Amazing Grace: Wilberforce's Guiding Principles
By Craig von Buseck
CBN.com Ministries Director
Craig von Buseck: You have studied the life of William Wilberforce extensively. What are some of the key principles that you've learned from his example?
Dr. Bob Beltz: William Wilberforce changed the world. There are five principles that illustrate the character of Wilberforce's life. If we will integrate these principles into our lives, we too can have an influence in our world.
The Principle of Pardon
The first character trait we observe in the life of Wilberforce is the Principle of Pardon. We see Wilberforce's faith and his deep relationship with Christ. As a young man he had been influenced by John Newton. But his parents pulled him away from that influence, feeling that he was becoming too enthusiastic as a young boy. But there was a great change that took place when he was 25 with Isaac Milner's influence during a trip to Europe. Milner was a brilliant mathematician and Wilberforce's tutor, and later the President of Queen's College at Cambridge. Early in the trip, Wilberforce made a disparaging comment about evangelicals. Milner confronted him, telling him that he was an evangelical. This started a dialogue and they agreed to study Philip Doddridge's book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul.
By the way, there is a scene in the film, Amazing Grace, where Wilberforce is struggling and he doesn't really want to take laudanum (a pain killer). There's a glass of laudanum sitting on the table, and behind it is the book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul.
Wilberforce and Milner read the book and studied the New Testament in Greek on this trip. This profoundly influenced Wilberforce and when he came home he wrestled through these issues and came to this renewed faith in Christ. From my perspective, I believe this was the foundation upon which everything else he did rested.
The Principle of Purpose
Out of this relationship with Christ, Wilberforce earnestly sought what God's purposes were. He had this immense struggle initially between staying in politics or going into the clergy. He went to Newton as his spiritual mentor and Newton told him, "God can use you in politics. You should stay there." Then he wrote to his friend William Pitt, who was not a believer. There is a line of dialogue in the movie that was taken from a letter that Pitt wrote back to Wilberforce -- "Surely the principles of Christianity lead to action as well as meditation." So his best friend is also telling him to stay in politics.
He came to a belief that God wanted him in politics. Out of that belief came the statement that he wrote in his diary, which is his best known quote -- "God Almighty has set before two great objects; the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manner."
He was a man who had sought God, knew what his purpose was, and then with this incredible focus and intensity, pursued it passionately for twenty years.
The Principle of Partners
Wilberforce could not do any of these things by himself. When you make a movie, you're making Wilberforce a heroic figure. But really The Clapham Group were the people that surrounded him, and they are in the movie. The people in this group were so committed to Christ, to the purpose of abolition and to each other that they all moved to Clapham. Some of them were already living there, but Wilberforce moved to Clapham and they all had houses around Clapham Commons, which was a big circular park outside of London. This was a little village in those days. The church sits on one end of the commons and they built their houses around it. They literally became known as the Clapham Circle.
When God calls us to His purposes, it's rarely something he calls us to alone. Usually it is something that He's called us to where there are other like-minded brothers and sisters.
The Principle of Power
Wilberforce had an understanding of the necessity of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in his life to empower him to do what he did. When I edited and re-issued his book, Real Christianity, it really gave me an appreciation for the depth of his own spirituality. This was true both intellectually -- I could see how well he understood the faith and was grounded in Scripture and theology. But there was also a deep passion in his heart for Christ and for pleasing God rather than man. There was a radical obedience that was at the core of everything he did.
"The Church of England," he said, "had no understanding whatsoever of the ministry of the Holy Spirit." He was basically asking how they could ever accomplish God's purposes without this understanding. Wilberforce, on the other hand, understood the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Principle of Persistence
This is what I think is the biggest lesson in the Wilberforce story. In our culture, if we don't accomplish something in six months or a year we will often abandon it and move on. But Wilberforce relentlessly put this bill on the floor of Parliament -- year, after year, after year for seventeen years. He fought for this thing until finally it was passed on February 23rd, 1807 -- two hundred years to the day when the film opens.
Then he turned around and spent the next twenty-five years fighting for the abolition of slavery itself. Of course the British Parliament passed that bill in 1833 and then three days later Wilberforce died. Before his death, William Wilberforce heard that slavery was abolished.
The persistence in his heart was a real key to who William Wilberforce was. If we want to be a people of influence -- world-changers who really make a difference -- those are five principles that really need to be active in our lives.
The level of Wilberforce's commitment and obedience to Christ was remarkable. I don't think this comes across in the film as strong as what was, in my opinion, true in his life from reading his own works. He very consistently, every morning, studied the Scriptures and prayed. I've been very impressed, taking his own words and working through them and asking, "What would that sound like in today's language?" His compassion and commitment to Christ really struck me.
There are many great lessons from studying Wilberforce. He was someone who knew what faith looked like in the marketplace. As a pastor for many years, I learned that when you are in leadership in a local church you put so much energy and heart in keeping the church going. Sometimes you forget that the purpose of the church is not an end in and of itself. The church is to be an equipping station and a mobilizer to send people into the culture to make a difference. Wilberforce is the model of this. He showed what this looked like.
von Buseck: The central character of the movie Amazing Grace is William Wilberforce. But John Newton, played brilliantly by Albert Finney, also plays a key role. Can you talk about the influence of John Newton? Some people have written on our message board that Newton wrote Amazing Grace while he was still a slave ship captain.
Beltz: The main part of the film that is taken out of historical chronology is the Newton piece. For dramatic effect they wanted to show this character arch of Newton. I think it's brilliantly written and a great part of the film. I don't happen to think it's accurate. Newton wrote his own account of being a slaver much earlier, before Wilberforce ever became a member of Parliament or took on the slave issue. I think that he wrote his account clear back in the 1760s.
It is true that he became a Christian and worked as a slave ship captain for a number of years -- maybe as many as six years -- before he really became convicted that slavery was wrong. But my understanding was that the hymn, Amazing Grace, wasn't written until the 1770s. So he had long abandoned the slave trade and by that time was a prominent pastor in England.
The Newton story in some ways is more dramatic than the Wilberforce story. Most of my focus was on his influence on Wilberforce, but I know the whole story. Focus on the Family has done a marvelous job on their radio theater presentation of three characters from the Amazing Grace story -- Wilberforce, Equiano, and Newton. I listened to their presentation and learned more about Newton than I had ever learned in my life. When you connect the dots you see Newton's influence on Wilberforce that enables the younger man to become who he was.
Sometimes in our lives, maybe it's not what we accomplish, but the influence we have on someone else and what they accomplish. Then you look at that influence over the generations. Wilberforce had two sons who become Anglican vicars and later bishops. Samuel Wilberforce becomes the bishop in Oxford at St. Aldates, which is still a vibrant church today. While he was there, people in the community told him there were quarry workers up on the hill in Headington that can't get down to church. So they build and plant a church at Headington Quarry, which one hundred years later is the church that C. S. Lewis attends for thirty years. You begin to connect the dots and you see the tremendous influence and what God is doing over the long haul.
The Newton piece impressed upon me the long view of history and how one life influences another life.
I'm getting tremendous feedback from people who are reading the book, Real Christianity, because, again, it gets you into the heart and mind of William Wilberforce. It is extremely challenging in terms of what it really means to live a Christian life. All the proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Dalit Freedom Network. In 1813, Wilberforce stood on the floor of Parliament and made a speech where he said the caste system in India was a bigger problem than slavery. So we've been battling there with a problem that has existed for 3,000 years. There are 300 million Untouchables in India today and I felt like I needed to ask where would Wilberforce want the royalties to go -- because this wasn't my book, it was his book.
Wilberforce had incredible insight, particularly in the areas of the difference between pleasing man verses pleasing God. You look at his life and he was able to be in the midst of culture and society and yet his heart was so radically grounded. His writings about what it means to be a Christian are incredibly significant for people of our day.
Real Christianity: An Introduction by Dr. Bob Beltz
Real Christianity: The Original Introduction by William Wilberforce
Real Christianity, Chapter 2: Current Ideas About the Nature of Man
Order your copy of Real Christianity
CBN.com's Amazing Grace Special Section
Amazing Grace Official Movie Site
Learn more about the Dalit Freedom Network
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More from Craig von Buseck on CBN.com
Dr. Bob Beltz is a popular writer, speaker and film producer. Currently, he oversees film development for the Anschutz Corporation, parent company of the Anschutz Film Group and Walden Media -- producers of such movies as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Holes, and Because of Winn-Dixie. He co-produced Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce and the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.
Beltz spent 20 years in ministry, first as founding pastor of Cherry Hills Community Church in Denver, Colorado. Later he became senior pastor of High Street Community Church in Santa Cruz, California. He is a graduate of Denver Seminary where he earned both his Master of Arts and Doctor of Ministry degrees. He is the author of several books, including Somewhere Fast and Becoming a Man of Prayer. With his wife of more than 30 years, Allison, he works as a religious liberty and human rights advocate for the Dalits (Untouchables) of India.
Craig von Buseck is Ministries Director for CBN.com. Send Craig your feedback on this interview. Read his ChurchWatch Blog, exclusively on CBN.com.
More from Craig von Buseck on CBN.com
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