The Beliefs that Guided William Wilberforce
By Pam D. Eason
On February 24, 1791, Christian theologian John Wesley penned his final letter. It was addressed to the English politician, William Wilberforce.
The letter expressed concerns over slavery and encouragement for Wilberforce to take action. More than a decade later, in 1807, Wilberforce wept as the law was passed to abolish slavery. Fellow politicians, as well as President Abraham Lincoln, gave Wilberforce credit for the end of the slave trade.
Wilberforce’s abolitionist endeavors, while outstanding, were part of his overarching goal of moral reform. Today, there are awards, forums, universities, museums, alliances, documentaries, books, and now, a movie all in honor of William Wilberforce.
What were the underlying beliefs that produced such a man? What system of thought propelled his actions?
In his well-known literary work, Real Christianity, Wilberforce proposed that a person’s sincerity of beliefs, as well as the content of beliefs, are of utmost importance. In this book, he outlines his own personal beliefs and champions these beliefs as the basis of real Christian behavior and ultimate happiness.
So, What Did Wilberforce Believe?
First and foremost, Wilberforce held fast to principles of Christianity. He believed everyone begins life as a wicked person and identified himself as a miserable sinner. His great hope for mankind was that Jesus, God the Father’s only son, humbled himself by willingly leaving his rightful position in heaven to be made a man who personally understood heartache and anguish – to be despised and rejected by man – to be wounded and bruised as payment for humankind’s wickedness and guilt.
He fully appreciated the love and mercy God the Father had for humankind when He consented to Jesus’ death on the cross and placed the wickedness of all humanity on Him -- so that all who came to Him with hearty repentance and true faith will have never-ending life with God.
Wilberforce often referred to looking up with joy to unseen things and believed Jesus, at the right hand of God the Father, was making intercession for him. He fully embraced the truth that anyone reconciled to God may come boldly to His throne to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Wilberforce felt the weight of his sin, understood the justice of God, and was grateful for God’s solution.
He further believed the heavenly Father gives His Holy Spirit to anyone who asks and the Spirit of God must dwell in true Christians. Wilberforce understood those reconciled to Christ will, by the influence of the Holy Spirit, be renewed in God’s likeness and filled with love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness for the purposes of acknowledging God.
But, Wilberforce made the point that, while the Holy Spirit works in Christians, the work of the Holy Spirit does not excuse Christians from personally seeking to correct passions gone wild or refining moral character. Wilberforce thought Christians should act justly, show mercy, and diligently develop their God-given talents.
He proposed that Christians ask themselves two questions:
- First, am I using my time, money, body, and mental powers so I can give a joyful account of my life to God?
- Second, am I putting into practice my beliefs about God in all things and proving, as a servant of Christ, that I am moved to serve others by the principle of love that grants freedom from the obsession with fame, ambition, and greediness?
Wilberforce also thoroughly believed in the existence and activity of the “Evil Spirit.” This biblical truth, he said, was confirmed by the example of men who are hateful, mean, and cruel toward others. These are people who take pleasure, and often succeed, in seducing others to participate in evil. In light of this, he saw human inclinations toward evil as the result of inward inherited wickedness and outward temptation.
To Wilberforce, these primary biblically-based doctrines were mutually dependent and harmonious. They were the only solid foundation of present or future happiness for mankind since they propelled man’s primary motive to love and want to please God in thought, word, and action -- and then to love his neighbor while guarding against living life to please men. From these motives, man’s daily steps and interactions would reflect his beliefs.
In order to foster this meshing of belief with action, Wilberforce made two suggestions.
- First, he warned that man must continually guard against pride and selfishness - two inherited evil motivations that naturally occupy human hearts. For protection, Wilberforce recommended prayer, reliance on God, habitual study of Scripture, contemplations of personal imperfections, and an attitude of unworthiness obtained by holding loosely the complements of others and focusing on indebtedness to God for undeserved earthly status and possessions.
- Second, since he truly thought Christians have an obligation to use all that God gives for the benefit of others, Wilberforce suggested Christians should cheerfully and diligently make it their business to put in motion benevolent and useful activities. The social reason, Christians should do this Wilberforce reasoned, was to promote the happiness and comfort for all mankind.
What Does a Society Based on Real Christianity Produce?
To further explain the principle behind this social outcome, Wilberforce pointed to the connection between the happiness of England’s citizens and the condition of Christianity. Based on historical, biblical, and philosophical study, he rationalized that a nation’s general moral standard was established by implicit consent. Wilberforce explained that any time someone fell below or rose above the moral standard, a disturbance occurred and the offending person would suffer socially, and therefore be inclined to regulate his conduct according to the standard’s requirements.
He further pointed out that whenever Christianity, whose standards of morals are governed by an internal force - the Holy Spirit - has prevailed, the general standard of morals rises to the highest elevation. As morality increases and men improve, happiness flourishes. Like a river, Wilberforce explained, Christianity begins its path silently and peacefully, leaving beauty and comfort at each cottage. It fertilizes regions and enriches kingdoms as it progresses.
Wilberforce went on to describe the man that a truly Christian society would produce. This man would energetically pursue a career or interest based on the deep and pure motive of love for God and man. As a result, the Christian man would seek peace with all men, see all men as members of the same family, and promote the happiness of others. He would be respected and loved by others and he would be free from selfishness, greed, ambition, and the pursuit of fame.
What Dangers Lurk in a Society Based on Real Christianity?
The danger that exists in a Christian society, Wilberforce warned, is the danger of deception. Because of the effect of Christian morals on non-Christian behavior, non-Christians tend to appear superficially to be Christians and so deceive themselves into thinking they are. The forms of this deception include:
- Overrating good qualities and overlooking defects;
- Failure of people to recognize their true state of corruption;
- Believing God will overlook wickedness;
- Estimating self by the favorable opinions of others;
- Mistaking enthusiasm for Christian beliefs for genuine acceptance of the Gospel;
- Confusing self-will with the Gospel truth;
- Using the sins of others as the means of self-assessment; and
- Confusing sin-substitution for victory over sin.
How Can Christianity be Dispersed in Society?
Despite these deceptions, Wilberforce fervently believed a true Christian society could be created, and he formulated a plan for doing so.
The plan recommended that true Christians should explain to anyone, whenever possible, the distinction between God and any other false belief system. He admitted the difficulty of this explanation, but pointed out, when men perceive something as difficult, they rise to the difficulty required. He further suggested that true Christians conduct their lives according to their beliefs.
Wilberforce argued that Christian morals should be promoted through the political system by the election of those who will implement and enforce laws based on Christian beliefs. Since Wilberforce understood that Christian doctrines must be deeply studied to be truly understood, he thought children should be taught the practical principles of Christianity in public and private arenas. He believed that educators should focus on the writings that prevail when real Christianity flourishes. Finally, he recommended that pastors should teach true biblical doctrine.
Wilberforce put forth many arguments to defend the practical benefits of biblical instruction. For example, he argued that the chief causes of hostility among men are pride -- high opinions of their own importance that lead to disregard of others -- and exaggerated value of worldly possessions and honors, and therefore, competition for them. Christian instruction, on the other hand, teaches humility and self-denial -- precepts that build a foundation for loving-kindness and gentleness towards others, thereby increasing happiness among men.
Wilberforce challenged those who have the national welfare at heart to adopt his suggestions.
Wilberforce described his driving force for boldly outlining his beliefs with this illustration:
“This present scene, with all its cares and all its gaieties, will soon be rolled away, and ‘we must stand before the judgment-seat of Christ’” (p. iv)
With this concept foremost in his mind, Wilberforce bravely and openly put forth to the world the serious, yet beneficial, implications of Christian doctrine and, in so doing, remains a hero for today.
Order your copy of Real Christianity by William Wilberforce.
Wilberforce, W, (1829). Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed
Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real
Christianity (14th ed.). London: Printed for T. Cadell, In the Strand.
United Methodist Women in Mission. John Wesley: Letter to William Wilberforce.
Retrieved January 31, 2007 from http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/wesley/wilber.stm
Carey, B. William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Retrieved January 31, 2007 from
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Pam Eason is a freelance writer and Co-Author of God, Me, & My In-Law: Mothers and Daughters-In-Law Tell It Like It Is (2007). Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. Learn more about her ministry at her
Web site: www.myhonestanswers.com
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