What I Learned from Wilberforce
With today's DVD release of Amazing Grace, one of the film's producers says the film's protagonist taught him much about how to change the world.   by Bob Beltz 

Wilberforce was a man who made his life count! Without question, he was a person who changed the world, one of few men and women who have had such a significant impact. It's common these days to hear people talk about changing the world, but it is estimated that 99 percent of the people who populate the planet live under conditions created by the other 1 percent. Most of us are not world changers, but Wilberforce was.

Wilberforce had a deep relationship with Jesus Christ–the first element that ultimately made him a world-changer.

Born in Hull, England in 1759, William was the son of a wealthy merchant. His father died when William was only nine, and a year later, William was sent to live with his aunt and uncle. While living with them, he came under the influence of a young evangelical pastor by the name of John Newton, a former slave ship captain who had a profound influence on the young boy, ultimately leading him to faith in Christ.

Wilberforce was elected to Parliament at the age of 21. He was joined there by his closest friend, William Pitt the Younger, who in two years would become England's youngest Prime Minister at the age of 23.

In the fall of 1785 Wilberforce had what he called his "Great Change." Slow intellectual assent eventually became profound conviction and a deep commitment to Christ, which became the bedrock for all his world-changing activity.

When Wilberforce met with Newton for the first time in nearly 20 years, his early mentor suggested that perhaps William had been placed in politics to accomplish some God-given purpose. Pitt reinforced this thinking with his famous quote, "Surely the principles of Christianity lead to action as well as meditation."

Once he decided to stay in politics, Wilberforce began to seek God's will for his work in Parliament. Although the exact circumstances are obscure, we know that on October 28, 1787, he wrote in his diary, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade, and reformation of manners." (By "manners," Wilberforce meant what we might call "morals" today.)

The "two great objects" consumed Wilberforce's energies for the next 46 years. It took 20 years to get the Slave Trade abolished, and another 25 to get slavery itself abolished. In the meantime, he helped start over 60 "societies" that took on everything from child labor abuses to the first society for the prevention of cruelty to animals.

Although Wilberforce was a man who changed the world, historians note that he didn't do it by himself. Wilberforce surrounded himself with a group of like-minded people–partners–who together worked to accomplish these things.

Rarely does God place a great work in the hands of any one man or woman alone. If we are going to be world-changers, we will probably have to become part of a larger group of those who know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Wilberforce understood this well.

He had written a book in 1797 titled, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity.

Reading the book gave me an immense appreciation for the depth of Wilberforce's spiritual life. He understood his own weakness and God's power. If you are going to organize a church picnic, you might be able to pull it off in your own strength. But if you are going to change the world, you will need God's. Wilberforce understood this and maintained a disciplined practice of Bible study (usually in the original languages), prayer, worship, and fellowship.


Wilberforce first introduced his ideas for the abolition of the slave trade to Parliament in 1789. His first abolition bill was placed on the floor in 1791 and was defeated 163-88. In 1792, he placed another abolition bill on the floor; it also was soundly defeated. He did the same in 1793, 1794, and 1795. Virtually every year for 17 years, and sometimes multiple times in a year, Wilberforce continued rolling out a bill for the abolition of the slave trade.

Finally, on February 23, 1807, Wilberforce's bill was passed and the slave trade was abolished throughout the entire British Empire. The world had just been changed, largely by the persistence of one man.

So, here's what I've learned about world changing from William Wilberforce: It will take a deep relationship with Jesus Christ, through whom we seek to understand and implement what his purposes are for our lives. We will need partners, and we will need to depend on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit. And it won't probably happen overnight. It might even take a lifetime.

On July 26, 1833, a bill abolishing slavery itself passed its third reading in Parliament–effectively ending slavery throughout the British Empire. A world-changing decision, to be sure.

Three days later, Wilberforce died.

Bob Beltz's new book, World Changers, co-authored with Walt Kallestad, is also now available exclusively at Wal-Mart.