Whenever you have landmark historical events you are tempted to zip past the guy who was intimately involved with the event in favor of the event itself. This was my tendency when I thought about how the slave trade ended in the early 19th Century. I knew the general story of how God used William Wilberforce, the British Government and a former slave ship captain turned hymn-writer, John Newton, to bring about the end of this ghastly practice.
Recently however, I was drawn to pick up the 2007 biography of Wilberforce. To be honest, the “drawing” was the fact that it was a couple of bucks on Kindle and I wanted to read a biography. In keeping with my honesty here: I was a bit overmatched. The story and the presentation arrested me.
The biographer, Eric Metaxes nailed it. He writes in such a fluid, engaging, and witty way you can’t help but be wrapped in. What’s more, he doesn’t get in the way. Like a good referee (or biographer) he stays out of the way and lets the game (story) develop.
The character (Wilberforce) and the context (the slave trade) were so completely fascinating. I was struck by all of the details of Wilberforce’s life that worked together to accomplish the activities that God’s providentially decreed. Everything from his time with John Newton to his conversion to his meetings with Granville Sharp to his ability to deliver a speech. All of it was planned in the mind of God before time. It was just an ordinary life being wrung out for the purpose of loving God and serving neighbor.
On a personal note I was greatly encouraged by the impact of a Christian upon his culture. We might look about us and see the sun setting on our various contexts. God, however, does continue to work in these places and he uses Christians to bring about change. Consider how the concept of human rights might have made its way to center stage in late 18th Century England if not for this Christian man? God used Wilberforce to foist his agenda on a people who were blinded by the pollution of culture and practice of yestereday. William Wilberforce was burdened for the change he was convinced was right. This priority for Christians to seek the good of their cities and countries rang loudly from the sheet music of Wilberforce (and Newton’s life).
There were also some small tid bits that greatly encouraged me. For example, consider Wilberforce in the midst of all that was going on in Parliment, he would walk a mile to and from work while reciting Psalm 119 from memory. He would regularly take walks with his New Testament or a collection of hymns from Cowper, praying and meditating upon Scripture. This speaks so powerfully to my heart about the priority and place of the devotional life for the Christian. Of course we know this; we just need to keep seeing it and remembering it.
The book was better than expected. The characters and the plot are exceptional. However, the author does a commendable job.