people who had been transformed by the gospel. So, in 1797, Wilberforce published his personal manifesto, entitled A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians in the higher and middle classes of this country contrasted with real Christianity!
This had taken him four years to write, plainly stating his evangelical beliefs and saying, in no uncertain terms, that he thought the majority of the middle and upper classes were not real Christians at all.
To everyone’s surprise the book was an immediate success. These days it would be hailed as a best-seller! By 1826, the circulation of its 25 editions was unprecedented — reprinted in North America and India, and translated into five European languages.
John Newton deemed it ‘the most valuable and important publication of the present age’. Wilberforce felt hugely relieved that everyone knew exactly where he stood, especially in Parliament.
Very few Anglican clergy at that time were evangelical. In general, they didn’t want faith interfering in public life, and evangelicals were looked down on for their ‘enthusiasm’. While the evangelical preaching of George Whitefield and John Wesley had a considerable influence on the poorer people, the upper classes — Wilberforce’s primary target — were virtually untouched.
Wilberforce never lived to see the true fruit of his labours but, after his death in 1832, his writing had a major impact on politics and society.
Following Wilberforce were Lord Shaftesbury and a host of other Victorian evangelical Christians, who dedicated their lives to protecting the most vulnerable and to encouraging people to act according to biblical principles.
In 1885 The Times claimed that the income of all the charities in London alone was greater than that of the governments of Sweden, Denmark and Portugal, and double that of the Swiss Confederation. About 75 per cent of these thousands of philanthropic societies set up to help needy people were evangelical!
Just as Wilberforce did, we long for long-lasting spiritual transformation in the lives of individuals so that whole communities can be changed. Two and a half centuries on there is the same need.
Executive Chairman, CARE (www.care.org.uk) Edited, with permission, from Catalyst (Spring 2013), the magazine of CARE