The Poet & The Parliamentarian

how change happens Oct 26, 2020

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Corinthians 12:7-11)

After William Wilberforce’s conversion to Christianity in 1786, he defined the “Great Object” of his work in Parliament as nothing less than the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

To his credit, Wilberforce sensed that this change could not immediately be legislated. First, the hearts and minds of his countrymen would need to be transformed. To accomplish that, Wilberforce knew he “desperately needed someone in the world of culture.” He found that someone in Hannah More, the prolific playwright, poet, and author I’ve been introducing you to in this series.

By all accounts, Wilberforce and More hit it off from their first meeting. Over time, More would become Wilberforce’s “closest collaborator,” the two forming one of the most powerful partnerships of all time. As Wilberforce’s biographer wrote, “How Wilberforce came to be the chief champion of abolition—and how he was able to succeed in ending the slave trade in Great Britain in 1807, after twenty years of battling—has everything to do with Hannah More.”

Soon after their first meeting, the partners were in agreement: Wilberforce would fight the battle against slavery with legislation in Parliament, while More would fight with quills and public poems.

Almost immediately, More went to work, writing a poem titled Slavery which was designed to help sway public opinion on the slave trade and influence members of Parliament to vote for Wilberforce’s proposed bill. Through this poem and other works of art, More “helped the average Briton see the humanity of the African slaves for the first time….Her words pricked the consciences of millions, who came to feel that their country—which called itself a Christian country—must have no part in such an evil. Eventually hundreds of thousands of Britons signed petitions against the slave trade, which were brought by Wilberforce into Parliament and swayed its members toward abolition.”

The work went on like this for more than 45 years—Wilberforce introducing bill after bill, More writing poem after poem—until finally, legislative change came with the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

What can we learn from the partnership between this poet and parliamentarian? At least two things.

First, as we’ve seen throughout this series, cultural change almost always precedes legislative change. We must work to change hearts before we can work to change laws.

Second, Wilberforce and More show us that each of us has a different, important role to play in creating for God’s Kingdom. Today’s passage shows us that each of us has received different gifts to be leveraged “for the common good.” We aren’t to keep our God-given gifts to ourselves. We are to use them to shape culture for our King.

Next week, we will look at that call even more closely.


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