By Tim Echols
Some years ago my friend, Ken Wales, produced a movie called “Amazing
Grace” about the remarkable life of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, a
Member of Parliament who took office after the Revolutionary War, not
only changed Britain, but impacted the world. Many of us could learn a
lesson or two from his life.
Most historians remember Wilberforce as the man who, through passionate
conviction and dogged determination, almost single-handedly achieved the
abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. In fact,
after his death in 1833, black leaders in New York City heralded him as
the “Hercules of Abolition.” In 1858, Abraham Lincoln wrote that every
schoolchild in America was familiar with William Wilberforce.
Today, those who are familiar with the story of Wilberforce know that
his efforts and influence extended far beyond the political realm.
Wilberforce set about to build a coalition of people and organizations
that would alter the moral climate in Great Britain, the superpower of
the day. After his conversion to Christianity, he made it his goal to
make “goodness” fashionable among the leadership class of his day and he
started with the Prime Minister and the King.
He and his followers were instrumental in creating a variety of
charities with missions as diverse as educating the blind, printing and
distributing Bibles, promoting animal welfare, treating ailing seaman,
sponsoring vaccination efforts, easing the plight of the poor, and even
helping those in debtors’ prisons. He saw great value in encouraging
others to assist in any way they could.
Maine biographer, Kevin Belmonte, combed through the works and letters
of Wilberforce and observed several core principles underpinning his
opposition to the slave trade and his efforts toward private
philanthropy and moral renewal. One of these principles was the
promotion of the happiness of others. Unlike Thomas Jefferson who penned
the famous “pursuit of happiness” phrase in our founding documents,
Wilberforce believed that when individual citizens promote the happiness
of others they are most truly promoting or pursuing their own happiness.
For most people, personal fulfillment is a prime motivator, but
Wilberforce believed that contributing to the happiness of others was a
Belmonte noted that these principles “produced tangible results and,
ultimately, the rich legacy of moral renewal and philanthropy associated
with Wilberforce’s name.” In other words, it worked, and it did so
because doing “good” became a national pastime.
I love Wilberforce’s sense of individual responsibility. While he
acknowledged that we must pursue excellence in the political sphere, he
knew that many problems are better addressed by individuals and
coalitions of people giving their time and private funds for the good of
others rather than by government programs.
I know many non-profit leaders harbor an entrepreneurial spirit and
could probably build wealth by working in the private sector if they
desired-but they choose to serve a charitable mission instead. I
understand the blood, sweat and tears they put into charity work. We
should celebrate people who make these sacrifices for our communities.
As we observe Thanksgiving and enter the holiday season, let’s emulate
Wilberforce by getting involved! Volunteer. Give financially. Or help
lead an organization that can promote the happiness of others. When we
get involved, we take the steps that William Wilberforce proved can
positively impact our cities and state.
Tim Echols serves on the Georgia Public Service Commission. He founded
the non-profit Family Resource Network and its program, TeenPact (see
www.teenpact.com), and grew it into a national youth ministry working in
40 states. He is married to Windy and they have seven children and live
in Athens. He has three degrees from the University of Georgia including
a Masters in Non-Profit Organizations.