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Thoughts on Ministry and Politics

When I began my college career at Baylor University I did so majoring in political science. Though a pre-med/pre-dental student, an academic advisor counseled me to pick a major that interested me. Politics did the trick. In high school I had been president of the junior element of a local political party and in my first semester, joined the college version of the same. There were many different aspects of politics that interested me, not least of which was making a difference for my country. My younger brother Jodey felt similarly. Though he went a step further. While sharing a high school class on government with him, he communicated to me that he believed God had put a dream in his heart to actually pursue politics. I was energized by political thinking. Jodey was compelled by it. Thus, it didn’t surprise me when, after a career spent serving a U.S. President, Chairman of the FDIC, and Chancellor of his alma mater, Texas Tech, he finally felt it was time to serve his fellow man by running for public office.

Praying for my brother on the morning of his swearing-in.

In returning this weekend from Jodey’s swearing-in as a U.S. Congressman, there have been quite a few photos, articles, and videos about the event. (Heck, I posted many myself on my Instagram account) It’s been fun seeing friends and family who made the trip on C-SPAN, CNN, and local news back in West Texas. One story that got me thinking was entitled “Two Oaths: Rep. Arrington Emphasized Power of Prayer and Politics” with the subtitle: Arrington turns to Family and Faith for Guidance. It was a piece about how my brother’s faith is integrated into his politics. Included in the article are a photo of me praying for Jodey at a dedication service amongst some trusted friends (inset pic) in addition to a video of me praying at his swearing-in viewing party.

No biggie, right? I mean the lead photo the station used was mine. My youngest brother sent it to the reporter after seeing the initial story online. But knowing those images were being seen by people who don’t know me or what I believe today about politics made me a tad uneasy.

Let me explain.

My first semester in college was also when I felt led by God to give my life to serve the local church as a pastor. It was late November of 1989. I literally stepped into my dorm closet and told the Lord that, if he so desired, I would serve him in vocational ministry. I have never looked back. From that point on, I have tried to live my life in a way that maximizes my redemptive potential as a pastor. My heart for the gospel, the church, and the mission of making disciples not only grew during my formative years in college (and subsequently seminary) but continues to grow.

Conversely, any fires for things political began to dim for me. I quit my association with the local political party on campus, and within a year or two, switched my political science major to religion. In my mind’s eye, as a future pastor, my life’s focus would be the Kingdom of God – specifically how it intersects the local church. Frankly, I think of my waning political desires during my college years as a grace. I believe it’s served me well today.

For almost 25 years I’ve shepherded souls who are all across the political spectrum: Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.1 To be candid, my own political ideas have changed over the years. I’m not nearly as ideologically monolithic as I was in my younger days. I think that too has served me well. I believe both Republicans and Democrats love their nation, want to do what is best, and have good ideas (and bad ones) about how to achieve their ends. When a political party is just a party and not a god, it’s amazing how little you care to demonize the other side. It’s probably one reason I don’t feel the need to post on social media every two seconds about how this or that political leader or party is the hero or zero. I think most of that practice is a waste of time for a pastor if not flat-out unwise. I mean, how do you minister to Democrats in your church when you’re so pro-Republican on Twitter? Or how do you serve Republican believers when what you’ve essentially become on Facebook is a mouthpiece for the DNC? Is your need to speak about those things so great that you risk losing sheep over it? Hardly. Remember it’s not your mantle but one given to you by the Lord above. Stop thinking of yourself as prophetic. It’s more likely problematic for your pastoral ministry, that is, if you want different kinds of people in your congregation.2 I know I do. If adherents of only one political party feel at home in my church then I’m doing something wrong as a pastor. I hope both Republicans and Democrats over time in my congregation will experience affirmation and rebuke from the teaching of God’s Word. I know I have.

This brings me to the Honorable Jodey C. Arrington. What do I do when I’m a pastor who also happens to have a brother running for Congress? I’m not saying there is one right way, but here is what I did.3 I told my brother from the start that, as a pastor, I wouldn’t publicly endorse him or anyone else. I think pastors who do that run the risk of sabotaging the ministries God gave them. I told Jodey I am not my own but bound to Christ and the people of CCCC. I am a voice for my congregation and couldn’t muddy the waters speaking on his behalf. Fortunately, Jodey understood and even agreed.4 So I stayed quiet online as far as campaigning went. Even when I felt his opponents were being disingenuous to him.5 However, I did say I would personally support him through prayer, counsel, and encouragement. Which is why, once Jodey won, I gladly joined him in D.C. to both privately and publicly pray for him.

Maybe this isn’t that big of a deal. I’ve heard many a person when listening to my reasonings for distancing myself from my brother’s campaign respond, “Oh Yancey, but it’s your brother. People would understand if you publicly supported his race.” While that might be true for some, it wouldn’t be true for me. So when you see images of me praying in Washington, D.C., for the new US Congressman of Texas District 19, please know I did so not as the proponent of one particular political party but as the family member one particular brother.

Pastoral ministry is too great a gift to exchange for the lesser porridge of politics.


  1. Even Green Party if you can believe it. ;)
  2. For an article that resonates with my integration of faith and politics, see Dr. Bruce Wesley’s Which Political Party Is Right?
  3. I’m open to being educated on a better way to engage both ministry and politics.
  4. Unfortunately, some pastors in the Lubbock area don’t hold the same convictions and betrayed their ministries by volunteering their names to support a political candidate.
  5. If not slandering him.
Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Ministry and Politics”

  1. Chapter 8 – For the Good of the Nation
    from “God and Government”
    By Charles Colson

    Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.
    LORD MELBOURNE (opposing abolition of the slave trade)
    Scudding clouds obscured the moon as the heavy schooner pitched forward in the dark waters. A lone sailor walked the deck on late watch; at the helm, three others held the wheel against the high seas. Below, the rest of the crew tossed in their hammocks, while in the main cabin the captain dipped his quill in a well of sepia ink and began the day’s log. He squinted in the poor light from the tallow candle. “ . . . 1787 . . . a fair wind today . . . five hundred miles off the coast of Africa . . . bound due east now for Jamaica with cargo . . .” Packed into the dark hold beneath his feet was the ship’s cargo — five hundred African men and women layered like fish packed in brine. Barely able to breathe in the air heavy with the stench of human waste and vomit, they lay chest to back, legs drawn into fetal position, feet resting on the heads of those in the next row. Some had been taken prisoner during tribal wars; some had been jailed as petty criminals; and others had been unsuspecting dinner guests of Englishmen visiting their country. But all had been forcibly enslaved and held in a stockade on the African coast until sold to the highest bidder. That bidder was the captain in the cabin above. Once purchased they had been branded and rowed to the schooner waiting offshore, their screams and cries ignored by the seamen who hoisted them aboard and chained them in the stinking hold. For the women, however, there was a further torture. The crew, diseased and ill-treated themselves, claimed the one sordid privilege of their trade — the pick of the slave women. Once under way, the ship had become half bedlam, half brothel. Now, several weeks into the voyage, sixty slaves had already died. Fever had taken some. Others, driven insane by the horror of their lot, had been killed by the crew. Each morning when the lower decks were opened, several dead or near-dead bodies were thrown to the sharks trailing the ship. The captain cursed as the bodies hit the choppy water. Each body overboard meant lost profits. For those who survived the hellish three-month journey, an equally gruesome future awaited. They would be auctioned naked in the marketplace to planters who would work them to death on their Caribbean plantations. Never again would these African men and women see their homeland. Thousands of miles to the north, in a country that profited richly from this human misery, another man sat at his desk. He too gazed into the flickering flame of his lamp, for the early morning darkness still filled his second floor library at Number 4 Old Palace Yard, London. Only his piercing blue eyes reflected the turmoil of his thoughts as he eyed the jumble of pamphlets on his cluttered desk. He ran his hand through his wavy hair and opened his Bible to begin the day, as was his custom, with Scripture reading and prayer. But his thoughts kept returning to the pamphlets, grisly accounts of human flesh sold like mutton for the profit of his countrymen. No matter how he tried, William Wilberforce could not wipe these scenes from his mind.1 William Wilberforce was the only son of prosperous merchant parents. Though an average student at Cambridge, his quick wit had made him a favorite among his fellows, including William Pitt, with whom he shared an interest in politics. Often the two young men had spent their evenings in the gallery of the House of Commons watching the heated debates over the War of Independence in the colonies. After graduation Wilberforce had run as a conservative for a seat in Parliament from his home county of Hull. Though only twenty-one at the time, the prominence of his family, his speaking ability, and a generous feast he sponsored for voters on Election Day carried the contest. The London of 1780, when Wilberforce arrived to take his office, was described as “one vast casino” where the rich counted their profits through a fog of claret. Fortunes were lost and won over gaming tables, and duels of honor were the order of the day. The city’s elegant private clubs welcomed young Wilberforce, and he happily concentrated on pursuing both political advancement and social pleasure. High society revolved around romantic intrigue and adulterous affairs. An upper-class couple might not be seen together in public for weeks during the social season, for no popular hostess would invite a husband and wife to the same event. The poor, of course, had no such opportunity to escape from one another. Crammed together in shabby dwellings, they were cogs grinding out a living in the Empire’s emerging industrial machines. Pale children worked eighteen hours a day in cotton mills or coal mines to bring home a few shillings a month to parents who often wasted it on cheap gin. Highwaymen were folk heroes. Newgate and other infamous prisons overflowed with debtors, murderers, rapists, and petty thieves — often children. The twelve-year-old who had stolen a loaf of bread might be hanged the same day as a celebrated highwayman, providing public entertainment. In short, London was a city where unchecked passions and desires ran their course. Few raised their voices in opposition. So it is not surprising that few argued against one of the nation’s most bountiful sources of wealth — the slave trade. In fact, the trade was both a successful business and a national policy. Political alliances revolved around commitments to it. It became known euphemistically as “the institution,” the “pillar and support of British plantation industry in the West Indies.” In a celebrated case in England’s high court only four years earlier, slaves had been deemed “goods and chattels.” Corruption in government was so widespread that few members of Parliament thought twice about accepting bribes for their votes. Planters and other gentlemen involved in the slave trade paid three to five thousand pounds to “buy” boroughs, which sent their representatives to the House of Commons. Their political influence in Parliament grew until a large bloc was controlled by the vested influence of the slave trade. The same attitude reigned in the House of Lords. The horrors of the trade were remote and unseen, the cotton and sugar profits they yielded very tangible. So most consciences were not troubled about the black men and women suffering far away on the high seas or on remote plantations. Early in 1784 Wilberforce’s friend William Pitt was elected prime minister at the age of twenty-four. This inspired Wilberforce to make a big political gamble. He surrendered his safe seat in Hull and stood for election in Yorkshire, the largest and most influential constituency in the country. It was a grueling campaign; the outcome was uncertain until the closing day when Wilberforce addressed a large rally. James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s celebrated biographer, stood in the cold rain and watched the young candidate, barely five feet tall, climb onto a table so the wet, bored crowd could see him. The power of his oratory, however, soon gripped them. “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table,” Boswell wrote, “but as I listened the shrimp grew and grew and became a whale.” Wilberforce was elected. As an intimate of the prime minister and as a man respected by both political parties, he seemed destined for power and prominence. After the election, Wilberforce’s mother invited him to take a tour of the Continent with his sister and several cousins. Subsequently, he happened to meet his old schoolmaster from Hull, Isaac Milner, and on impulse asked him to join the traveling party. That invitation was to change Wilberforce’s life. Isaac Milner was a large, jovial man with a mind as robust as his body. Called “an evangelical Dr. Johnson,” Milner’s forceful personality had contributed to the spread of Christian influence at Cambridge. Not unnaturally, then, he raised the matter of faith and religion to his former pupil as their carriage ran over the rutted roads between Nice and the Swiss Alps. When Wilberforce treated the subject flippantly, Milner growled at his young companion’s derisive wit and declared, “I am no match for you, but if you really want to discuss these subjects seriously, I will gladly enter on them with you.” Provoked, Wilberforce eventually agreed to read the Bible. The summer session of Parliament forced Wilberforce to make a break in his travels, and his visit to the social scene of London revealed subtle changes in his tastes. Parties he had once attended routinely now seemed “indecent.” Letters to family and friends indicated his growing distaste for corruption he had scarcely noticed before. When he and Milner continued their Continental tour in the fall of 1785, Wilberforce was no longer the same frivolous young man. In fact, the rest of the traveling party complained about his preoccupation when he and Milner studied a Greek New Testament in the coach. Wilberforce returned to London in early November, but his travels had not rested him. Instead, he felt weary and confused. In need of counsel, he sought advice from John Newton. Son of a sailor, Newton had been impressed into the Royal Navy when he was eleven. He deserted, was caught in West Africa, flogged, and placed into service on a slave ship. Eventually he became involved in the slave trade and in 1750 was given command of his own ship. On one especially stormy passage to the West Indies, however, Newton was converted to faith in Jesus Christ. He renounced slaving and expressed his wonder at the gift of salvation in his famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” By the time Wilberforce knew of him, Newton was a clergyman in the Church of England, renowned for his outspokenness on spiritual matters. He counseled Wilberforce to follow Christ but not to abandon public office: “The Lord has raised you up to the good of His church and for the good of the nation.” Wilberforce heeded his advice. The responses of his old friends were predictable. Some thought his mind had snapped; others assumed he would now retreat from political life since religion could have little to do with politics. Many, however, were simply bewildered. How could a well-bred, educated young man with so much promise get caught up in a religious exuberance that appealed only to the common masses? The reaction Wilberforce cared about most, however, was that of his friend Pitt. He wrote to the prime minister, telling him that though he would remain his faithful friend, he could “no more be so much of a party man as before.” Pitt’s understanding reply revealed the depth of their friendship, but after their first face-to-face discussion, Wilberforce wrote in his diary: “Pitt tried to reason me out of my convictions but soon found himself unable to combat their correctness, if Christianity was true. The fact is, he is so absorbed in politics, that he has never given himself time for due reflection on religion.” Thus Wilberforce arrived at that foggy Sunday morning in 1787 when he sat at his desk and stared out the window at the gray drizzle, thinking about his conversion and his calling. Had God saved him only to rescue his own soul from hell? He could not accept that. He could not be content with the comfort of life at Palace Yard and the stimulating debates of Parliament. If Christianity was true and meaningful, it must go deeper than that. It must not only save but serve. It must bring God’s compassion to the oppressed as well as oppose the oppressors. And at the moment, all he could envision were loaded slave ships leaving the sun-baked coasts of Africa. He turned back to the journal filled with his tiny, cramped writing and dipped his pen in the inkwell. “Almighty God has set before me two great objectives,” he wrote, his heart suddenly pumping with passion. “The abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” With those words, an epic offensive was launched against a society pockmarked by decadence and the barbaric trafficking of human flesh that underwrote those excesses. “As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity and carried on as this was must be abolished.” Wilberforce knew the issue had to be faced head-on in Parliament. Throughout the damp fall of 1787 he worked late into the nights on his investigation, joined by others who saw in him a champion for their cause. There was Grenville Sharp, a hook-nosed attorney with a keen mind who was already well-known for his successful court case that had made slavery illegal in England itself — ironic in a time when the country’s economic strength depended on slavery abroad. Another was Zachary Macaulay, a quiet, patient researcher who sifted through stacks of evidence to build damning indictments against the trade. A dedicated worker who took pen in hand at four o’clock every morning, he became a walking encyclopedia for the rest of the abolitionists. Whenever Wilberforce needed information, he would look for his quiet, heavy-browed friend and say, “Let us look it up in Macaulay.” Thomas Clarkson was another compatriot. The red-headed clergyman and brilliant essayist with a passion for justice and righteousness was Wilberforce’s scout. He conducted exhausting — and dangerous — trips to the African coast. Once, needing some evidence from a particular sailor he knew by sight though not by name, Clarkson questioned dozens of men from slave vessels in port after port until finally, after searching 317 ships, he found his man. In February 1788, while working with these friends and others, Wilberforce suddenly fell gravely ill. Doctors predicted he would not live more than two weeks. Cheered by this news, the opposition party in Yorkshire made plans to regain his seat in Parliament. Wilberforce, however, recovered. And though not yet well enough to return to Parliament, in March he asked Pitt to introduce the abolition issue in the House for him. On the basis of their friendship, the prime minister agreed. Lacking Wilberforce’s passion but faithfully citing his facts, Pitt moved that a resolution be passed binding the House to discuss the slave trade in the next session. The motion provoked a lukewarm debate and was passed. Those with interest in the trade were not worried about a mere motion to discuss abolition. Then another of Wilberforce’s friends, Sir William Dolben, introduced a one-year experimental bill to regulate the number of slaves that could be transported per ship. After several members of Parliament visited a slave ship lying in a London port, the debates grew heated with cries for reform. Now sensing a threat, the West Indian bloc rose up in opposition. Tales of cruelty in the slave trade were mere fiction, they said; it was the happiest day of an African’s life when he was shipped away from the barbarities of his homeland. Besides, warned Lord Penrhyn ominously, the proposed measure would abolish the trade upon which “two thirds of the commerce of this country depends.” Angered by Penrhyn’s hyperbole, Pitt himself grew passionate. Threatening to resign unless the bill was carried, he pushed Dolben’s regulation through both houses in June of 1788. The success of Dolben’s bill awakened the slave traders to the possibility of real danger. By the time a recovered Wilberforce returned to the legislative scene, they were furious and ready to fight, shocked that politicians had the audacity to press for morally based reforms in the political arena. “Humanity is a private feeling, not a public principle to act upon,” sniffed the Earl of Abingdon. Lord Melbourne angrily agreed. “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.” James Boswell, who had initially been astounded by Wilberforce’s oratorical prowess, penned a bit of snide verse aptly reflecting the abuse heaped by Wilberforce’s enemies: Go, W______ with narrow skull, Go home and preach away at Hull. No longer in the Senate cackle In strains that suit the tabernacle; I hate your little witling sneer, Your pert and self-sufficient leer. Mischief to trade sits on your lip, Insects will gnaw the noblest ship Go, W, begone, for shame, Thou dwarf with big resounding name. But Wilberforce and the band of abolitionists knew that a private faith that did not act in the face of oppression was no faith at all. Wilberforce’s first parliamentary speech for abolition shows the passion of his convictions as well as his characteristic humility: When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House — a subject, in which the interest, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved . . . it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task. But I march forward with a firmer step in the full assurance that my cause will bear me out . . . the total abolition of the slave trade. . . . I mean not to accuse anyone, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty — we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others. But the passionate advocacy of Wilberforce, Pitt, and others was not sufficient to deter the interests of commerce in the 1789 session. The House’s vote spurred Wilberforce to gather further evidence that could not be ignored. He and his co-workers spent up to ten hours a day reading and abridging factual material, and in early 1791 he again filled the House of Commons with his thundering eloquence. “Never, never will we desist till we . . . extinguish every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonor to this country.” The opposition was equally determined. One member asserted, “Abolition would instantly annihilate a trade, which annually employs upwards of 5,500 sailors, upwards of 160 ships, and whose exports amount to £800,000 sterling; and would undoubtedly bring the West Indies trade to decay, whose exports and imports amount to upwards of £6,000,000 sterling, and which give employment in upwards of 160,000 tons of additional shipping, and sailors in proportion.” He paused dramatically, pointed to the gallery where a number of his slave-trading constituents watched, and exclaimed, “These are my masters!” Another member, citing the positive aspects of the trade, drew a chilling comparison: the slave trade “was not an amiable trade,” he admitted, “but neither was the trade of a butcher . . . and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a very good thing.” Incensed, Wilberforce and other abolitionists fought a bitter two-day battle; members shouted and harangued as spectators and press relished the fray. But by the time votes were cast, “commerce clinked its purse,” as one observer commented, and Wilberforce was again defeated. In 1792, when it became apparent that the fight would be long, Henry Thornton suggested to Wilberforce that they gather and work at his home in Clapham, a village four miles south of Westminster; there they would be convenient to Parliament, yet set apart. Thornton’s home, Battersea Rise, a Queen Anne house on the grassy Clapham Common, was a lively household. As abolitionist friends came to live or visit, Thornton added extra wings until eventually Battersea Rise had thirty-four bedrooms as well as a large, airy library designed by Prime Minister Pitt. Here, in the heart of the house, many an intense prayer meeting and discussion lasted late into the night as the “cabinet councils” prepared for their parliamentary battles. Wilberforce took up part-time residence in Thornton’s home until his marriage in 1797, at which time he moved to Broomfield, a smaller house on the same property. As the Clapham community analyzed their battle in 1792, they were painfully aware that many of their colleagues in Parliament were puppets, unable or unwilling to stand against the powerful economic forces of their day. So Wilberforce and his friends decided to go to the people, believing, “It is on the general impression and feeling of the nation we must rely . . . so let the flame be fanned.” The abolitionists distributed thousands of pamphlets detailing the evils of slavery, spoke at public meetings, and circulated petitions. The celebrated poet William Cowper wrote “The Negro’s Complaint,” a poem that was set to music and sung in many fashionable drawing rooms. Josiah Wedgwood, a master of fine china, designed a cameo that became the equivalent of a modern-day campaign button. It depicted a slave kneeling in bondage, whispering the plea that was to become famous: “Am I not a man and a brother?” Ladies sympathetic to the cause bought the cameos and wore them as bracelets and brooches, or turned them into hair ornaments. A boycott of slave-grown sugar was organized, a tactic even Wilberforce thought could not work. To his astonishment, it gained a following of some 300,000 people across England. Later in 1792 Wilberforce was able to bring to the House of Commons 519 petitions for the total abolition of the slave trade, signed by thousands of British subjects. This surging tide of public popularity along with Wilberforce’s usual impassioned eloquence combined to profoundly disturb the House: In the year 1788 in a ship in this trade, 650 persons were on board, out of whom 155 died. In another, 405 were on board, out of whom were lost 200. In another there were on board 402, out of whom 73 died. When captain Wilson was asked the causes of this mortality, he replied that the slaves had a fixed melancholy and dejection; that they wished to die; that they refused all sustenance, till they were beaten in order to compel them to eat; and that when they had been so beaten, they looked in the faces of the whites and said, piteously, “Soon we will be no more.” Even the vested economic interests of the West Indian bloc could not gloss over these appalling facts or ignore the public support the abolitionists were gaining. But again the slavers exercised their political muscle and the House moved that Wilberforce’s motion be qualified by the word gradually. And so it was carried. Again the traders relaxed, knowing a bill could be indefinitely postponed by that seemingly innocuous word. Though Wilberforce was wounded by yet another defeat, he had a glimmer of hope. For the first time the House had actually voted for an abolition motion; with the force of the people behind the cause, it would only be a matter of time. That hope was soon smashed by events across the English Channel. The fall of the Bastille in 1789 had heralded the people’s revolution in France. By 1792 all idealism vanished. The September massacres loosed a tide of bloodshed as the mob and the guillotine ruled France. Fears of a similar revolt abounded in England until any type of public agitation for reform was suspiciously labeled “Jacobinic,” after the radicals who had fanned the flames of France’s Reign of Terror. This association and the ill-timed slave revolts in the West Indies stemmed the tide of public activism for abolition. Sensing the shift in the public mood, the House of Commons rejected Wilberforce’s motion. The attitude in the House of Lords was summed up by the member who declared flatly, “All abolitionists are Jacobins.” Wilberforce saw his hopes wither and his cause lampooned in popular cartoons and ridiculed by critics. Weary with grief and frustration, he often sat long into the night at his old oak desk, wondering whether he should abandon his hopeless campaign. One night as he sat flipping through his Bible, a letter fluttered from between the pages. Wilberforce stared at the shaky handwriting. The writer was dead. In fact, this letter was one of the last he had ever written. Wilberforce had read it dozens of times, but never had he needed its message as much as he did now. My dear Sir,> Unless the Divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum,* I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils, but if God be for you who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary of well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it. That He that has guided you from your youth up may continue to strengthen in this and all things, is the prayer of, Your affectionate servant, John Wesley “Be not weary of well-doing.” Wilberforce took a deep breath, carefully refolded the letter, and blew out the candle. He needed to get to bed; he had a long fight ahead of him. Wilberforce’s resolution returned and for the next several years he doggedly reintroduced, each year, the motion for abolition; and each year Parliament threw it out. An abrupt reversal came early in 1796 after the fall of Robespierre in France and the resultant swing of public sentiment toward peace. Popular favor again began to swing toward Wilberforce, surprisingly reinforced by a majority vote in the House of Commons for his annual motion for abolition. Victory suddenly seemed within reach. But the third reading of the bill took place on the night a long-awaited comic opera opened in London. A dozen supporters of abolition, supposing the bill would be voted in this time, skipped Parliament for the opera — and a grieving Wilberforce saw his bill defeated by just four votes. And so it went — 1797, 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801 — the years passed with Wilberforce’s motions thwarted and sabotaged by political pressures, compromise, personal illness, and the continuing war in France. By 1803, with the threat of imminent invasion by Napoleon’s armies, the question of abolition was put aside for the more immediate concern of national security. During those long years of struggle, however, Wilberforce and his friends never lost sight of their equally pressing objective: “the reformation of manners,” or the effort to clean up society’s blights. Several years before, backed by Pitt and others, Wilberforce had sent a proposal to King George III that Wilberforce hoped would capture public attention. He asked the king to reissue a “Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.” On June 1, 1787, the king issued the proclamation, citing his concern at the deluge of “every kind of vice which, to the scandal of our holy religion, and to the evil example of our loving subjects, have broken upon this nation.” Copies of the proclamation were distributed to magistrates in every county. Wilberforce mounted his horse and followed after them, calling on those in government and positions of leadership to set up societies to develop such a moral movement in Britain. One prominent leader, Lord Fitzwilliam, laughed in Wilberforce’s face. Of course there was much debauchery and little religion, he said, but after all, this was inevitable in a rich nation. “The only way to reform morals,” he concluded, “is to ruin purses.” In many areas, however, the proclamation was received seriously. Magistrates held meetings to determine how to follow its guidelines, and long-ignored laws were dusted off and enforced. The years of battle had welded Wilberforce and his Clapham group into a tight-working unit; with five of them serving as members of Parliament, they exerted an increasingly strong moral pressure on the political arena of the day. They organized the Society for the Education of Africans, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, the Society for the Relief of Debtors, which over a five-year period obtained the release of 14,000 people from debtor’s prisons. Various members were involved in prison reforms, establishing hospitals for the blind, helping war widows and distressed sailors. Zachary Macaulay, at one time a wealthy man, gave away all he had and died penniless. Derisively labeled “the saints,” they bore the name gladly, considering such distinction a welcome reminder of their commitment not to political popularity but to biblical justice and righteousness. As the abolitionists prepared for their fight in Parliament in 1804, the climate had changed. The scare tactics of Jacobin association would no longer stick, and public sentiment for abolition was growing. The House of Commons voted for Wilberforce’s motion by a majority of 124 to 49, but victory was short-lived. The slave traders were better represented in the House of Lords, which adjourned the bill until the next session. In 1805 the House of Commons reversed itself, rejecting the bill by seven votes. A well-meaning clerk took Wilberforce aside. “Mr. Wilberforce,” he said kindly, “you ought not to expect to carry a measure of this kind. You and I have seen enough of life to know that people are not induced to act upon what affects their interests by any abstract arguments.” Wilberforce stared steely-eyed back at him. “Mr. Hatsell,” he replied, “I do expect to carry it, and what is more, I feel assured I shall carry it speedily.” But Wilberforce went home in dismay, his heart torn by the notion of “abstract arguments” when thousands of men and women were suffering in the bonds of slavery. “I never felt so much on any parliamentary occasion,” he wrote in his diary. “I could not sleep . . . . The poor Africans rushed into my mind, and the guilt of our wicked land.” Once more he went to Pitt to press for the cause, but his old friend seemed sluggish. Wilberforce pushed harder, reminding him of old promises. The prime minister finally agreed to sign a formal document for the cause, then delayed it for months. It was finally issued in September 1805. Four months later Pitt was dead. Wilberforce felt his death keenly, sad that he had never seen the conversion of his dear friend. “I have a thousand times wished and hoped that he and I might confer freely on the most important of all subjects,” he said. “But now the scene is closed — forever.” William Grenville became prime minister. He and Foreign Secretary Fox were both strong abolitionists. After discussing the matter with Wilberforce, Grenville reversed the pattern of the previous twenty years and introduced the bill into the House of Lords first. A bitter and emotional month-long fight ensued before the bill passed at four o’clock on the morning of February 4, 1807. On February 22 the second reading was held in the House of Commons. Outside a soft snow fell. Inside candles threw flickering shadows on the cream-colored walls of the long room, filled to capacity but unusually quiet. Lord Howick opened the debate with a nervous, disjointed speech that reflected the tension in the chambers. Then, one by one, members jumped to their feet to decry the evils of the slave trade and to praise the men who had worked so hard to end it. They hailed Wilberforce and praised the abolitionists. As the debate came to its climax, Sir Samuel Romilly gave a passionate tribute to Wilberforce and his decades of labor, concluding, “When he should retire into the bosom of his happy and delighted family, when he should lay himself down on his bed, reflecting on the innumerable voices that would be raised in every quarter of the world to bless him; how much more pure and perfect felicity must he enjoy in the consciousness of having preserved so many millions of his fellow-creatures.” Stirred by Romilly’s words, the entire House rose, cheering and applauding. Realizing that his long battle had come to an end, Wilberforce sat bent in his chair, his head in his hands, tears streaming down his face. The motion carried, 283 to 16. Late that night Wilberforce and his friends burst out of the stuffy chambers and onto the snow-covered streets. They frolicked like schoolboys, clapping one another on the back, their joy spilling over. Later, at Wilberforce’s home, the old friends crowded into the library, recalling the weary years of battle and rejoicing for their African brothers and sisters. Wilberforce, surely the most joyous of all, looked into the lined face of his old friend Henry Thornton. Years of illness, defeat, and ridicule had taken their toll. Yet all of it was worth this moment. “Well, Henry,” Wilberforce said with joy in his eyes, “what do we abolish next?” After the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807, Wilberforce fought another eighteen years for the total emancipation of existing slaves. Despite increasingly poor health, he continued as a leader of the cause in Parliament until his retirement in 1825. He also continued his work for reforms in the prisons, among the poor, and in the workplace. And on July 29, 1833, three days after the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery passed its second reading in the House of Commons, sounding the final death blow for slavery in the British Empire, Wilberforce died. “Thank God,” he whispered before he slipped into a final coma, “that I should have lived to witness a day in which England was willing to give twenty millions sterling for the abolition of slavery!” The story of Wilberforce’s long battle has been beautifully told in the film Amazing Grace, released on February 23, 2007 — the two hundredth anniversary of perhaps the noblest votes in history. I happened to see a preview of the film on November 6, 2006 — Election Eve. It was, as it turned out, the eve of a conservative rout: Democrats retook both the House and the Senate. Many moral conservative despaired, convinced the election doomed their efforts to restrict abortion, cloning, and embryo-destructive research, pass an amendment protecting marriage, and confirm strict constructionist judges. Amazing Grace is a potent reminder that ultimate success does not ride on a single election. Wilberforce’s half-century campaign reminds us that we must faithfully persevere in battles against modern moral horrors including, tragically, the continued enslavement of African Christians and animists by Muslims. We are not given the option of abrogating this command — of “fasting” from politics, as conservative activist Paul Weyrich advised in 1999 and as David Kuo, former aide to President George W. Bush, suggested in 2006. Amazing Grace is a reminder, as well, that at the same time we are fighting moral battles in the public square, we must also open our neighbors’ eyes to the truth: A sturdy moral standard must undergird a just society. Once they understand this, our neighbors can say, in the word of former slave trader John Newton, “I once was blind, but now I see!” *This Latin phrase, which means “against the world,” characterizes anyone who makes an unpopular moral stand against prevailing social opinions. Athanasius (c. A.D. 296 — 373) was an early church father who opposed many of the heresies of his time.

    where are today’s Wilberforce’s being mentored and encouraged, if at all… just a thought…

  2. Stephen B Nelson

    never heard back from you Yancey…. Any evolution in your opinion regarding Church & State?

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