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Theology Thursday: Wilberforce’s Greatest Achievement?

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Posted by Rob Brewis, 14 Apr 2016

Despite it being nearly 183 years since the death William Wilberforce, he continues to cast his shadow over our national life through his work to bring about the abolition of the slave trade.

However, that great achievement can easily overshadow an equally important publication of his in April 1797, 199 years ago this month. In the years immediately following his death it would seem that his greatest impact was on the reformation morality in our national life. Through Wilberforce’s work, English society was transformed from being morally destitute to having a new sense of the fear of God.

Bayes’ contention is that this was achieved primarily through his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, in which Wilberforce sets out the true nature of Christianity over-against the Latitudinarian version. In the book Wilberforce called people to a real conviction of sin and guilt and a heart-felt dependence on the merit procuring death of Jesus for forgiveness and justification.

However, more than being an interesting history lesson, this piece teaches us lessons for our life today as evangelical Anglicans who are called to contend for the gospel in a mixed and murky denomination. Bayes draws four lessons that we would do well to consider and be shaped by as we operate in the Church of England:
1. Share Wilberforce’s passion for a moral revolution to the glory of God and to that end fight for the dominance of evangelicalism in the church.
2. Godliness cannot be achieved by legislation; we must believe in the primacy of conversion.
3. Develop a long term view – like Wilberforce we may not live to see the fruit of our labours.
4. Become alert to the coming age, eternal issues and the fact that affluence deadens us to spiritual realities. Are we living our lives in the light of eternity for the glory of God?

I take it that we want to pray that these things would be true of us! So why not read the paper and allow the story of Wilberforce to bring home these lessons for us and our contending.

Bayes, Jonathan F. “William Wilberforce : His Impact on Nineteenth-Century Society.Churchman 108, no. 2 (1994): 119–134.

Rob Brewis is associate minister at Christ Church Chadderton.

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