When Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, declared his candidacy for president last month, he referenced the inspiration of a little-known British parliamentarian named William Wilberforce.
In 1787, Wilberforce, a committed Christian, presented a bill to Parliament to abolish the slave trade. He fought for 20 years in what seemed like an impossible battle. Finally in 1807, the slave trade was outlawed. Four days before his death in 1833, Parliament passed a bill emancipating the slaves in the British Empire and outlawing slavery.
If Wilberforce were a politician today, fighting to end abortion and renewing the family and culture would be on his to-do list, Mr. Brownback says.
“He was the best public-policy expression of the renewal of faith in their society,” Mr. Brownback says. “He did it in such a beautiful way on important topics that lined up with his faith. His faith drove him.”
Mr. Brownback apparently isn’t the only one taking notice of Wilberforce’s heroic efforts. On Friday, Walden Media releases “Amazing Grace,” a feature film directed by Michael Apted that chronicles Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade.
For much of his life, Wilberforce suffered from ulcerative colitis and often needed daily opium for the pain. Mr. Brownback is impressed by the abolitionist’s perseverance.
“While he was weak and sickly, he didn’t sit back, nor let that debilitate him,” Mr. Brownback says. “That determination comes from knowing your cause is right, and it’s important. Knowing if you don’t keep pushing on it, people will suffer and die. My guess is that his soul wouldn’t let him rest without addressing these topics.”
After Wilberforce’s conversion to Christianity in 1785, he thought that God placed before him two great callings: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners, Mr. Brownback says.
Wilberforce is an archetype of someone who served God while working in the political arena, says David Kuo, author of “Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.” He is a former special assistant to President Bush and was deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Wilberforce “didn’t hold his power to hold power,” Mr. Kuo says. “He held it for a singular purpose. He was really willing to sacrifice his office and life to attain what he felt God called him to do. Today, it’s tempting for Christians to become professional politicians. We have the mind-set that ‘God wants me to be in office, so I’m going to be in office,’ and not necessarily for any particularly profound reason.”
The lack of support from Christians to abolish the slave trade shocked Wilberforce, says Bob Beltz, an associate producer of the feature film “Amazing Grace.” He recently updated Wilberforce’s 1797 book, “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted With Real Christianity,” into contemporary language as “Real Christianity.”
Wilberforce expressed the view that Christians of the day were culturally deluded as to what it meant to be a Christian, Mr. Beltz says.
Similarly today, the average churchgoing person is biblically illiterate, Mr. Beltz says, whereas Wilberforce studied the Bible every day. Much like Oxford professor C.S. Lewis, Wilberforce was not a member of the clergy, but a lay member who could articulate his faith.
“There was a belief that if you were born in England and a member of the Church of England that you were a Christian, but they didn’t know the basic tenets of Christianity,” he says. “The people had Bibles in their houses, but they sat dusty on the shelf. The commitment of Christ in the Gospels was considered to be radical.”
Faith should lead to action, says Mark Rodgers, founder of the Clapham Group, a consulting firm based in Fairfax, who previously served as chief of staff for now former Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican.
Wilberforce manifests the reality of James 2:20, which says: “Faith without works is dead,” Mr. Rodgers says.
In addition to the slave trade, Wilberforce sought to end social injustices among child workers and animals, he says.
Wilberforce lived according to Matthew 25:40, in which Jesus teaches, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” Mr. Rodgers says.
“He didn’t create ambiguity, where no one knew what he was talking about, and he didn’t create a nuisance,” Mr. Rodgers says. “He had to promote a vibrant faith, because that’s how you restore the moral order.”
Today, that would compare to combating sex trafficking, the caste system in India, the global AIDS epidemic and domestic poverty issues, Mr. Rodgers says. Politicians championing those causes could learn from Wilberforce’s principle of “co-belligerence,” in which he worked with people with whom he might not agree on every issue, but usually on the primary issue at hand.
“He was very likable,” Mr. Rodgers says. “He was formidable. He was feared as a good, shrewd orator and debater, but ultimately, he was funny and people enjoyed being with him. He was an attractive person, in the sense of even his opponents.”
Wilberforce is one of history’s best examples of a bipartisan politician, says Eric Metaxas, author of “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery.”
“By being fiercely bipartisan, he ultimately accomplished perhaps the greatest thing any politician could accomplish,” Mr. Metaxas says. “It was not about power. He was a steward of the power he had been given by God.”
Even after Wilberforce’s death in 1833, the politician was an inspiration to Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery movement in America, Mr. Metaxas says. Wilberforce’s triumph made way for the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States.
Despite the law, slavery still exists in many countries today, says the Rev. Mike Metzger, president and senior fellow of the Clapham Institute in Annapolis. The mission of the organization is to help people and organizations advance faith-centered cultural reform. (Both the Clapham Institute and Mr. Rodgers’ Clapham Group take their name from the Clapham Sect, the influential group of 19th-century Anglican social reformers to which Wilberforce belonged.)
“There is a human-trafficking issue that flies beneath the radar,” Mr. Metzger says. “Women will be shipped to the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. If Wilberforce was alive today, he would say sex trafficking is a moral evil.”