‘Domestic Publicity’

    He is remembered as one of the most influential men of his day -- a man celebrated for his wit, humor, and great political achievements. But it was his approach to his family that got the attention of the British public. William Wilberforce is remembered as the Christian leader and parliamentarian most responsible for ending the British slave trade and for reforming the morals of British society. But to the people of his own generation, he was the man who changed the way the British viewed their role as parents. He's an example of the priorities every father -- even busy political fathers -- ought to have. Wilberforce did not marry until he was nearly forty. But as Kevin Belmonte notes in his new book, Hero for Humanity, once Wilberforce became a husband and the father of six children, he took up his new responsibilities with relish. "At any given moment," Belmonte writes, "one might visit his home and find the master of the house . . . refreshing himself by throwing a ball." It was not unusual for him to excuse himself "from important deliberations with fellow MPs to go out on the lawn and have a race with the children." During a Twelfth Night party, Wilberforce and his friends played blind-man's bluff with the children for two hours. Busy as he was, it was not unusual for Wilberforce to scoop up his offspring and take them on a picnic, to see a juggler, or to visit a toy shop. Every Sunday, he took them to church, often singing hymns on the way. At times his family resented the demands his political life made on their privacy. But as Belmonte observes, his hospitality "says much about Wilberforce's ability to make goodness fashionable." As Wilberforce's brother-in-law James Stephen noted with eloquence, "Witnessing his domestic life is one of the best cures I know for prepossessions against religion [and] the best human incentives to the practice of it." And he added: "There is something peculiar in Wilberforce's character and situation that seem to point it out as the design of Providence that he should serve his Master in this high and special walk and should have, so to speak, a kind of domestic publicity -- that he should be at home, a candle set on a candlestick, as well as abroad, a city built upon a hill" -- beautiful words. As Belmonte notes, it was through Wilberforce's example that British households "increasingly . . . became places where parents spent more time with their children, educating them, praying with them, reading with them, and playing with them." Eventually, Wilberforce resigned his powerful seat in the House of Commons in order "to take a more active role in educating and rearing his children." Though he continued his campaign against slavery, he gave his family priority. His efforts paid off handsomely: One son became a bishop; another, a clergyman. All of his children adored him. Sadly, these days too many Christians in business or politics neglect their families. The demands of the job seem too great -- I know all about that. And the competition is too fierce. Wilberforce is a reminder of what every Christian father should be in spite of the great demands and fierce competition. For the sake of his children -- and for the sake of his witness -- he must be "at home, a candle set on a candlestick, as well as abroad a city built upon a hill." For further reading: Kevin Belmonte, Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce (NavPress, 2002). William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity (Hendrickson, 1996). Christopher D. Hancock, "The 'Shrimp' Who Stopped Slavery," Christian History, winter 1997. Richard L. Gathro, "William Wilberforce and His Circle of Friends," Wilberforce Forum Website.


Chuck Colson


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