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Posts Tagged ‘William Wilberforce’


The Church in America has struggled with the notion of Christian activism over the years. Usually such activism is associated with the “Religious Right” but there are groups that would not consider themselves part of that “Religious Right” that engage in activism as well. Is the Church to be involved with activism? Are Christians to be involved in activism? This is the subject of Appendix E in The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame.

Frame begins with mentioning the book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe. There they remind people of the great influence of Christians on Western culture. Christians have been instrumental in education (founding many of our colleges), health care (founding many of our hospitals), political freedom, literacy (the original reason for Sunday School) as well as the arts and more.

“Without Jesus, without the gospel, without the influence of his people, all these areas of culture would be vastly different and very much worse.”

The efforts and influence of Christians have not lead to a perfect society. They have lead to a clearly better society in many instances (note I didn’t say all). Here in America, as a result of the Fundamentalist movement, large portions of the Church retreated from social action. Ironically, it was often the more liberal branches of Christianity that lobbied for things like Prohibition which would typically be associated with Fundamentalists today.

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For the next two weeks, my sermon series on Colossians will be in the portion of the household code dealing with slaves and masters. Later, we’ll explore Philemon. But this is not the only household code in Scripture that addresses the subject. We find them in Ephesians 5-6 and Titus 2. The subject appears in 1 Timothy 6, 1 Peter 2, 1 Corinthians 7 and some other places. It is important for us to remember that in Philippians 2 Jesus is called a slave who obeyed to the point of death, death on a cross.

It is hard for us to grasp all of this. Thankfully legalized slavery has been abolished in most of the world. We are still fighting human trafficking. We have a very different set of experiences than the original audience of the Scriptures.  So let’s look as this, at times with help from John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life. (I am a bit uncomfortable with his reliance upon James Jordan at times. Some theonomists have fallen into what I think is the dangerous false doctrine of kinism).

Slavery was common in most of the ancient world. Not race-based slavery, but slavery. In the Old Testament we see that the Patriarchs owned slaves. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers (which as man-stealing was punished by death in the Old Testament, and was affirmed as a heinous sin in the New Testament).

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My ‘relationship’ with John Newton was a slowly developing affair. I’m sure you’ve had friendships like that. You meet a person, don’t think much of them at the time. Slowly you begin to see more of them. You see your common interests, and their strengths, previously hidden, come to light. Your appreciation grows.

That is my relationship with Newton. Ah, he wrote a few hymns, that’s nice. Over the years people shared some of his letters. I got to know a little bit more of his life. I read Piper’s short account of his life and bought The Letters of John Newton and Wise Counsel. Over time he has become one of my heroes in the faith. His importance to the church and the world is matched by few.

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace attempts to let us in on the ‘secret’ that is the life of John Newton. The book is easy to read, with short chapters that fit into busy schedules.  Aitken does not hide from us the sinfulness and brokenness of the young Newton. He was the son of a captain whose mother died when he was young. Her gospel influence gone, he often lived with relatives while his father was at sea. He would follow in his father’s footsteps, but soon earned a reputation as being a despicable human being. He was a piece of work, as they say. Some of the words used to describe him would be blasphemer, fornicator, obstinate rabble rouser, dabbler in black arts and more.

“For the fourth time on four successive ships, Newton managed to alienate his captain.”

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CavWife and I finally watched Amazing Grace, the biopic on William Wilberforce.  We suffered from some laser issues at times- the in-laws’ DVD player is in decline- which affected our ability to both enjoy it and follow the story line, at times.

I know a bit about Wilberforce, having read one of his books and read a short biography on him.  In preparing a lesson on the slave trade I did some more research on him.  As a result, I was more familiar with him than the other people in the room.  As a result, I was able to fill in some of the gaps in the story line.  The movie clocks in at a hair under 2 hours and it could have easily been longer.  There were some things I wish were in the movie, which focused on his romance/marriage and lengthy battle in Parliament to abolish the slave trade.  It is difficult to tell the story of such a long period of time in a meaningful way in 2 hours or less.

Most of the movie takes place when he meets the woman who will become his wife.  He tells her of how he became involved in the political battle.  The movie follows along to eventual victory.  The time shifts mean you have to pay close attention since Wilburforce doesn’t seem to change much physically.  John Newton, played well by Albert Finney, and the troublesome Clarkson do undergo some physical changes providing clues if you miss the message.

I am a great sinner.  Christ is a great Savior.

"I am a great sinner. Christ is a great Savior."

The movie clearly portrays his evangelical moorings, but doesn’t dwell on them in a way that would make a non-Christian too uncomfortable.  I particularly liked the quick scene with his butler.  Wilberforce explains some strange behavior on God.  “You’ve found God.”  “More like I’ve been found by God.”  I’m not sure about the exact wording, but it reflects the wording of his mentor’s song- “I once was lost, but now I’m found.”  But the movie does not cover his conversion- which was a fairly lengthy process so that is understandable- or that his faith was the impetus and sustaining force in the fight against the slave trade.

One disappointment was the scene in which his best friend died.  His friend lamented that he didn’t have William’s faith.  Wilburforce left it at that rather than offering the promises of the gospel to him.

The movie makes some quick mention of some of his other accomplishments, such as found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  This too flowed out of his faith.  He saw Christianity as not less, but more than his personal conversion.  His understanding of Christianity was that God transforms us, and society through us.  Wilburforce was so active in living out this vision that his health did suffer greatly.

... no longer belong to God, but belong to man...

... no longer belong to God, but belong to man...

The film does a good job of telling people about part of this great man’s life.  It is a fairly low budget film.  That it is a period piece helps it to feel like something you might see as a mini-series on PBS.  But I wasn’t looking for style points.

It is sad that most people don’t know about this man, and his lengthy struggle to see the slave trade come to an end, and soon thereafter slavery itself.

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