As an example for Christians who seek profound impact on their culture, few leaders equal William Wilberforce (1759-1833). A British politician converted to Christ in his mid-20s, he devoted the rest of his life to two grand passions, the more famous of which (especially since Michael Apted’s 2007 film Amazing Grace) was abolishing slavery in the British Empire. His persistence met with final success in 1833, when Parliament voted £20 million in compensation to slaveowners for freeing all slaves—a decision settled just three days before his death.
A man of such lifelong integrity and effort has my attention. He understood what it meant to live in light of the deep ethical demands of the gospel. But he had another driving passion besides: the “reformation of manners”—or as we might say it today, a reformation of culture—through a revival of genuine Christianity. This was the subject of his classic work Real Christianity: A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Middle and Higher Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity (ebook format here). From the introduction:
The main object which [the author] has in view is, not to convince the Sceptic, or to answer the arguments of persons who avowedly oppose the fundamental doctrines of our Religion; but to point out the scanty and erroneous system of the bulk of those who belong to the class of orthodox Christians, and to contrast their defective scheme with a representation of what the author apprehends to be real Christianity.
Wilberforce was most obviously a man of social action, so where do suppose he would begin a discourse on real Christianity? J.P. Moreland has noted (in Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul) something most striking about this work. Christian action was not where he began at all. Wilberforce was also a man of prayer and piety, but he did not begin with these. He did not begin with ethics or morality, either, though he obviously regarded them as crucial.
No, he began with the life of the mind, with apologetics, even. The following appears as early as the second page:
In an age wherein it is confessed and lamented that infidelity abounds, do we observe in them [English Christians] any remarkable care to instruct their children in the principles of the faith … and to furnish them with arguments for the defence of it? … [The Christian] is left to collect his religion as he may; the study of Christianity has formed no part of his education, and his attachment to it (where any attachment to it exists at all) is, too often, not the preference of sober reason, but merely the result of early prejudice and groundless prepossession. He was born in a Christian country, of course he is a Christian; his father was a member of the church of England, so is he. When such is the hereditary religion handed down from generation to generation, it cannot surprise us to observe young men of sense and spirit beginning to doubt altogether of the truth of the system in which they have been brought up, and ready to abandon a station which they are unable to defend.
Sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it? Except there are fewer of us today who would consider ourselves Christians because we were born that way, so to speak. A few pages later Wilberforce adds force to his call to develop our minds in Christ:
It were almost a waste of time to multiply arguments in order to prove how criminal the voluntary ignorance, of which we have been speaking, must appear in the sight of God… If, when summoned to give an account of our stewardship, we shall be called upon to answer for the use which we have made of our bodily organs, and of the means of relieving the wants and necessities of our fellow creatures; how much more for the exercise of the nobler and more exalted faculties of our nature, of invention, and judgment, and memory…. When God has of his goodness vouchsafed to grant us such abundant means of instruction in that which we are most concerned to know, how great must be the guilt, and how aweful the punishment of voluntary ignorance!
But let us not suppose this will come without some effort:
And why, it may be asked, are we in this pursuit alone to expect knowledge without inquiry, and success without endeavour? … Bountiful as is the hand of Providence, its gifts are not so bestowed as to seduce us into indolence, but to rouse us to exertion; and no one expects to attain to the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, and strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians without labour, study, or inquiry.
That last line bears repeating: “Yet we expect to be Christians without labour, study, or inquiry.” This, too, sounds all too familiar.
I wonder, then, for those of us who seek a “reformation of manners” in our day, who long for a resurgence of real Christianity: where should we focus our efforts? Does Wilberforce’s beginning point, in discipleship of the mind, have validity for the twenty-first century? How important is it, and how well are we doing in it?
Cross-posted/adapted from Thinking Christian