In a poignant scene in the new film Amazing Grace, an exhausted William Wilberforce collapses into the arms of his wife. The British MP is heartbroken over his failure to stop the slave trade. After years of struggle—of enduring political tricks, treachery, and deceit—he is ready to give up; the campaign seems utterly hopeless.
But then a letter from an old friend reminds him that for the Christian who is fighting a great social evil, quitting is not an option.
The year was 1789—the year of the French Revolution. The mob and the guillotine ruled France, loosing a tide of bloodshed.
Across the Channel, the British feared a similar revolt. Any type of public protest was linked to the revolutionaries who had ignited France’s Reign of Terror.
This had a damaging effect on abolition. As my former colleague Eric Metaxas writes in his new book, Amazing Grace, the ugly events in France “had created a backlash in the British political class. There was no question that they were now” developing a “distaste for reform and for abolition.”
Sensing the shift in the public mood, the House of Commons rejected another motion to abolish the slave trade.
Weary with frustration, Wilberforce considered quitting his campaign. One night as he sat reading his Bible, a letter he had received years earlier, but which he had saved, fluttered from between its pages. It was from the great preacher John Wesley. Wilberforce re-read the familiar words.
“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils,” Wesley wrote. “But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary of well-doing.”
“Go on in the name of God,” Wesley urged, “and in the power of His might.”
I have kept a copy of that same letter in my Bible for thirty years.
The words galvanized Wilberforce. Over the next two decades he fought tenaciously until the slave trade was finally outlawed. And then he fought for another twenty-five years, despite failing health, for the emancipation of all slaves in 1833.
The battle had taken forty-six years.
Forty-six years! Today, we are tempted to throw up our hands and go home if we lose a single election. In our campaigns against modern moral evils, we are too easily discouraged; we have forgotten how to persevere.
Of course we will have fierce opposition; sometimes the opponents will play dirty, as they did with Wilberforce. But that is no excuse to give up. Who do we think we are working for?
I love the way my friend Richard John Neuhaus puts it. His words are hanging on my wall: “We have enlisted for the duration in bearing witness to the truth.”