(This entry is adapted from my sermon for February 6, 2011.)
If there was ever an example of the power of child evangelism, it’s the story of William Wilberforce, who entered the world on August 24, 1759. He was born into a wealthy family. His father was successful in business and his mother loved high society. But everything changed when William was eight years old. His father died, and shortly thereafter his older sister died, too. Sinking into a prolonged period of grief, Mrs. Wilberforce felt she could no longer care for her young son. So William was pawned off on his uncle and aunt, who were deeply evangelical Christians.
For several years, William lived with this godly couple in London. During that time he had frequent and meaningful exposure to the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Very often the Wilberforces traveled to the town of Olney to hear John Newton preach. Today John Newton is best known as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” But Newton was an ex-slave trader who used to transport slaves on his ships. After his conversion, he renounced slavery and became an evangelical pastor in the town of Olney. He enjoyed a close friendship with William’s aunt and uncle; and Newton and young William became friends—the middle-aged pastor and the young boy. Sometimes, Newton would visit the Wilberforce home in London to conduct private worship services.
As time went by, William’s mother heard that her son was imbibing evangelical Christianity, and she didn’t like that at all. She reclaimed him and brought him back home to live with her. Wasting no time in erasing his evangelical enthusiasm, she threw him into a world of dances and balls and social functions, all played out amid the trappings of wealth and high society.
In 1776, William enrolled at Cambridge University in England. He spent the next years playing cards, gambling, drinking, going to concerts, and throwing parties. He had a magnetic personality. His dormitory room was always full of students, and he was the life of the party.
One of his best friends was a fellow named William Pitt; and the two of them became interested in British politics. Both Wilberforce and Pitt thought the War with America was a great mistake. They were anti-war students, and they opposed the policies of the Prime Minister.
Remarkably, William was only 21 and still a student in Cambridge when he decided to run for a seat in Parliament. He had lots of family wealth, and he spent a large sum on the election—and won! Shortly thereafter, his 24-year-old Cambridge buddy, William Pitt, was elected Prime Minister of England.
So these two young men set out to change the world, coming into position of great political power just as the war with America was gasping to a close.
But then something extraordinary happened to William Wilberforce. He planned a holiday to Europe, asking an old friend named Isaac Milner to go with him. Unknown to Wilberforce, Milner was a devout Christian. Wilberforce was at this time skeptical of religion. When he went to church it was to a Unitarian church which didn’t believe much of anything. Wilberforce had become, for all practical purposes, agnostic.
The party left England and traveled across France and into Italy. As Wilberforce and Milner talked, they brought up a certain evangelical pastor, and William referred to this man as “a good man, but one who carried things too far.”
Milner replied, “Not a bit too far.” Milner began to reason with Wilberforce about Christianity and to show him the logic of Christian beliefs. They began reading Philip Doddridge’s famous book on Christianity, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Slowly but surely, William began to realize that Christianity was indeed true, and that created an intense crisis for him. In anguish, he turned to the man he had known in childhood—the great preacher John Newton, who was now pastoring a church in London. Like Nicodemus seeking out Jesus at night, Wilberforce secretly visited Newton seeking guidance for his soul. Under the counsel of the author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” Wilberforce chose to follow Christ whatever the cost.
He wrote to his friend, William Pitt, the Prime Minister, and confided to him his conversion. He offered to resign from politics. Both Newton and Pitt convinced Wilberforce to remain in Parliament and live out his Christian convictions there. When it became known that Wilberforce—one of the nation’s youngest and most popular political leaders—had become an evangelical Christian it caused a sensation across England. John Newton wrote to his friend, William Cowper, and said, “I judge he is now decidedly on the right track… I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide!! But they are not incompatible.”
As Wilberforce reevaluated his life in the light of his conversion to Christ and as he sought the counsel of John Newton, he came to realize there were two great causes that would set the agenda for the rest of his life—the abolition of slavery and the reformation of morality. He became the one of the most powerful Christian statesmen in history who mounted a forty-year successful campaign to outlaw slavery in the British Empire.
As I read the life of Wilberforce, I was deeply impressed with the providence of God that placed him in a deeply Christian home for two brief years; but those two years sowed the seed for a lifetime of greatness for Christ. Part of the credit for the abolition of slavery goes to an elderly couple who took in their nephew and raised him for Christ. Though they had him only briefly, though they were heartbroken when he was removed from them, and though they never lived to see the remarkable results he would achieve—they didn’t lose their effort. The seeds they planted later bore fruit that changed the world. And godly old John Newton—once an infidel and blasphemer—became a boy’s friend, lost him for fifteen years, but ended up becoming his greatest mentor and advisor.
When we work with children, engage in child evangelism, lead our youngsters to memorize Bible verses, and mentor them in the Lord—we are changing the world by changing one child at a time. No wonder Jesus extolled those who work with children (see Matthew 18). That the (wilber)FORCE of child evangelism.
PS – For a movie of this remarkable story check out the excellent film, Amazing Grace.