Politics & Policy

Amazing Man

The inspiring life of William Wilberforce.

Amazing Grace, about the life of William Wilberforce, comes out in theatres this weekend. Wilberforce is known for his persistent efforts as a parliamentarian to abolish the slave trade from the British Empire. After twenty years of struggle, he succeeded. Wilberforce was a model statesman whose actions were fundamentally formed by his Christianity. National Review Online asked some fans what it is about Wilberforce that they most admire.

Senator Sam Brownback

The world today is in need of heroes. We need those who show us how to be good and who reflect the great potential of the human spirit. William Wilberforce and his monumental achievement is a story of heroic leadership and courageous action on behalf of the weak and marginalized.

William Wilberforce is the very model of a leader of conviction. He understood that in order for Britain to do great things, it needed to be good. To combat the great evil of slavery, Britain needed a culture that encouraged what is right and discouraged what is wrong. It needed a people willing to sacrifice and to fight for the dignity of others. Great Britain of the nineteenth century, not unlike America today, needed a culture worthy of its great goals both for Britain and for all humanity.

It was Wilberforce’s notion of the immensity of human dignity that led him to fight for men and women everywhere and without exception. He worked for prison reform, to help the weak and downtrodden, and most of all to end the abhorrent institution of slavery.

We are a world grateful for Wilberforce’s courage. 

 –  The Honorable Sam Brownback is a Republican senator from Kansas and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Tom Coburn

Like many of my colleagues in Congress, William Wilberforce’s life is a model and inspiration. His example has challenged me in four particular areas:

One, Wilberforce’s faith was the foundation and basis of everything he did. His faith gave him the moral clarity to see injustice, the moral courage to risk his political life in the pursuit of justice, and the moral strength to persevere against great odds.

Second, Wilberforce’s faith also gave him the wisdom to know that he could not prevail alone. He was willing to act alone but was hardly a lone crusader. He cultivated a close community of friends and colleagues known as the Clapham Fellowship that was a constant source of encouragement and accountability. As Wilberforce biographer John Pollock writes, “Wilberforce proves that one man can change his times, but he cannot do it alone.”

Third, Wilberforce fought to change laws and culture simultaneously and avoided the trap of trying to change one and not the other.

Finally, Wilberforce’s focus on his “two great objects” of abolishing slavery and reforming the morals and manners of his day challenges me to discern the “great objects” of our times. There are many legitimate “great objects” in our day such as the rise of Islamic extremism, the disintegration of families, abortion, and the dominance of moral relativism. I’ve felt a particular calling to focus on the “great object” of preventing the bankruptcy of our republic because if we fail in that challenge, our efforts in all other areas will be undermined. For instance, our ideas about freedom and human dignity have relevance in large part because of our unparalleled economic power. I believe our stewardship of our resources is one of the greatest moral and spiritual challenges of our day.  

 – The Honorable Tom Coburn, M.D.,  is a United States senator from Oklahoma (R.).  

Charles Colson

I first learned about Wilberforce after prison, through a book called God’s Politician, by Garth Lean. I was deeply inspired. Four years in the White House, and then Watergate as well, had left me disillusioned about government’s ability to change society. Wilberforce restored my hope with a model of how Christians can, and should, work in the political realm to fight against great social evils–even if now, as in Wilberforce’s day, cultural elites argue that Christians should stay in their pews and not “impose their morality.”

Wilberforce fought on, and taught modern activists a lesson: When fighting modern social evils like abortion, prison rape, and, tragically, worldwide slavery, we cannot succeed without also changing the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. As Wilberforce wrote in his diary at the start of his 46-year battle: “God has laid before me two great objects: The abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners (morals).”

Thank God, Wilberforce and his allies understood that to achieve lasting political change they would also have to change culture. And change it they did, paying no heed to those who feared they would “impose their morality.” Modern Christians would do well to emulate this example.

 – Charles Colson is the founder of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, a division of which is the Wilberforce Forum.

Richard Land

The enduring lesson of Wilberforce is that one man committed to Christ can end up making a majority. As 1 John 5:5 says, “Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” With the powerful planter-slave trader coalition arrayed against him, he faced what appeared to be humanly insurmountable odds. Yet Wilberforce, armed with his faith in God and his firm conviction that he was fighting for truth and justice, quickened the conscience of an empire and eventually led it to do the right thing, first in abolishing its slave trade and then in abolishing slavery.

Wilberforce is a constant reminder that God’s arithmetic is not man’s, that God can use human vessels to right great wrongs and correct grave injustices, if only those human beings are willing to let God work in and through them. We should draw strength from this today as we seek to contend for justice for the unborn and to free those who still find themselves in human bondage through sex trafficking and slave labor. No matter how powerful the forces of opposition may be, in the end they are not as powerful as the God we serve. Wilberforce’s faith and persistence were ultimately rewarded with a glorious victory, against great iniquity, for all that is true and right.

 – Richard Land is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Douglas C. Minson

The Rev. John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of Princeton University, tacitly rebutted the solitary Great Man theory of history by observing that great men “appear in clusters.”

Rightly hailed for his leadership, astonishing persistence, and political foresight in eliminating the slave trade and advancing the “reformation of manners,” it must be remembered that William Wilberforce’s remarkable achievements were not his alone. It was rightly said of him that “no Prime Minister had such a cabinet as Wilberforce could summon to his assistance.” His magnificent accomplishments were those of a community of talented Christians united in mission and vision, animated by their shared vocation.

The epitaph on Wilberforce’s tomb in Westminster Abbey numbers him among the foremost of his times because “[to] high and various talents …. he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life.”

Wilberforce’s work reminds us that ideas have not only consequences but antecedents. His story impresses upon us the need to know our history and to appreciate the requisite conditions for the unfolding of providence, and it inspires us to consider their analogues in our own time.

 – Douglas C. Minson is associate director of the Witherspoon Fellowship, at the Family Research Council.

Mark Rodgers

Wilberforce stood tall, but he did not stand alone. One of the great inspirations for me in the “Wilberforce Story” is not just the perseverance and patience of a man of conviction and faith, but the same traits worked out in a community that was gathered around him in common pursuit. Wilberforce is known for his efforts to abolish the slave trade, but few know that he did not journey alone, and that this cause was just one of many.

A dedicated community, often called The Clapham Sect, gathered physically in a village outside London and missionally around such issues as the reformation of manners (morals) and animal welfare. The idea of cause in community was central to the operational reality of Wilberforce. Most were evangelical Anglicans, and were taunted as “The Saints” by detractors. Such figures as writer, poet, and philanthropist Hannah More and economist and parliamentarian Henry Thornton made up the core. Their reach was far and wide, incorporating efforts to promote public education, confront child-labor abuses, increase Bible literacy, and fund foreign missions.  The legacy of Wilberforce is an example to all Christian in public life.

 – Mark Rodgers served on Capitol Hill for 16 years as chief of staff to Senator Rick Santorum and as staff director of the Senate Republican Conference. The name of his new consulting firm is The Clapham Group.

Mark Souder

William Wilberforce is a great example of persistence. He is illustrative of the power of passion rooted in moral justice. He dedication to his cause did not waver in the face of various setbacks, sustained as he was not only by the hope of victory, but by the righteousness of his goal.

 – Congressman Mark Souder represent Indiana’s third district.

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