Kevin Belmonte was 18 years old and an avid reader of history when he first heard of William Wilberforce, the British statesman credited with leading a relentless 20-year fight that ended his country's slave trade.
Once Mr. Belmonte discovered Wilberforce, he couldn't imagine why he had never read anything about him in his high school textbooks. Although Wilberforce, who lived from 1759 to 1833, had influenced the United States' founding fathers and even a smattering of moderns like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it seemed his name had vanished from the country's collective memory.
Since then, Mr. Belmonte, who is doing graduate work at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, has tried to re-introduce Wilberforce to Americans. He wrote his master's thesis on him and in 1993 began several years of research that culminated in Hero for Humanity (NavPress), a biography that is soon to be made into a film.
In his book, he deals extensively with Wilberforce's Christian faith and its role in informing his thoughts and actions in the public square. Although some Americans have become skittish in recent years about leaders who link faith with public works, for Wilberforce there was a clear and proper connection between the two.
“Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Wilberforce's passionate pursuit of social justice flowed from his faith commitment. He believed he had a binding mandate from the tenets of scripture that fired his opposition to slavery.”
Besides working to abolish slavery as a member of the British Parliament, Wilberforce's faith compelled him to get involved in more than 100 different philanthropic initiatives from educational and prison reform to public health projects and improving the working conditions in factories, Mr. Belmonte said.
Before he experienced the “Great Change” of his conversion in 1786, Wilberforce had been known for having a fiery temper and a naturally irritable disposition. After his conversion, he mellowed noticeably and redirected his passion toward righting social ills.
“He realized he had to check his natural passion,” Mr. Belmonte said. “At times he did slip up, but people were deeply impressed with the change that had come over him.”
Within two to three years of Wilberforce's Great Change, he had so thoroughly mended his relationship with a former adversary, Charles James Fox, that he and Fox, a Whig, were working together to abolish the slave trade.
None of what Wilberforce was able to accomplish as a legislator might ever have happened, however, had he not heeded the advice of John Newton, the former slave trader best known for penning the enduring hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
Ten years after his religious conversion, Wilberforce wrote to Newton, Mr. Belmonte said. “He was casting about for someone who could help him see his way forward. He was thinking about leaving politics and taking Holy Orders. He needed guidance.”
Newton told Wilberforce to stay in the Parliament and said God had opportunities for him to serve others there, pointing to Daniel, Joseph, and Esther as biblical examples of people God had placed in key positions at a pivotal time.
“He helped Wilberforce understand that even though there were not many active Christians in Parliament at the time, God could use him.”
A political independent who believed he ought to vote as his conscience dictated and felt that party affiliation could be a corrupting influence, Wilberforce tried to forge working relationships with people of all political persuasions, Mr. Belmonte said. “He had the ability to build bridges, to create coalitions on important social issues.”
Were he alive and working in America today, he said, Wilberforce likely would be wrestling with how to think “Christianly” about a whole host of social issues. “Basically, he believed that he had a responsibility as a steward, someone entrusted with responsibilities in political life, to work for the least of these. He felt the true duty of man was to work for the happiness of his fellow creatures.”
Mr. Belmonte said Wilberforce is a personal model for a number of political leaders today, including former U.S. Reps. J.C. Watts (R., Okla.) and Tony Hall (D., Ohio); Congressman Frank Wolf (R., Va.), and Senators Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) and Bill Nelson (D., Fla.)
In addition, Watergate figure and Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson considers Wilberforce a kindred spirit and a model for himself, his ministry, and his Christian world view institute, which he named the Wilberforce Forum.
Wilberforce also is the namesake of Ohio's Wilberforce University, which was founded in 1856 as the first institution of higher learning operated by African-Americans.
Mr. Belmonte said that centuries after Wilberforce's death, he remains on the scene today in the influence he wields. “It's almost as if he is [here] because he is bringing people together across political lines. I see that as a hopeful thing.”