Dilemmas and Distortions

Mark Tenney

“We humbly suggest you consider doing… both.”
With a rapier wit that could devastate opponents in parliamentary debate, William Wilberforce was first elected to Parliament in 1780 at the age of twenty-one, along with his college friend William Pitt. Wilberforce understood what Germany chancellor Otto Von Bismarck keenly observed one-hundred years later – that laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.

Within four years, Wilberforce’s journals began to show a change of heart. In 1786, he became a different man in what Wilberforce called his “great change,” or embrace of evangelical Anglicanism. He repented of his earlier conduct, making every effort to mend his broken relationships. Wilberforce also began to seriously consider leaving Parliament to serve God in ministry.

This is similar to what John Newton had done years before, turning from ship captain to clergyman. Wilberforce knew Newton, who had come under the influence of the evangelical movement that Adam Hochschild describes as “focused on changing not the social order of his world but its spiritual life.”1 This led Wilberforce to assume he had to either stay in politics or serve God – but not both. His dilemma would turn out to be a distortion.

Wilberforce was dividing the world between higher and lower callings; between sacred and secular work. It’s what Os Guinness calls the “Catholic distortion,” which goes all the way back to church leaders like Eusebius, Augustine, and Aquinas. Monks, nuns, and priests “had a calling” – they performed “spiritual” work. Soldiers, farmers, and businesspeople “just had jobs” – they were stuck with “secular” work.

By Wilberforce’s day, many evangelicals had adopted the Catholic distortion. If someone was earnest about their faith, working as a pastor or missionary was more important than being a business professional or politician. In evangelical Protestant circles, phrases such as “I’m going into full-time Christian ministry” or “I’m stuck in a secular job” became common. For a period of time, the newly converted Wilberforce assumed he was on the horns of a dilemma: remain in Parliament or serve God.

Wilberforce’s dilemma was resolved over a dinner in Clapham, England hosted by a unique group of Christians committed to activism and reform. After pleasantries had been exchanged, this advice was tendered: “We humbly suggest you consider doing… both.” Wilberforce’s dilemma was unmasked for what it actually was – a distortion. The proof in the pudding is that his best friend, William Pitt, eventually became Great Britain’s Prime Minister. Parliament and “ministry” can go together.

Os Guinness believes “countless Protestants have succumbed to the Catholic distortion as Wilberforce nearly did.”2 His dinner with the Claphamites welded together the “two great objects” that Wilberforce believed God had called him to: the cause of abolition and moral reform of Great Britain. These were the two tasks that became the unswerving focus of his forty-five years of public life and activity.3

With his Clapham colleagues, Wilberforce was instrumental in reforming hospital care, fever institutions, asylums, infirmaries, penitentiaries, and generating support for the schools of the poet and playwright Hannah More, who became a close friend and leading reformer of education. Wilberforce and his friends were responsible for founding such institutions as The Society for the Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts, the Indigent Blind Institution, the Foundling Hospital and the Society for the Bettering of the Condition of the Poor. He came to see that serving God did not mean dividing the world between “sacred” and “secular” – as his diary notes: “My walk… is a public one; my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies… or quit the part which Providence seems to have assigned me.”4

On February 23rd, the work of Wilberforce and his Clapham colleagues comes to the big screen in Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce, opening in theaters throughout the country. Before then, we’ll highlight several features of Wilberforce’s work that we can emulate. Our take-away this week is that there is no “secular” world – God made it all and we can serve him equally well in a vast array of callings. The dilemma between seeking the “sacred” and shunning the “secular” is really a distortion of calling and vocation.

Final note: There are today twice as many slaves worldwide as in 1807 when the English Slave Trade was abolished. The film’s producers hope to enlist people in an effort to abolish the modern day slave trade. To download a petition, go to: http://www.amazinggracemovie.com/amazing_change.php

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1 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p.72. Hochschild teaches narrative writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
2 Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose Of Your Life (Nashville: Word, 1998), p.32
3 Sir Reginald Coupland, Wilberforce, A Narrative (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p.251
4 The vision for these two tasks was noted in his personal journal on October 28, 1787.

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