July 27, 2007, Palm Beach Post, We'd do well to remember this amazing man, by Steve Gushee.
At a time when religion is sadly equated with intimidation from both Islamic fundamentalists and the Christian Right, William Wilberforce is a breath of fresh air. And now, when politics is sadly equated with incompetence and influence peddling, Wilberforce reminds us that the vocation can be a noble enterprise.
He combined a profound, abiding faith with skillful, honest political activity to end England's significant role in human slavery.
To be sure, he flourished more than 100 years ago, but the evangelical Englishman is a role model for people of faith. The Anglican Church calendar commemorates his death in 1833 on Monday.
He almost single-handedly convinced Parliament, of which he was a member, to end his country's role in slave traffic in 1807. He continued his crusade, and Parliament ended slavery in all British territories just a month before he died.
The son of an affluent Yorkshire family, Wilberforce was elected to Parliament in 1780, four years before what he called "the Great Change" to a profound evangelical Christian faith. He thought of entering the ordained ministry but remained in Parliament to carry out what he was convinced was God's will.
The recent movie, Amazing Grace, is a fine semi-historical account of his life. Critics of the film claim it does not adequately credit his religious faith for his good works. That may be the case since it would be nearly impossible to give his religious conviction sufficient credit. His faith was similar to that of those who populate the Christian Right today, but Wilberforce had a vastly different understanding of that gift. They manipulate the Gospel to police bedrooms and bash gays. Wilberforce ended Britain's traffic in human beings.
He knew that good works was the imperative of the Gospel. He founded missions, promoted educational opportunities, wrote theological tracts and brought his country's role in slavery to an end.
A slave-ship captain, John Newton, wrote the hymn, Amazing Grace. Newton converted to Christianity, befriended Wilberforce and joined the anti-slavery movement. The hymn is his testimony to the power of sin to destroy and the greater power of God to save.
That is the underlying theme of the evangelical movement at its best. In their quest for power to micromanage others in the name of God, many politically active evangelicals today forget that.
Wilberforce never did.
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