“It is not revolutions and upheavals that clear the road to new and better days but… someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze” (Pasternak in Holladay, 1999). Such inspired leaders are rare, but memorable in the annals of history. Komives (2016) introduces the concept of a ‘change agent’ who “serves as a catalyst for a group, stirring people up [for] positive change” (p. 398). These leaders either create or inherit a change potential and have the ability and power to lead that change effectively. The internal motivation of someone who is ‘inspired and ablaze’ with passion can affect change in the most stubborn of situations.
“It is not revolutions and upheavals that clear the road to new and better days but… someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze.”
William Wilberforce is a wonderful example of a truly inspired soul, determined to complete the tasks he saw laid out for him by God. We are all familiar with his crucial role in leading the charge toward the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, but few of us really know his whole story and what depth of character he exhibited in every area of his life. As was oft repeated in class, the ability to create real change has the prerequisite of first changing and developing one’s self.
Wilberforce, born in 1759, grew up with minimal exposure to the Christian faith. Because of his amiable nature and quick wit, he rose rapidly to prominence within the British Parliament. After this introduction to such a promising political career, he rebelled against the call of Christ on his life thinking that he might have to abandon his political ambitions. For help, he turned to his childhood mentor, John Newton. This man, with his own rich story of God’s grace, opened Wilberforce’s eyes to his calling – perhaps he was brought to political power and purposed for just such a time as this! (Pollock, 1996)
Consequently, his formerly purposeless ascension in politics became driven by his calling to champion the cause of the oppressed (Pollock, 1996). As he wrote in his journal, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners” (Wilberforce in Pollock, 1996). Even through the years of waiting, he was mindful of his calling and was obedient to it.
Even through the years of waiting, he was mindful of his calling and was obedient to it.
Wilberforce’s engagement with the issue of abolition got the whole nation discussing the merits of the slave trade. The campaign was not an overnight success by any means. Rather, it spanned twenty full years of battling opposition and nurturing a cultural empathy and understanding of the detestable details of the trade (Pollock, 1996). He recognized that the change he sought would not come through solely parliamentary action, but that the movement required the support of the populous. He understood that “he who [molds] public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions” (Goodwin, 2006, p. 179). Because of this, he didn’t stop when, in 1807, Parliament finally passed a bill abolishing slavery, but pressed on to change the entire moral climate of the country.
Wilberforce’s second ‘great object’ he saw as set before him by God was the “reformation of manners” in England. This task would not be accomplished through any political action, but rather by his subtle, transformative influence on people’s minds. Compared to the bold approach he used with the abolition movement, the collaborative and incognito strategies he employed for this reformation created an ‘amiable confusion’ regarding its source. Often praised for his modest humility, Wilberforce had a consistent character around both friends and those who disagreed with him (Holladay, 1999). This consistency won him friends across the spectrum of political, religious, and societal views. Because of this, his opinion was respected and his influence expanded.
Often praised for his modest humility, Wilberforce had a consistent character around friends and those who disagreed with him.
To accomplish his vision of moral reformation, he studied the reason behind England’s high crime rate and discovered that it was the aristocrats who were setting the low standard for morals. His efforts were then focused on “making goodness fashionable” for the aristocracy and the landed gentry, whose example every level of society would follow (Pollock, 1996). The country as it stood was at a comfortable state of immorality – it was cool to be bad. Without Wilberforce’s nudging toward change, there was no reason for people to change. “If there is no dissatisfaction with the way things are…, no person or group will be interested in change” (Eikenberry, 2007, p. 47). By influencing key people within England’s hierarchical society, he influenced the whole of society. He knocked immorality out of fashion and made people yearn to change and find a place of comfort again.
Despite how much influence he personally exerted, neither of these ‘great objects’ were accomplished alone, nor could they have been. Thinking back to the layers of leadership, Wilberforce first had to understand and develop himself before he could affect change in others. The most significant instance of this was his salvation in 1784, when he learned of his calling and purpose. This personal change overflowed into his sphere of influence through his interactions with his friends and colleagues in politics. Those who knew him personally recognized the impact of his faith and character on his every action. Through these relationships and partnerships, he was able to be a catalyst for change on a national level.
True, Wilberforce was a direct and primary influence on the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners, but without collaboration from his community and without the powerful internal change that created in him the passion to persist, we might never have even known his name. Wilberforce’s primary drive came from God’s calling on his life. Without God’s blessing, John Wesley advised him, “you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you” (in Pollock, 1996, p. 81)? No one can save the world on their own—the best we can do is follow God’s direction and watch Him affect change in the world (Wigg-Stevenson, 2013).
Those who knew him personally recognized the impact of his faith and character on his every action.
Throughout the life of William Wilberforce, the hand of God is clearly evident. A phrase I heard in school growing up describes God’s influence in these events: God’s Tapestry of Grace (Somerville, 2017). This references the innumerable ‘coincidences’ that came together to make change possible. The influence of John Newton on the unlikely political candidate Wilberforce—the friendship and timely influence of Prime Minster William Pitt—the unexpected impact of the French Revolution… So much grace, woven together into a magnificent tapestry.
In our own leadership experience, we don’t have the benefit of seeing our role in history. Rather, we must trust that we are an essential part of God’s tapestry. If things don’t seem to be going well, perhaps our thread is creating a contrasting shadow for a more glorious picture that will be revealed when it is all finished. Either way, God will be faithful to his promises when we follow his calling. William Wilberforce is the perfect example of this relationship between faithfulness and obedience.
- Eikenberry, Kevin. (2007). Remarkable leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Goodwin, D. K. (2006). Team of rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Holladay, Douglas J. (1999) “A life of significance” in Character counts: Leadership qualities in Washington, Wilberforce, Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn. Os Guinness (Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
- Komives, S. R., & Wagner, W. (Eds.). (2016). Leadership for a better world: Understanding the social change model of leadership development. John Wiley & Sons. Kindle Edition.
- Pollock, John. (1996) “A man who changed his times” in Character counts: Leadership qualities in Washington, Wilberforce, Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn. Os Guinness (Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
- Somerville, Marcia. (2017). Tapestry of grace. Kingsport, TN: Lampstand Press Ltd. Retrieved from http://www.tapestryofgrace.com/index.php
- Wigg-Stevenson, Tyler. (2013). The world is not ours to save: Finding the freedom to do good. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press.