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Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce

Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce
by John Piper

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Childlike Joy in William Wilberforce

By John Piper
Crossway Books Excerpted from Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce

There is a deeper root of Wilberforce’s endurance than camaraderie. It is the root of childlike, child-loving, self-forgetting joy in Christ. The testimonies and evidence of this in Wilberforce’s life are many. A certain Miss Sullivan wrote to a friend about Wilberforce around 1815:

“By the tones of his voice and expression of his countenance he showed that joy was the prevailing feature of his own mind, joy springing from entireness of trust in the Savior’s merits and from love to God and man. . . . His joy was quite penetrating.”1

On the occasion of Wilberforce’s death, Joseph Brown spoke in St. Paul’s Church in Middlesex. He focused on this attribute of the man:

He was also a most cheerful Christian. His harp appeared to be always in tune; no “gloomy atmosphere of a melancholy moroseness” surrounded him; his sun appeared to be always shining: hence he was remarkably fond of singing hymns, both in family prayer and when alone. He would say, “A Christian should have joy and peace in believing [Rom. 15:13]: It is his duty to abound in praise.”2

The poet Robert Southey said, “I never saw any other man who seemed to enjoy such a perpetual serenity and sunshine of spirit. In conversing with him, you feel assured that there is no guile in him; that if ever there was a good man and happy man on earth, he was one.”3 In 1818 Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the famous romantic poet, wrote, “Though shattered in constitution and feeble in body he is as lively and animated as in the days of his youth.”4 His sense of humor and delight in all that was good was vigorous and unmistakable. In 1824 John Russell gave a speech in the Commons with such wit that Wilberforce “collapsed in helpless laughter.”5

This playful side made him a favorite of children, as they were favorites of his. His best friend’s daughter, Marianne Thornton, said that often “Wilberforce would interrupt his serious talks with her father and romp with her in the lawn. ‘His love for and enjoyment in all children was remarkable.’”6 Once, when his own children were playing upstairs and he was frustrated at having misplaced a letter, he heard a great din of children shouting. His guest thought he would be perturbed. Instead he smiled and said, “What a blessing to have these dear children! Only think what a relief, amidst other hurries, to hear their voices and know they are well.”7

He was an unusual father for his day. Most fathers who had the wealth and position he did rarely saw their children. Servants and a governess took care of the children, and they were to be out of sight most of the time. Instead, William insisted on eating as many meals as possible with the children, and he joined in their games. He played marbles and Blindman’s Bluff and ran races with them. In the games, the children treated him like one of them.8

Southey once visited the house when all the children were there and wrote that he marveled at “the pell-mell, topsy-turvy and chaotic confusion” of the Wilberforce apartments in which the wife sat like Patience on a monument while her husband “frisks about as if every vein in his body were filled with quicksilver.”9 Another visitor in 1816, Joseph John Gurney, a Quaker, stayed a week with Wilberforce and recalled later, “As he walked about the house he was generally humming the tune of a hymn or Psalm as if he could not contain his pleasurable feelings of thankfulness and devotion.”10

Interested in All and Interesting to All

There was in this childlike love of children and joyful freedom from care a deeply healthy self-forgetfulness. Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington (1769–1852), wrote after a meeting with Wilberforce, “You have made me so entirely forget you are a great man by seeming to forget it yourself in all our intercourse.”11 The effect of this self-forgetting joy was another mark of mental and spiritual health, namely, a joyful ability to see all the good in the world instead of being consumed by one’s own problems (even when those problems were huge).

Wilberforce’s friend Sir James Mackintosh spoke of that remarkable trait of healthy, adult childlikeness, namely, the freedom from self-absorption that is interested in the simplest and most ordinary things:

If I were called upon to describe Wilberforce in one word, I should say that he was the most “amusable” man I ever met in my life. Instead of having to think of what subjects will interest him it is perfectly impossible to hit one that does not. I never saw anyone who touched life at so many points and this is the more remarkable in a man who is supposed to live absorbed in the contemplation of a future state. When he was in the House of Commons he seemed to have the freshest mind of any man there. There was all the charm of youth about him.12

His Presence Fatal to Dullness

This must have been the way many viewed him, for another of his contemporaries, James Stephen, recalled after Wilberforce’s death, “Being himself amused and interested by everything, whatever he said became amusing or interesting. . . . His presence was as fatal to dullness as to immorality. His mirth was as irresistible as the first laughter of childhood.”13

Here is a great key to his perseverance and effectiveness. His presence was “fatal to dullness . . . [and] immorality.” In other words, his indomitable joy moved others to be happy and good. He remarked in his book A Practical View of Christianity, “The path of virtue is that also of real interest and of solid enjoyment.”14 In other words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). He sustained himself and swayed others by his joy. If a man can rob you of your joy, he can rob you of your usefulness. Wilberforce’s joy was indomitable and therefore he was a compelling Christian and politician all his life. This was the strong root of his endurance.

Hannah More, his wealthy friend and a co-worker in many of his schemes for doing good, said to him, “I declare I think you are serving God by being yourself agreeable . . . to worldly but well-disposed people, who would never be attracted to religion by grave and severe divines, even if such fell in their way.”15 In fact, I think one of the reasons Wilberforce did not like to use the word “Calvinist,”16 although the faith and doctrines he expresses seem to line up with the Calvinism of Whitefield and Newton,17 was this very thing: Calvinists had the reputation of being joyless.

Lord Carrington apparently expressed to his cousin Wilberforce his mistrust of joy. Wilberforce responded:

My grand objection to the religious system still held by many who declare themselves orthodox Churchmen . . . is, that it tends to render Christianity so much a system of prohibitions rather than of privilege and hopes, and thus the injunction to rejoice, so strongly enforced in the New Testament, is practically neglected, and Religion is made to wear a forbidding and gloomy air and not one of peace and hope and joy.18

Joy Is Our “Bounden Duty”

Here is a clear statement of Wilberforce’s conviction that joy is not optional: it is an “injunction . . . strongly enforced in the New Testament.” Or as he says elsewhere, “We can scarcely indeed look into any part of the sacred volume without meeting abundant proofs, that it is the religion of the Affections which God particularly requires. . . . Joy . . . is enjoined on us as our bounden duty and commended to us as our acceptable worship. . . . A cold . . . unfeeling heart is represented as highly criminal.”19

So for Wilberforce, joy was both a means of survival and perseverance on the one hand, and a deep act of submission, obedience, and worship on the other hand. Joy in Christ was commanded. And joy in Christ was the only way to flourish fruitfully through decades of temporary defeat. It was a deep root of endurance. “Never were there times,” he wrote, “which inculcated more forcibly than those in which we live, the wisdom of seeking happiness beyond the reach of human vicissitudes.”20

But What about the Hard Times?

The word “seeking” is important. It is not as though Wilberforce succeeded perfectly in “attaining” the fullest measure of joy. There were great battles in the soul as well as in Parliament. For example, in March 1788, after a serious struggle with colitis he seemed to enter into a “dark night of the soul.” “Corrupt imaginations are perpetually rising in my mind and innumerable fears close me in on every side.”21 We get a glimpse of how he fought for joy in these times from what he wrote in his notebook of prayers:

Lord, thou knowest that no strength, wisdom or contrivance of human power can signify, or relieve me. It is in thy power alone to deliver me. I fly to thee for succor and support, O Lord let it come speedily; give me full proof of thy Almighty power; I am in great troubles, insurmountable by me; but to thee slight and inconsiderable; look upon me O Lord with compassion and mercy, and restore me to rest, quietness, and comfort, in the world, or in another by removing me hence into a state of peace and happiness. Amen.22

Less devastating than “the dark night” were the recurrent disappointments with his own failures. But even as we read his self-indictments, we hear the hope of victory that sustained him and restored him to joy again and again. For example, in January 13, 1798, he wrote in his diary:

Three or four times have I most grievously broke my resolutions since I last took up my pen. Alas! alas! how miserable a wretch am I! How infatuated, how dead to every better feeling yet—yet—yet—may I, Oh God, be enabled to repent and turn to thee with my whole heart, I am now flying from thee. Thou hast been above all measure gracious and forgiving.23

Unwearied Endeavor to Relish God

When Wilberforce pressed his readers to “unwearied endeavor” for more “relish” of heavenly things—that is, when he urged them to fight for joy—he was doing what he had learned from long experience. He wrote:

[The true Christian] walks in the ways of Religion, not by constraint, but willingly; they are to him not only safe, but comfortable, “ways of pleasantness as well as of peace” [Prov. 3:17]. . . . With earnest prayers, therefore, for the Divine Help, with jealous circumspection and resolute self-denial, he guards against, and abstains from, whatever might be likely again to darken his enlightened judgment, or to vitiate his reformed taste; thus making it his unwearied endeavor to grow in the knowledge and love of heavenly things, and to obtain a warmer admiration, and a more cordial relish of their excellence. . . .24

There was in Wilberforce, as in all the most passionate saints, a holy dread of losing his “reformed taste”25 for spiritual reality. This dread gave rise to “earnest prayers . . . resolute self-denial” and rigorous abstinence from anything that would rob him of the greater joys. He illustrated this dread with the earthly pleasure of “honor.” “[The] Christian . . . dreads, lest his supreme affections being thereby gratified [with human praise], it should be hereafter said to him ‘remember that thou in thy life-time receivedst thy good things’” (Luke -16:25).26

He speaks of “self-denial” exactly the way Jesus did, not as an end in itself, but as a means to the highest pleasures. The mass of nominal Christians of his day did not understand this. And it was the root of their worldliness. “Pleasure and Religion are contradictory terms with the bulk of nominal Christians.”27 But for Wilberforce it was the opposite. The heart and power of true religion—and the root of righteous political endurance—was spiritual pleasure. “O! little do they know of the true measure of enjoyment, who can compare these delightful complacencies with the frivolous pleasures of dissipation, or the coarse gratifications of sensuality. . . . The nominal Christian . . . knows not the sweetness of the delights with which true Christianity repays those trifling sacrifices.”28 That is what he calls true self-denial—“trifling sacrifices”—just as the apostle Paul called all his earthly treasures “rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).

Joy in Christ was so crucial to living the Christian life and persevering in political justice that Wilberforce fought for it with relentless vigilance. “[The Christian’s] watch must thus during life know no termination, because the enemy will ever be at hand; so it must be the more close and vigilant, because he is nowhere free from danger, but is on every side open to attack.”29 Therefore, when we say that Wilberforce’s happiness was unshakable and undefeatable because it was beyond the reach of human vicissitudes, we don’t mean it was beyond struggle; we mean he had learned the secret of “the good fight” (1 Tim. 6:12), and that his embattled joy reasserted itself in and after every tumult in society and in the soul.

Rooting Joy in Truth in the “Retired Hours”

The durable delights in God and the desires for the fullness of Christ that sustained Wilberforce’s life did not just happen. He speaks of “the cultivation of . . . desire.”30 There were roots in doctrine. And the link between life and doctrine was prayer. He spoke in his book on Christianity of descending to the world from the “retired hours”:

Thus, at chosen seasons, the Christian exercises himself, and when, from this elevated region he descends into the plain below, and mixes in the bustle of life, he still retains the impressions of his retired hours. By these he realizes to himself the unseen world: he accustoms himself to speak and act as in the presence of “an innumerable company of angels, and of the spirits of just men made perfect, and of God the Judge of all” [Heb. 12:22-23].31

He was writing here out of his own experience. He could not conceal from others his commitment to personal prayer and private devotion. This was one of the main focuses in the funeral sermon by Joseph Brown:

Persons of the highest distinction were frequently at his breakfast-table, but he never made his appearance till he had concluded his own meditations, reading his Bible, and prayer; always securing, as it were, to God, or rather to his own soul, I believe, the first hour of the morning. Whoever surrounded his breakfast-table, however distinguished the individuals, they were invited to join the family circle in family prayer. In reference to his own soul, I am informed, he set apart days, or a part of them, on which he had received particular mercies, for especial prayer. Not only did he pray in his closet, and with his family but if his domestics were ill, at their bed-side—there was their valued master praying with them—praying for them.32

He counseled his readers to “rise on the wings of contemplation, until the praises and censures of men die away upon the ear, and the still small voice of conscience is no longer drowned by the din of this nether world.”33 So the question is: contemplation on what? Where did Wilberforce go to replenish his soul? If his childlike, child-loving, self-forgetting, indomitable joy was a life-giving root for his endurance in the lifelong fight for abolition, what, we might say, is the root of the root? Or what was the solid ground where the root was planted?

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John Piper is pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. His many books include When The Darkness Will Not Lift, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die, and Don't Waste Your Life. Learn more about the ministry of John Piper at his Web site,

His biography of Wilberforce, Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce, takes readers beyond Wilberforce's battle against slavery and explores the beliefs and motivations of this influential evangelical politician.

© Desiring God Foundation. Published by Crossway Books. Used with permission.

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