I have spent the last week in Oxford, England with other ADF team members Jeff Ventrella and Tim Chandler teaching at the Wilberforce Academy, a one-week training conference for young Christian professionals from Great Britain or studying there. The purpose of the Wilberforce Academy is to prepare the attendees "for servant-hearted, Christ-centred leadership in public life, having been equipped with a robust biblical framework that guides their thinking, prayers and activity in addressing the issues facing our society."
William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was the great British Member of Parliment and evangelical Christian who led the long fight to abolish the British slave trade and later, the institution of slavery itself. As Great Britain slips further into secularism and indifference towards Christ and the Bible, the leaders of the Wilberforce Academy hope to encourage young Christians to aspire to be the new Wilberforces of the next generation for England and the other nations of the British Commonwealth.
They are following the strategy of John Wesley, who attended Lincoln College right down the street from us in Oxford, who said that if he had one hundred men who "fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God," and they would "shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of God upon earth." John Wesley, his brother Charles and George Whitefield, one of the hundred Wesley recruited, transformed England and the 13 American colonies with their Biblical preaching.
And we see that band of one hundred being formed here this week at the Wilberforce Academy. The students are from all areas of study - law, journalism, finance, the arts, medicine, etc. And they are from all over the English-speaking world - England, India, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Malaysia, the West Indies, Hong Kong, etc. They all share the Christian faith, and have heard insightful lectures on religious liberty, the importance of defining marriage as one man and one woman and the importance of protecting life from abortion and euthanasia.
As we have met together this week at Oxford, our sessions have echoed the powerful English voices that God raised up in the past to proclaim Christ and the teachings of the Bible so eloquently here at Oxford University's colleges. When England sank into secularism in the past, many great men of God came forth to help the nation, many of them from Oxford:
- Sir William Blackstone who wrote the enduring treatise on English common law and its Christian roots, and George Whitefield, the famous evangelist of the Great Awakening in the mid-1700s, both attended Pembroke College. (Blackstone later taught at All Souls College at Oxford).
- J.R.R. Tolkein who wrote Lord of the Rings, (which was made into one of the greatest movie trilogies ever) taught at Pembroke and graduated earlier from Exeter College. (Tolkein and C.S. Lewis frequented a local pub in Oxford, the Eagle and the Child, where they talked and shared their writings).
- Numerous Puritan leaders and pastors, like John Owen, who tranformed England and helped settle the American colonies in the 1600s, graduated from the colleges at Oxford.
- C.S. Lewis, whose great books like Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, grow in popularity and influence as the years go on, attended Oxford's University College and taught at Magdelan College.
When we taught the Wilberforce students, I felt as if Jeff Ventrella, Tim Chandler and I were returning to the students what their Christian forefathers had given to American Christians generations ago in terms of enthusiasm, faith in Christ and Biblical teaching that we have relied on in our battles in the U.S. courtrooms and debates in the media and at U.S. college campuses. I am encouraged that the young men and women who attended the Wilberforce Academy will help shake their nations from the deadening darkness of secularism and return them to the light and love of Christ. Lord, Your Holy Spirit animated the British saints of old. Revisit their children now and fill them anew as you did their forefathers to do great things for You.
The last letter John Wesley ever wrote was to William Wilberforce, encouraging him to persevere in his fight to abolish the British slave trade. Wesley wrote that "unless God has raised you up for this very thing [of fighting the "excrable villiany" of the slave trade], you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be fore you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing!"
It is now amazing to us today that rational, well-educated people in the early 1800s, who claimed allegiance to the Scriptures, would so fervently defend slavery and fight Wilberforce's efforts to have Parliament abolish it. Our hope and prayer is that future generations will rejoice at this work begun in England to fight for religious liberty, for life and for the right definition of marriage, and wonder how in the world anyone could have opposed those important principles as they do today.