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Deflected Glory and Unfinished Symphonies

Series: William Wilberforce and the Fight to End Slavery
Devotional: 5 of 5
Published: August 17, 2020

Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. (Psalm 115:1)

After decades of working diligently toward his life’s goal, William Wilberforce witnessed the British Parliament vote to abolish the slave trade in 1807. Twenty-six years later, in 1833, Parliament would vote for full emancipation, freeing slaves throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce received the glorious news on his deathbed and went home to be with the Lord three days later.

The British people credited Wilberforce as the man chiefly responsible for the historic event, but Wilberforce was quick to deflect the glory back to God, recognizing that he was merely an instrument in the hands of his Maker.

When the nation was on the cusp of abolishing the slave trade in 1807, Wilberforce wrote, “How popular Abolition is just now! God can turn the hearts of men.” God undoubtedly used Wilberforce’s once-in-a-generation skills as an orator to “turn the hearts of men,” but Wilberforce was giving ultimate credit where credit was truly due. In the words of one Wilberforce biographer, “He was fully determined to give God the glory when the glory at last would fall.”

Much of Wilberforce’s humility was rooted in his understanding of what we explored a few weeks back, namely that God didn’t need Wilberforce specifically to eradicate slavery. Almighty God could have chosen anyone to carry out His will. Wilberforce viewed his work as a privilege to partner with God in the redemption of creation—of playing his part to eradicate evil from this corner of the world.

Emancipation in Britain eventually paved the way for abolishing slavery elsewhere, including in America. This accomplishment alone makes Wilberforce one of the most productive people in history on behalf of “the gospel of the Kingdom” (Matthew 24:14). And yet, Wilberforce “went to the grave sincerely and deeply regretting that he hadn’t done much more.” Even Wilberforce died with what Catholic theologian Karl Rahner called “unfinished symphonies.”

Wilberforce’s ambition to do more through his work wasn’t out of a misplaced attempt to earn God’s favor or work for his salvation. It was in response to the gift of salvation God had given him decades before. In response to the gospel, Wilberforce’s friend John Wesley encouraged him and others to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”

Let that be our anthem today!

Like Wilberforce, God can use our work—whether we’re in politics, business, education, or the arts—to redeem His creation. Let us be wildly ambitious to steward our time and talents well to that end!

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