William Wilberforce is famous for his tireless, decades-long campaign against slavery. But did you know he was happy?
The poet Robert Southey said, “I never saw any other man who seemed to enjoy such a perpetual serenity and sunshine of spirit. In conversing with him, you feel assured that there is no guile in him; that if ever there was a good man and happy man on earth, he was one.” In 1881 Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, “Though shattered in constitution and feeble in body he is as lively and animated as in the days of his youth.” His sense of humor and delight in all that was good was vigorous and unmistakable. In 1824 John Russell gave a speech in the Commons with such wit that Wilberforce “collapsed in helpless laughter.” John Piper, Peculiar Doctrines, Public Morals and the Political Welfare, 2002 Desiring God Pastors Conference.
And he truly was ‘shattered in constitution and feeble in body’ (paragraph format and text in bold are mine):
On top of this family burden came the death of his daughter Barbara. In the autumn of 1821, at 32, she was diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis). She died five days after Christmas. Wilberforce wrote to a friend, “Oh my dear Friend, it is in such seasons as these that the value of the promises of the Word of God are ascertained both by the dying and the attendant relatives. . . . The assured persuasion of Barbara’s happiness has taken away the sting of death.”
He sounds strong, but the blow shook his remaining strength, and in March of 1822, he wrote to his son, “I am confined by a new malady, the Gout.”
The word “new” in that letter signals that Wilberforce labored under some other extraordinary physical handicaps that made his long perseverance political life all the more remarkable.
He wrote in 1788 that his eyes were so bad “[I can scarcely] see how to direct my pen. . .” In later years he frequently mentioned the “peculiar complaint of my eyes,” that he could not see well enough to read or write during the first hours of the day. John Piper, Peculiar Doctrines, Public Morals and the Political Welfare, 2002 Desiring God Pastors Conference.
Happy, and disabled? How?
The main burden of Wilberforce’s book, A Practical View of Christianity, is to show that true Christianity, which consists in these new, indomitable spiritual affections for Christ, is rooted in the great doctrines of the Bible about Sin and Christ and Faith. “Let him then who would abound and grow in this Christian principle, be much conversant with the great doctrines of the Gospel.” More specifically, he says:
If we would . . . rejoice in [Christ] as triumphantly as the first Christians did; we must learn, like them to repose our entire trust in him and to adopt the language of the apostle, ‘God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ’ [Galatians 6:14], “who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” [1 Corinthians 1:30]. John Piper, Peculiar Doctrines, Public Morals and the Political Welfare, 2002 Desiring God Pastors Conference.
Thank you, Pastor John, for this wonderful, helpful biography of William Wilberforce. And thanks be to God for creating such a happy man as Wilberforce who, though experiencing extraordinary personal and physical pain, always looked to Jesus and had a constant, unending supply of joy as he battled evil his entire life.
May we happily do the same in our own time.