Chuck Colson loved William Wilberforce for many reasons, and in 1988 started a Wilberforce Award to honor the individual who, as a Christian in the footsteps of Wilberforce, stood up for doing the right thing in challenging times. The first honoree was Benigno Aquino, who heroically stood up to Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and was later assassinated by Marcos at the now-renamed Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Over the years, there were many other awardees, as listed below.
I remember first attending the Wilberforce Award dinners in the late 1990s. Who is this guy, William Wilberforce? I had no idea. As I started to research Wilberforce, I found a fascinating man, who on Oct. 28, 1787, had written in his diary, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”
Interestingly enough, Wilberforce achieved both in his lifetime. An amazing accomplishment for anyone, and something that greatly impacted the British Empire and the world.
However, Wilberforce has been pushed out of the history textbooks in America. How odd, considering that when Wilberforce died, free blacks in New York City wore black armbands in his honor for 30 days. Benjamin Hughes, a black pastor, gave a stem-winder of a eulogy for Wilberforce. Abraham Lincoln, in a 1858 campaign speech for the U.S. Senate, said, “Schoolboys know Wilberforce and Granville Sharp advanced [the abolition] cause forward.” This was amazing, since Wilberforce had never been to the U.S.
However, today only 3 percent of Americans and 10 percent of the British know about Wilberforce.
Yet, William Wilberforce’s reputation as a leading British parliamentarian had reached America because he had, as a man of faith, used his political and social influence to change the world. Wilberforce led the effort to abolish the slave trade in Britain, a measure which passed in Parliament and was affirmed by King George III on March 25, 1807. Wilberforce then turned to abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire. Upon his deathbed in July 1833, he received news that Parliament had passed a law, effective in 1834, abolishing slavery in all of the British Empire.
Many people think in the short term; they want to get things done promptly. Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery was a 46-year-long quest that he never gave up.
In his famous speech to Parliament in May 1789 that initiated the campaign, Wilberforce said: “As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, I confess to you sir, 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, let the policy be what it might, let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.”
But Wilberforce was so much more. While not being recognized as such, Wilberforce invented modern-day philanthropy, as he was one of the first wealthy individuals who had a systematic way of approach charitable giving. Not only did Wilberforce give to charities, he also created many, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is my wife’s personal favorite. He also was actively engaged in 69 charities — vice president of 29, on the committee of five, a governor of five, treasurer of one and patron of one.
Philanthropic foundations today have much to learn about giving from William Wilberforce, as he did it so well and was engaged far beyond what most philanthropic foundations do today.
The breadth of his giving to improve the world around him is breathtaking. Below is a list of 10 categories that he gave to; for more information go to www.thebetterhour.org/tb/essayconcern.
5.Encouraging the talents and gifts of others
8.Prisoner rehabilitation and re-entry
In the latter category of faith leadership, Wilberforce helped establish the Church Missionary Society, which later sent Eric Liddell (of the film “Chariots of Fire”) to China, David Livingstone to Africa, and William Carey to India, where he, among other things, founded universities and improved the lives of so many.
Wilberforce also provided a provoking and thoughtful book on “Practical View of the Religious Practices of the Higher and Upper Middle Classes as Compared with Real Christianity.” This book was a best-seller for nearly 50 years, with 13 editions printed in England and 26 in the U.S. It is still one of the best books ever published by a lay person describing how a Christian should engage the world. It is a book that needs to be read today and taken to heart.
We need to recover and understand who William Wilberforce was. Thank God that Chuck Colson discovered Wilberforce and brought him to our attention again, and that the Colson Center continues the tradition that Chuck started, which is to each year bestow a Wilberforce Award on a deserving, modern-day hero.
• Chuck Stetson is the CEO of Essentials in Education, a philanthropic foundation committed to addressing the increasing gap between what people need to know and what they are being taught. He is also the third-generation CEO of the Stetson Family Office and the founding CEO of Private Equity Investors, Inc., which provides liquidity to investors in illiquid private equity investments.
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