“’By the tones of his voice and expression of his countenance he showed that joy was the prevailing feature of his own mind,’ wrote a Miss Sullivan to a mutual friend after a long spiritual conversation [with Wilberforce], ‘joy springing from entireness of trust in the Saviour’s merits and from love to God and man.’ She added that Wilberforce’s joy ‘was quite penetrating.’” [Quoted by John Pollock in Wilberforce.]
A “penetrating” joy. “The prevailing feature of his own mind.” How did William Wilberforce find such a joy?
We know Wilberforce as the great campaigner against slavery. The slave trade was abolished during Austen’s lifetime. She refers to it obliquely in Mansfield Park and Emma. (For more on Austen and slavery, see “Austen and Antigua.”) Wilberforce also led the campaign to “reform manners,” making goodness fashionable in England. His contemporaries said he was a man of great joy. John Piper claims this joy was the source of Wilberforce’s perseverance against many obstacles.
His life wasn’t easy. But Wilberforce rejoiced despite many challenges:
- Opposition and Failures: His campaign to abolish the slave trade, as well as his other campaigns, faced fierce opposition in Parliament. It took almost twenty years, and eleven defeats, from the time he first introduced a bill to stop the slave trade in 1789, until 1807 when the slave trade was abolished. It took another 25 years until slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, as Wilberforce was on his deathbed.
- Health Issues: Wilberforce had trouble with his eyes (in his later years someone had to read to him), his lungs, and gout (which causes severe pain). Because of excruciating ulcerative colitis, he had to take a very low dose of opium daily for much of his life. While in his time opium was considered a very “pure,” safe medicine, it caused side effects which made his other problems worse, though he didn’t realize the opium was the cause. In later life, he developed curvature of the spine. He had to wear a back brace under his clothes. The curvature made him lopsided—one shoulder sloped, and his chin gradually dropped forward to his chest. One biographer says, “he would have looked grotesque were it not for the charm of his face and the smile which hovered about his mouth” (Pollock, ch. 22).
- Family Issues: Wilberforce married when he was 37 (at the same church where Austen’s parents had gotten married years before, by the way; St. Swithin’s in Bath). His wife, who he loved dearly, was often depressed and querulous (fretful). His oldest daughter died of consumption (TB) at age 22, and his other daughter died of a chest ailment at age 31. One of his sons rejected faith in Christ for a time, and later ran up huge debts which Wilberforce had to sell his house in order to pay.
How did he find joy, despite these issues?
- Doing good. He wrote “No man has a right to be idle.” Everyone with health, time, and money can “find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate.” Wilberforce fought in Parliament against slavery and for other important causes. Besides that (which might have been more than enough for most of us!), he was involved in at least 69 societies formed to help people in various ways. For many years he gave away more than a quarter of his income, and sometimes more than his entire yearly income, to such causes. Evangelicals like Wilberforce believed strongly in doing good—based on the salvation God had given them. (Others believed that doing good was necessary to receive salvation, but evangelicals believe that we do good in thankfulness to God, since we have been saved.)
- Community. He lived in a community with his friends and coworkers at Clapham, and loved to spend time talking with them and other friends.
- Childlike and Child-loving. Even when his children were noisy and he was busy, he would smile and say, “What a blessing to have those dear children! Only think what a relief, amidst other hurries, to hear their voices and know they are well.” When he was having “serious talks” with his friend Thornton, he would take time out to “romp” on the lawn with Thornton’s little daughter Marianne. He played games like marbles and Blindman’s Bluff with his own children, as if he were a child along with them.
- Self-forgetfulness. After a meeting with the Duke of Wellington, the Duke wrote to Wilberforce, “You have made me so entirely forget you are a great man by seeming to forget it yourself . . .”
- Love for people and Interest in everything. One friend said about Wilberforce, “Being himself amused and interested by everything, whatever he said became amusing or interesting. . . . His presence was as fatal to dullness as to immorality. His mirth was as irresistible as the first laughter of childhood.” As John Piper concludes, Wilberforce’s “indomitable joy moved others to be happy and good.” Hannah More said Wilberforce’s being “agreeable”—his delightful nature—served God because people would listen to him, though they might never listen to someone more solemn.
- Sense of humor and delight in all that is good. Once, while listening to a witty speech in Parliament, he “collapsed in helpless laughter.” When a friend read to him from a biography of Lord Byron, who was noted for his immoral lifestyle, Wilberforce kept looking for, and finding, indications of “good feeling” in Byron’s life.
- Seeing God’s good hand in every trial. After he had to spend all his remaining money paying off his son’s debts, he and his wife lived their final years in two of their younger sons’ homes. Rather than complaining, Wilberforce rejoiced that he could be so much with his grandchildren and hear his own sons preaching the gospel. When he had to wear a steel brace for his spinal problems, he wrote, “How gracious is God in giving us such mitigations and helps for our infirmities.”
- Singing praise. He loved to sing hymns, both alone and in family prayer. His family met together for worship every morning and evening. And during the day he would walk around the house humming hymns or Psalm tunes, full of thankfulness.
- Deep devotional life. Wilberforce spent at least the first hour of the morning, no matter what distinguished visitors were at his house, in private devotions. In the evening he spent another hour in devotions.
What was the source of Wilberforce’s joy?
Wilberforce says in his book A Practical View that if we truly believe the truths of the Bible, which says that we deserved death but Christ died for us, these truths will transform our hearts. He says we will feel strong emotions: “deep self-abasement, and abhorrence of our sins,” but, not stopping there, the truths will lead us to “humble hope, and firm faith, and heavenly joy, and ardent love, and active unceasing gratitude!” (chapter 3).
His joy was based, not on his circumstances, but on his hope of heaven and his gratitude to God. Knowing God loved him, he could experience joy even in hard times. When he gave up harmful pleasures, it was for the greater joy that God gave him and promised him. He encouraged Christians to enjoy “innocent amusements” that refresh us, such as friendship, love, art, nature, and giving happiness to others.
To those who claimed Christians were sad and had no fun, Wilberforce said, “A little Religion is, it must be confessed, apt to make men gloomy, as a little knowledge to render them vain.” But deep faith brings deep joys, such as “the humble quiet-giving hope of being reconciled to God, and of enjoying his favour,” with true peace of mind, confidence in God’s wisdom and goodness, and God’s assurance that all things will work together for good.
Even Wilberforce did not always have joy; he had to strive for it. After one bad bout of colitis he experienced deep darkness, but in prayer he fought for joy. In daily disappointments with himself, he continually returned to God’s love and mercy, and his joy was restored.
Can you find joy through any of the ways Wilberforce found it? What is your joy based on?
Sources and Recommended Reading
This article is based on John Piper’s book, The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce (Crossway, 2006). Most quotes used above are in this book. I highly recommend Roots of Endurance and the others in the series, such as The Hidden Smile of God, which includes William Cowper.
You can read an abridged version of Piper’s section on Wilberforce at desiring god.org.
Wilberforce presents many of his views in his book, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Middle and Higher Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity, which I also recommend. You can get it for free from gutenberg.org or archive.org.
John Pollock, Wilberforce (David C. Cook, 2006), and Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace (HarperCollins 2006) also give great insights into Wilberforce’s life and work. A shorter essay by Pollock, “William Wilberforce: A Man Who Changed His Times,” is available online.