by Warwick Alcock, Director Strategic Operations, Village Schools of the Bible
Many Christians shun politics because it’s considered corrupt and distasteful — especially in this 2016 election year. However, here is an historical perspective that illustrates how redemptive politics can be.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833)
In 1787, William Wilberforce wrote in his diary that God had set before him two great goals: ending the slave trade, and moral reform. The revitalization of the church and faith application in public and private life, he rightly believed, would lead to a harmonious, moral society. After becoming a British MP in 1780 aged 21, Wilberforce worked with unrelenting persistence with fellow evangelicals and other political allies to achieve his two God-given goals.
For Wilberforce, Black lives mattered. Using his home for strategy meetings, Wilberforce and his friends launched a protracted parliamentary campaign to end the slave trade. They researched and collected first-hand testimony and statistics, lobbied, wrote pamphlets, held public meetings, organized boycotts, printed books, participated in debating societies, published letters in newspapers and periodicals, wrote to prominent leaders, and organized hundreds of parliamentary petitions. This was the world’s first grassroots human rights campaign in which men and women of different social classes and backgrounds committed to end injustices suffered by others.
It took Wilberforce a lifetime to achieve his two great God-given goals. A month after his death in 1833, the House of Lords passed the Slavery Abolition Act and 800,000 slaves were set free. In addition to ending the slave trade, Wilberforce was a founding member of the Church Missionary Society, was active in education and prison reform, promoted public health initiatives, advocated shorter working hours and improved conditions in factories, led or was a member of 69 benevolent societies, and founded or co-founded the Christian Observer, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, hospitals for the poor, Britain’s Royal Institution for scientific research and the National Gallery.
Wilberforce’s influence was global in scope, bringing about significant reforms in Britain and her colonies. Americans influenced by Wilberforce included Frederick Douglass, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Waldo Emerson, Samuel Morse, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln. Wilberforce University in Ohio, founded in 1856, America’s oldest and first African-American owned college, was named after him.
The history of William Wilberforce illustrates the redemptive nature of Christian faith applied in the political domain, resulting in the transformation of the political, social and moral culture of the British Empire. He is a role model for putting faith into action.
Five things we can do differently going forward:
- Don’t frown on politics as an unworthy calling. All of us are gifted and called to live out the Great Commandments and the Great Commission. Not all are gifted and called to politics. But let’s not look down on those who are. Let’s love, celebrate and cherish those who are genuinely gifted by God and called into political vocations.
- Look for the future Wilberforces among our youth. Encourage and disciple young people who feel gifted and called into politics. Encourage them to explore and confirm their calling. Find opportunities for them be mentored by and apprenticed to experienced, role-model politicians who authentically live out their faith in the complex world of politics.
- Commission politicians for mission. Let’s acknowledge and commission politicians in our churches just as we would any other traditional missionary. Wilberforce’s political achievements show how noble, missional and God-honoring politics can be. Thankfully he didn’t end up as a church minister (which he seriously considered) where his extraordinary gifts might have been seriously underutilized.
- Participate in the caucuses. In 2016, 10% to at best 30% of eligible voters participated in the caucuses, so relatively few voices, unfortunately, were heard on important issues. When we don’t engage, we risk abandoning the political sphere to uninspiring, self-serving politicians — and we get what we deserve. If our politics are messy, it’s because up to 70% of us don’t engage until it’s too late. Next time, let’s participate early and make our voices heard on worthy issues and candidates.
- Vote this November. Draw up a table with the political parties written in the column headings across the top and the main issues listed in row headers down the side (e.g. security, immigration, employment, the environment, race relations, human trafficking etc.). In the cells of the table enter scores out of 5 for each party depending in how well they reflect gospel truth on the main issues that matter. Total the scores for each party and let this inform your prayerful meditations on how best to honor God with your vote.
Ashford, B. Every Square Inch: An introduction to cultural engagement for Christians. Lexham, 2015.
Ashford B. and Pappalardo, C. One Nation Under God. A Christian Hope for American Politics. B&H, 2015.
Wilberforce, W. Real Christianity. Revised and updated by Bob Beltz. Regal, 2006.