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Birth of a Christian Politician
In 1784, after his election as the MP for Yorkshire (one of the most coveted seats in the House of Commons), Wilberforce accompanied his sister Sally, his mother, and two of his cousins to the French Riviera (for the sake of Sally’s health). He had also invited Isaac Milner, tutor at Queens’ College, Cambridge, an acquaintance. Though friends counted “Wilber” both religious and moral, had he known that Milner’s huge frame housed both a fine mathematical brain and a strong “methodistical” [evangelical] faith, it is unlikely he would have invited him. The combination was unimaginable in an English gentleman!
Milner’s clear thought and winsome manner were effective advertisements for “serious” Christianity. Wilberforce had the quicker tongue, Milner the sharper mind. As they journeyed, they debated the evangelicalism of Wilberforce’s youth.
Over the next months, Wilberforce read Philip Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745) beside an open Bible. His reading and conversations with Milner convinced him of wealth’s emptiness, Christianity’s truth, and his own failure to embrace its radical demands. Outwardly he looked ever confident, but inwardly he agonized. “I was filled with sorrow,” he wrote. “I am sure that no human creature could suffer more than I did for some months.”
He considered withdrawing from public life for the sake of his faith. He confided in his friend Pitt, now prime minister. Pitt told him not to withdraw. With “ten thousand doubts,” he approached John Newton. The aging saint advised him, “It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of his church and for the good of the nation.” Wilberforce’s unnatural gloom finally lifted on Easter 1786, “amidst the general chorus with which all nature seems on such a morning to be swelling the song of praise and thanksgiving.” He believed his new life had begun.
His sense of vocation began growing within. “My walk is a public one,” he wrote in his diary. “My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.” He also increasingly felt the burden of his calling: “A man who acts from the principles I profess,” he later wrote, “reflects that he is to give an account of his political conduct at the judgment seat of Christ.”
Finding His Purpose
Wilberforce’s diary for the summer of 1786 charts his painful search for greater discipline and a clearer vocation. He flitted between humanitarian and local causes, between parliamentary and national reform. He studied to correct his Cambridge indolence. He practiced abstinence from alcohol and rigorous self-examination as befit, he believed, a “serious” Christian.
After one dinner with Pitt, he wrote in his diary about the “temptations of the table,” meaning the endless stream of dinner parties filled with vain and useless conversation. “[They] disqualify me for every useful purpose in life, waste my time, impair my health, fill my mind with thoughts of resistance before and self-condemnation afterwards.”
In early 1786, Wilberforce had been tentatively approached by friends who were committed abolitionists. They asked him to lead the parliamentary campaign for their cause. Even Pitt prodded him in this direction: “Wilberforce, why don’t you give notice of a motion on the subject of the slave trade?” But Wilberforce hesitated.
The slave trade in the late 1700s involved thousands of slaves, hundreds of ships, and millions of pounds; upon it depended the economies of Britain and much of Europe. Few were aware of the horrors of the socalled “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic, where an estimated one out of four slaves died.
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