By Ray Blunt

Editor’s note: This is the third and last in a series by Ray Blunt on how leaders are formed. Read the first part here, and the second part here.

William Wilberforce by Thomas Lawrence 1828

William Wilberforce in the making: unfinished portrait by Thomas Lawrence.

We live in a world, Robert Jenson writes, that has “lost its story.” Worldviews, stories, ideas matter—and in the case of William Wilberforce and Thomas Jefferson, the differences in their worldviews tell the tale. Most extended writing is highly autobiographical even if not intentionally so. Interestingly, though they were politicians, both wrote bestsellers on highly unlikely topics offering a window into their minds.

Jefferson’s book, Notes on Virginia, was perhaps the best American book coming out of the 18th century. Notes was a set of answers to questions posed to him by a French diplomat concerning the preeminent state in America. His response was a tour de force of his Renaissance mind, ranging from economics and politics, to agriculture, religion, manufacturing, geography, and anthropology. Here he comments on the immorality of slavery, its impact on owner and slave, and sees its inevitable and just end. His solution includes a plan that all freed Africans be returned to Africa, but he was stumped on the logistics: finding white replacements while Africans continued to multiply and slowly migrated. He calculated there were a half million slaves in Virginia alone. As the detached scientist, he makes observations on his African slaves as being of weak intellect, poor health habits, lacking in diligence and imagination. While Jefferson’s humanist sensibilities were warm, real equality was not part of his beliefs. He saw only the dangers of riot or miscegenation ahead. Yet, he continued to believe the Enlightenment narrative that the mind of man would assure societal and moral progress fueled by education and freedom—political and religious. Building a religion-free University of Virginia as his legacy project was consistent with that belief. He even developed an odd theory called diffusion to rationalize this optimism: the more slavery spread west, the more it was diffused, ultimately fading away. Thus he assigns responsibility for solving this anomaly of freedom to the future generations. For him, it was a matter of faith.

Wilberforce’s lone book also offers us a look at the worldview behind his leadership. Its unlikely title, A Practical View: Of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society, Contrasted with Real Christianity, nevertheless struck a public chord in England, America, and continental Europe. Written in 1796, the very year he suffered the most heartrending of his many defeats, it oddly never mentions slavery. He wrote, he claimed, as a politician who had the ultimate good of England in mind, particularly that of  its leaders, as he proceeded to candidly diagnose a deep-seated spiritual cancer of selfishness and a lack of sincere commitment to loving Christ as the root cause of the mean state of English society. Leaders eschewed responsibility for solving the great issues, he wrote, because these human issues did not touch their privileged lives. As to his political ends, it appears that neither victory on the slavery issue nor his own reelection was what really drove him to persist. He was willing to accept mockery and opposition in the interest of going to the heart of what he saw as the source of societal ills. Jefferson would have been horrified by Wilberforce’s crossing of the boundary between facts and feelings, between religion and politics – the line that Kant had drawn.

So, how then did Wildberforce keep going? Opposed at every turn, defeated year after year, called a traitor by England’s great hero Admiral Lord Nelson, decried by the King, with even his dear friend, William Pitt the Younger, turned against him. He was physically attacked twice, and Wilberforce, never robust, fell sick often and secretly took opium for his colitis. The opium damaged his eyesight and withdrew calcium from his spine, causing his head to fall upon his chest, forcing him to wear a secret brace under his clothing.

He had however, some things in his favor, one being a firm sense of purpose, a vocation, summarized in his two great objects—to end slavery and to reform manners and morals in England. The second of these great objects was a prerequisite for the first, as a selfish culture began to change, thus allowing the great issue of abolition a hearing. Wilberforce’s understanding of his vocation gave him a sense of personal responsibility to do all he could toward his purposes. He could not await an uncertain future. He was outspoken in Real Christianity about those who held lofty ideals but who did little or nothing to pursue their ideals with actions. He could have been talking about Jefferson …

Beyond his clear purpose and the steady encouragement and assistance of Newton and the Clapham Saints, there rose a growing sense that this, ultimately, was not his battle alone. He came to realize, as his letters to Newton show, that dependence on God was his bedrock in the dark. The seeming impossibility of the leadership task was ultimately given over to the One who gave him the task. He sought to become completely dependent upon God. The rest is history.

In this series I have argued that leaders are shaped by mentors and models, by friends and communities, and by the ideas and stories they believe to be true. What do you believe, most deeply? Who is mentoring you? And what communities offer you both challenge and encouragement?

Editor’s note: Hearts and Minds bookstore is the official fulfillment service of Ray’s book Crossed Lives – Crossed Purposes. Order a copy for yourself or a friend through their fantastic service and enjoy a discount off the full retail price! To order, visit their website.

Ray Blunt teaches Worldview and Apologetics at Ad Fontes Academy and is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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