Christian Worldview

Living Monuments

This article is from the March 2007 BreakPoint WorldView magazine. The people we influence for good constitute the real and lasting monuments of our lives. I learned this lesson 20 years ago when I was in England giving lectures. One day I asked my host if he could arrange a visit to the neighborhood of Clapham. This was the home of the great abolitionist William Wilberforce and his allies in fighting the British slave trade. I wanted to see the houses in which the Clapham Sect (as the abolitionists were called) had lived, the church in which they had worshiped, and any monuments that had been erected to honor their incredible campaign. An English friend drove my wife and me to Clapham, a neighborhood on the fringes of London swallowed up by urban sprawl. When we arrived at dusk, a mist settled over the dark, cramped streets. The road twisted and turned up a hill, and my host announced, “We’re getting close to where the Clapham Sect lived.” All I could see were dreary, whitewashed row houses. “Where’s the Thornton farmhouse?” I asked, alluding to one of the Clapham Sect’s principal residences. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” he said. “All those farms were leveled in the period of industrial expansion and turned into city homes.” That was disappointing, but not as disappointing as what followed. We drove down to the Anglican Church on the green in Clapham. The mist had turned into a drizzle, and it was now almost completely dark. When we knocked on the church door, the rector appeared and greeted us. “I want to see where Wilberforce preached,” I told him, “and any monuments you have to Wilberforce and his group. He’s my great hero,” I explained. The rector, who had been told we were coming, said, “Of course, of course. Come right this way.” We walked into the church, over stone floors, past the worn wooden pews to a place behind the altar. The rector proudly pointed to a stained-glass window in the apse. “There it is,” he said. The famous man’s portrait occupied a small square in the center of one stained-glass window not more than eight or ten inches wide. Below the stained-glass window was a shelf with some brochures and a sign over it saying, “Clapham Sect Information, 50 p.” I tried to hide my disappointment, thanking the rector and paying the few pence for a couple of the brochures, but I was crestfallen. Wilberforce had changed the course of Western civilization. Through sheer perseverance and holy determination, he had fought the most detestable villainy of his age. This great man had brought the slave trade to an end, and only one pane of stained glass existed as a memorial? We thanked the rector and left. Escorted by my friend, my wife and I walked across the village green to where we had parked our car. I asked to stop for a moment in the middle of the green to collect my thoughts. As I did, I had a powerful moment of insight. In my mind’s eye I saw a long line of slaves in tattered loincloths, walking across the green with their chains falling off. Of course, I thought to myself, Of course—that’s it. Wilberforce’s legacy is not in monuments or churches or stained-glass windows. It’s in lives set free. The black men and women who are no longer subject to slavery are the living monuments of William Wilberforce and his work. Generations of people can thank Wilberforce for changing their destinies. I’d wanted to see a monument to Wilberforce because he had been the first serious inspiration and Christian role model for me. Soon after my conversion I learned about him, and was struck by his deep spirituality, including his three hours of prayer each day and his deep fellowship with the Clapham Sect, with whom he persevered over decades to rid England of the abominable slave trade. In fact, for many years I carried in my Bible the words out of a letter from Charles Wesley to Wilberforce: “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils, 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, and in the power of His might . . .” I saw Wilberforce as the perfect illustration of how a Christian should behave in the political arena. He gave his first allegiance to God and to His kingdom over his allegiance to the Tory Party. In fact, Wilberforce lost his relationship for a while with his great friend William Pitt, England’s prime minister. He certainly lost his chance to become prime minister of England himself because of his fervent commitment to the cause of abolition, against which the power of the British Empire was standing four-square. Wilberforce was threatening the Empire’s biggest source of commerce. FAR-REACHING IMPACT The Great Abolitionist’s decades-long battle began on a foggy Sunday morning of October 25, 1787. Wilberforce sat at his desk thinking about his conversion and his calling. Wilberforce dipped his pen in the inkwell and wrote in his diary, “Almighty God has set before me two great objectives, the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals].” Wilberforce realized that attempts at political reform were futile without at the same time changing the hearts and minds of the people. The abolitionists realized that they could never succeed in eliminating slavery without addressing the greater problems of cultural malaise and decay. But it was a difficult concept to explain. In the hope of reaching Pitt and other friends, Wilberforce wrote a book in 1797, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity. A Practical View is credited with helping spark the second Great Awakening (the first was begun by Wesley), and its influence was felt throughout both Europe and America. With the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807 came an eighteen-year battle for the total emancipation of the slaves. Social reforms swept beyond abolition to clean up child labor laws, poorhouses, prisons, and to institute education and health care for the poor. Evangelism flourished, and later in the century, missionary movements sent Christians fanning across the globe. This was the great legacy of Wilberforce: One man, convicted by his conscience and his God that he had to oppose the slave trade, not only abolished a great social evil but also reformed the morals of England. OUR GREAT OBJECT Two hundred years later, as I labored in the prisons, what was clear to Wilberforce became clear to me: We could not simply deal with a structural problem of society—be it slavery or crime—without also attempting to reverse a society’s moral decline. Like Wilberforce, I had a background in politics. I had my own “great change” in 1973, during the midst of the Watergate scandal, accepting Christ in a flood of tears in a friend’s driveway. After serving a seven-month prison term for Watergate-related offenses, I realized I had been sent to prison for a purpose. Behind bars, I had encountered people who had no hope, no one to care what happened to them. Once released, some 65 percent of these inmates would commit more crimes and end up back behind bars. Tragically, the children of prisoners are more likely than any other group to follow their parents into the “family business”: crime. In 1976, Prison Fellowship was born in a converted townhouse in Arlington, Virginia. Within a few years, I realized that we were evangelizing more and more prisoners every year—and yet the prison population continued to rise. It was at that point that I learned of the work of William Wilberforce. It struck me that we could not just evangelize the prisons; like Wilberforce, we also had to change the culture. And the place to begin was the American family. Research overwhelmingly confirms that boys are far less likely to commit crimes if they grow up in intact homes led by a married mother and father. A 2004 study by Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan found that boys reared in single-parent homes and stepfamilies are more than twice as likely to end up in prison, compared to boys reared in an intact family. Girls reared in single-parent homes, homes broken by divorce, or homes that include co-habiting adults are significantly more likely to suffer sexual abuse and early pregnancy than girls reared within an intact, married family. Most academics in the twentieth century believed that crime is a result of sociological factors. A generation of liberals in academia and government promoted the view that if only the evils of society—such as poverty, unemployment, and racism—were overcome, crime would disappear. They were wrong. Psychologists Stanton Samenow and Samuel Yochelson, in their landmark 1977 study, The Criminal Personality, discovered that, with their subjects, crime was a moral problem. These findings found further support in Wilson and Hernstein’s definitive 1986 study Crime and Human Nature. The two Harvard professors concurred that crime results from a lack of moral training during the morally formative years. In other words, crime is a moral problem that demands a moral solution. ANSWERING THE CALL I began to address our country’s moral breakdown in the 1980s in speeches and in articles. And then, in 1984, I began writing a column in Christianity Today. In 1991, I began a daily radio program called “BreakPoint,” which now reaches millions of listeners and e-mail subscribers. The worldview message was expanded into a book, How Now Shall We Live?, written with Nancy Pearcey in 1999. A few years ago Prison Fellowship created a new division called The Wilberforce Forum, intended to help Christians approach life with a biblical worldview so that they can in turn shape culture from a biblical perspective. We carried this goal a step further in 2004 when Prison Fellowship began an ambitious program to train ordinary Christians to identify, articulate, and live out a biblical worldview—and then, teach it to others. The Centurions program annually pulls together 100 Christians from all walks of life into a year-long distance learning program and ongoing Web community. We address everything from politics to education to the arts. Centurions are then taught how to design their own worldview teaching strategy and teach others. Our Centurions have the potential to accomplish the same thing Wilberforce did—to raise up an army of Christians equipped to call the Church to greater faithfulness to God and to change our culture one person at a time by defending biblical truth. In the first decade of the 21st century, Christians are increasingly—and rightfully—taking their place in the political square, even though others would prefer that we stay quietly at home. But have we really “come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life” as Lord Melborne complained more than two hundred years ago in response to Wilberforce—and as secular critics complain today in response to us? Is Christian influence in politics today truly “a far greater threat to democracy than was posed by communism” as the New York Times once claimed? Nonsense. TOWARD TRANSFORMED LIVES William Wilberforce is a special inspiration for today’s “extremists” who stride into the public square and stay there, despite debasement, derision, and defeat, as long as we believe that’s where God wants us. As Wilberforce wrote in the conclusion to A Practical View of Christianity: “I must confess equally boldly that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies, nor on the wisdom of her rulers, nor on the spirit of her people, as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ. I believe that their prayers may yet prevail.” May the same hope prevail for Christians today as we, like Wilberforce, cling to biblical truth, resist barbaric injustice, and strive to change the heart of a nation. May we, like the long-ago Clapham Sect, leave behind living monuments: the shackles of sin broken and millions of lives transformed.


Chuck Colson



  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary