Two hundred years ago, Christian statesman William Wilberforce led the drive to end the British slave trade. But ironically, his conversion to Christianity nearly led him to abandon politics. His story illustrates how crucial it is for every believer to have a biblical understanding of calling.
As Kevin Belmonte writes in his new book, HERO FOR HUMANITY, Wilberforce resisted efforts by friends to convert him. A wealthy and popular young man, Wilberforce was enjoying life to the fullest:
dinners, balls, and high jinks with friends. His chief goal in life was advancing his own political career. As he told a friend, “My own distinction was my darling object.”
But then came his fateful encounter with the man who would bring him to Christ: Isaac Milner, his former tutor. Through Milner’s influence, “Wilberforce began to wrestle with the implications of what it might mean to embrace the Christian life.” And once Wilberforce came to Christ, Belmonte writes, he condemned himself for having wasted precious time, opportunities, and talents.
But the big question after his conversion was how should he spend the remainder of his time and talents? One friend, a member of Parliament, advised Wilberforce to retire from public life. But other friends, including John Newton — the former slave-ship captain, now a minister — urged him to stay in politics.
As Belmonte writes, “His quandary has been described as the ‘Eusebian temptation,’ the belief that one could best serve God in sacred rather than secular activities.” Wilberforce “contemplated leaving politics to pursue holy orders or some other sphere of Christian service.”
In seeking direction, Wilberforce searched the Scriptures. He was struck by the command of Christ to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. “Who is my
neighbor?” he asked. Taking his cue from the story of the Good Samaritan, Wilberforce concluded, “It is evident that we are to consider our peculiar situations, and in these to do all the good we can.” As he explained to his mother, “Some are thrown into public, some have their lot in private life.”
Given his particular gifts, Wilberforce concluded that it was God’s will that he stay in public life. “It would merit no better name than desertion,” he wrote, “if I were thus to fly from the post where
Providence has placed me.”
But there was a change. Instead of working for his own distinction, he now desired to discover God’s plan for his career. That plan included playing a central role in abolishing the British slave trade and
reforming the morals of British society.
Had Wilberforce abandoned public life, the consequences would have been enormous. His friend, the Rev. Thomas Scott, wrote, “The slave trade might have continued into future generations.” Thank God Wilberforce embraced a proper view of biblical calling.
As we ponder God’s call on our own lives, we should remember that not every Christian needs to be in formal ministry. There are opportunities to serve God and do His will in every field of human endeavor. After all, we believe that all of life is ministry. So Christians — laymen included — should be equipped to be ministers of the Gospel wherever God puts us.