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The Great Change of William Wilberforce

by Larry Sowders  
9/26/2007 / Church Life

I was alerted to the momentous 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade by an article that appeared in World Magazine. The article by Marvin Olasky truly sparked my interest in the life of William Wilberforce who was so instrumental in the fight to end the slave trade. After reading this article, I immediately went to the public library to find some biographies about Wilberforce. I came across Eric Metaxes' book that was released earlier this year to coincide with the movie that began showing on Feb. 23. I just finished the book and am now a full-fledged admirer of William Wilberforce.

There are many great lessons to be learned from the life of this great man and I hope to set down some of the ones that stand out most clearly to me. One of the most important lessons is found in the way in which Wilberforce recounts his conversion. In the winter of 1784, Wilberforce began to seriously deal with the claims of the Christian faith. During this time he had some very searching conversations with one of his closest friends, Isaac Milner, who was a committed evangelical. It was also during this time that Wilberforce came across Philip Doddridge's book The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Through the reading of this book and the conversations with Milner, Wilberforce came to an "intellectual assent" to the Christian faith. However, what he called his "great change" did not come until the summer of 1785.

As I reflect on Wilberforce's experience, I see such a great need for us in 21st century evangelicalism to ponder the meaning of saving faith in Christ. We are so quick to baptize anyone who will answer a series of questions regarding the content of the Christian faith. Shouldn't we be much more attentive to what Wilberforce called the "great change?" Shouldn't we examine those who say that believe the faith in regard to a life of obedience and spiritual fruit? Saving faith in Christ will be evidenced by a "great change" in the life of the one who has professed that faith.

I really wonder if today's evangelicals are more interested in real conversions or large numbers of baptisms. According to Thom Rainer, president of Life Way Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, on a given Sunday only about 7 million of the SBC's 16 million members attend church. Rainer stated, "It would appear that our church rolls are filled with non-members and, likely, unregenerate members." I would guess that Southern Baptists aren't alone. There are a great number of people who profess faith in Christ and who no doubt intellectually assent to the claims of the gospel but who simply have not been converted. So let us learn from the life of William Wilberforce. Let us learn what God will do in the life of one who has truly been transformed by the power of the gospel.

Lary Sowders is a pastor, husband and father of three living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Read more at

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