The Transformation of William Wilberforce
OCTOBER 30, 2021
By Jordan Raynor
To redeem our time in the model of our Redeemer, we must first know the Author of time, his purposes for the world, and what he has called us to do with the time he has given us.
William Wilberforce was easily one of the most productive people of all-time. He was elected to the British Parliament at the insanely young age of twenty-one. At a single point in time, he held official roles with sixty-nine different social reform groups in Great Britain. Oh yeah, and he was chiefly responsible for abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire. In the words of one of Wilberforce’s many biographers, “…it’s difficult to escape the verdict that William Wilberforce was simply the greatest social reformer in the history of the world.”
But Wilberforce wasn’t always productive to such noble ends. For his first five years in Parliament, his ambition was largely for the acquisition of more power and wealth. But at the age of twenty-six, the boy-king surrendered himself to the lordship of King Jesus, ushering in what Wilberforce called the “Great Change” of his life.
That great change in his soul almost led to a dramatic change in Wilberforce’s work. After his conversion, Wilberforce sought out career advice from his friend John Newton, the minister famous for writing the hymn Amazing Grace. Wilberforce fully expected Newton to advise him to drop out of Parliament so that he could “live now for God.” But, “Newton didn’t tell him what he had expected—that to follow God he would have to leave politics. On the contrary, Newton encouraged Wilberforce to stay where he was, saying that God could use him there. Most others in Newton’s place would likely have insisted that Wilberforce pull away from the very place where his salt and light were most needed. How good that Newton did not.” Indeed. If Wilberforce’s “Great Change” had led to a great change in his work, where would the world be today? Certainly much further from God’s kingdom being “on earth as it is in heaven.”(Mt. 6:10, NIV)
But while Wilberforce’s “Great Change” didn’t lead to a change in what he did vocationally, his salvation did lead to two dramatic changes in how he worked in Parliament. First, the object of his work changed from the raw pursuit of wealth and power to what Wilberforce called his “Great Object”—the abolition of the slave trade. Second, and most relevant to the topic of this book, post-conversion Wilberforce dramatically changed how he managed his time.
In the days and weeks following his conversion experience, Wilberforce grieved over how he had spent his first twenty-six years on earth. One of his journal entries from this time reads “I condemned myself for having wasted my precious time, and opportunities, and talents.” As Wilberforce’s biographer explains, “Before ‘the Great Change,’ Wilberforce had reckoned his money and time his own, to do with as he pleased, and had lived accordingly. But suddenly he knew that this could no longer be the case. The Scriptures were plain and could not be gainsaid on this most basic point: all that was his—his wealth, his talents, his time—was not really his. It all belonged to God and had been given to him to use for God’s purposes and according to God’s will.”
Wilberforce was determined to redeem his time, working on behalf of God’s agenda rather than his own. There was just one problem: Wilberforce was “an undisciplined mess” and “constitutionally weak…with regard to self-discipline” (an encouraging note if you’re starting this book believing that self-discipline and good time-management habits can’t be learned). Wilberforce knew he had to overcome these challenges in order to partner most fully with God in his mission in the world. In his journal, Wilberforce resolved “To endeavour from this moment to amend my plan for time. I hope to live more than heretofore to God’s glory and my fellow-creatures’ good.”
And “amend his plan for time” he did. Wilberforce’s newfound faith manifested itself in incredibly practical ways. He journaled instructions to himself such as “Go to bed at eleven and wake at six,” to ensure he was getting adequate sleep. He began carrying ink, quill, and paper in his pockets so he never lost track of an idea while walking through London. And he ruthlessly sought out solitude as his celebrity status began to rise, knowing how critical it was to make space to pray and think about what precisely he should be spending his time on. These practical time management tactics contributed to Wilberforce’s transformation from “an undisciplined mess” to one of the most productive people who has ever lived.
And he wasn’t just productive in Parliament. Wilberforce was also a prolific writer. In 1797, in the middle of his fight against slavery, Wilberforce published the first of three significant books, a work of theology titled A Practical View of Christianity. Ironically, the book really wasn’t “practical” at all, at least not in the way we typically think of that word. There were no five-step processes. There were no checklists or discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Just Wilberforce expounding upon the core tenants of the gospel that led to such dramatic changes in his life, work, and his habits for managing time.
The subject of Wilberforce’s first book is surprising to say the least. At the time, Wilberforce’s celebrity was not insignificant. While he had yet to achieve his “Great Object” of abolishing the slave trade, he had become widely known for his underdog fight against slavery’s powerful proponents. Undoubtedly, the British people were interested in anything Wilberforce would have to say in his first published work. So why not focus the book on the evils of slavery or a manifesto on how Christians can engage practically to shape culture? I think it’s because Wilberforce knew this: Theology always shapes our practices.
Like the life of William Wilberforce, my book “Redeeming Your Time” is extremely practical. But it will start out as one of the most theological. Why? Because as Wilberforce understood, our perennial problems with time management are rooted in something much deeper than the wrong to-do list systems or daily planners. Our problems are rooted in misconceptions of what we believe about work, time, and the role we have to play in God’s mission in the world.
Excerpted from Redeeming Your Time: 7 Biblical Principles for Being Purposeful, Present, and Wildly Productive Copyright © 2021 by Jordan Raynor. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.