Both proclaimers of the gospel and moral reformers

Not long after his conversion, William Wilberforce (1759–1833), at the time a member of Parliament, wrote to the evangelical minister John Newton (1725–1807) on December 2, 1785, wanting to visit him for spiritual advice about his career, for Wilberforce was contemplating leaving the realm of politics. For a number of eighteenth-century evangelicals, particularly the Methodist followers of John Wesley (1703–91) and those outside of the Anglican fold like the Baptists, politics was a “worldly” occupation from which the believer was best to separate himself or herself [see, for example, Murray Andrew Pura, Vital Christianity: The Life and Spirituality of William Wilberforce (Fearn by Tain, Ross-Shire: Christian Focus/Toronto: Clements Publishing, 2003), 37–8]. Anglican evangelicals like Newton, however, did not view their Christian discipleship in such a counter-cultural light and Newton wisely encouraged Wilberforce to stay in the world of politics. Some words that Newton wrote to him a couple of years later well capture the essence of his advice to the young convert: “It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation.” [cited John Pollock, Wilberforce (1977 ed.; repr. Eastbourne: Kingsway, 2001), 38]. Newton was well aware of the challenge of being a Christian and a politician. As he wrote of Wilberforce to his good friend William Cowper (1731–1800) the year after Wilberforce came to see him: “I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide!! But they are not incompatible.” [William Hague, William Wilberforce (HarperCollins, 2007), 88].

Nor did Newton simply direct Wilberforce into the calling God had chosen for him, but over the next couple of decades Newton proved to be the ablest and most devoted of spiritual mentors. For example, in 1796, Newton wrote to Wilberforce: “I believe you are the Lord’s servant, and are in the post which He has assigned you; and though it appears to me more arduous, and requiring more self-denial than my own, I know that He who has called you to it can afford you strength according to your day” [cited Hague, William Wilberforce, 88]. Newton also helped Wilberforce by recalling those in Scripture who had served in the political realm: “May the wisdom that influenced Joseph and Moses and Daniel rest upon you. Not only to guide and animate you in the line of political duty—but especially to keep you in the habit of dependence upon God, and your communion with him, in the midst of all the changes and bustle around you.” [John Newton, Letter to William Wilberforce, 18 May [1786] (Bodleian, MS Wilberforce c.49, fol. 9)].

The meeting between Wilberforce and Newton in 1785 would be a true turning point in the religious, social and political history of Great Britain. Thanks be to God Wilberforce did not consult Wesley—though Wesley would encourage him to persevere in the fight against slavery shortly before his death in 1791—or a London Baptist leader, who would have told the young convert to get out of politics. And glad in this sense that he was not living today when he might have visited one of any number of pietistic Evangelical leaders in the Anglophone world, who conceives of the advance of the kingdom to be solely a matter of the recruitment of preachers. To be sure, we need such: the advance of the kingdom of our glorious Captain is tied to his infrangible and indelible Word. But we also need moral reformers with the mettle of Wilberforce.