Today we know William Wilberforce as the great British politician who led the movement to abolish the slave trade in British territories. But did you know that it almost didn’t happen?
It’s easy to look back on a well-lived life that has made a mark in a certain well-known way and think it must have been completely obvious to him or her which way to go. But at the time, it's not that simple.
Discovering life calling takes many things, among them a process, discernment, and community. This was true for William Wilberforce.
At age 25, he became an evangelical Christian, and thought he should leave politics and join professional ministry. But he didn’t know for sure, so he approached his mentor John Newton, the former slave ship owner and writer of the hymn, Amazing Grace.
Newton’s advice was this: “It’s hoped and believed that the LORD has raised you up for the good of the nation.”
So, Wilberforce stayed in politics and got involved with the abolition movement. Two years later he wrote in his journal:
“God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” (Manners are habits, attitudes, and morals.)
Wilberforce had discovered his life calling. What can we learn from his life calling as we seek to live out ours?
Let’s look at five traits and strengths in the life calling of William Wilberforce:
When Wilberforce was at a crossroads, he approached his mentor John Newton, who provided important advice. Newton didn’t tell Wilberforce just what he wanted to hear, he challenged his thinking and beliefs. And he did so in a manner that would appeal to Wilberforce, according to faith.
Mentoring in community plays a vital role in life calling.
When Wilberforce became a Christian, he believed he should leave politics for professional ministry. He believed to really serve God meant he had to work in professional ministry. That belief almost curtailed his extraordinary role in the abolitionist movement. But Newton helped to correct this belief—you can serve God in a non-ministry profession.
As we see, one's beliefs impact calling, so know what beliefs are driving you.
Wilberforce was uniquely wired to do what he did. When we look at his life, here are some of the strengths we can see:
Whatever his particular strengths were, Wilberforce used his natural talents in service of his calling. But he had more than talents at his disposal:
To live one’s calling, one must understand one’s strengths and abilities, then use them in service of that calling.
There’s a scene in the movie, Amazing Grace, about the life of Wilberforce, when at a dinner party with abolitionist activists, they show Wilberforce the terrible chains that bound slaves on slave ships, a former slave shows the terrible burn brands on his skin, and they describe the terrible ordeal of slaves on slave ships. This powerful moment catalyzed Wilberforce into his calling. As a result of that dinner:
“Wilberforce had agreed in general terms that he would bring forward the abolition of the slave trade.” (Wikipedia)
Although calling is discovered over time, “calling moments” provide powerful steps forward.
Although his “great object” was extraordinary, Wilberforce walked it out in ordinary ways—he went to work for 20 years to see the slave trade abolished in England. That meant 20 years of the grunt work, 20 years of seeing his bill fail, 20 years of naysayers and opponents. But he stood by his mission and was successful. He was faithful to his call.
The life of William Wilberforce shows us that just because we discover our life calling doesn't mean it'll be easy. In life calling, faithfulness and persistence take priority over ease and comfort.
Wilberforce was an extraordinary person who did extraordinary things, but let's not forget he was also an ordinary man who did ordinary things like go to work and use his strengths. It's just that he had discovered his life calling and went out after it with all he had.
Let us do the same.
What's your "great object?" What is your life calling? How do you find it?