Wilberforce on Apathy

Yesterday I quoted from Peter Sanlon’s article in Anvil, focusing on Jonathan Edwards.  After looking at Augustine, Richard Sibbes and Edwards, Sanlon finally turns to William Wilberforce.  I have to admit this wouldn’t have been the next figure in church history I would have expected in this tracing of engaging the emotions in ministry.  Nevertheless, it is very helpful indeed.

He notes Wilberforce’s book title, “A Practical View of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians in the higher and middle classes in this country contrasted with real Christianity.”  Let me quote from the article, including a quotation from Wilberforce.

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“Wilberforce saw that the main reason for his difficulty in abolishing slavery lay in the apathy of people to others’ suffering.  He perceived that the only solution lay in genuine Christianity which engaged the emotions in their God-designed role of making a person feel as he or she ought to feel.  Only if approached in this way could people be moved to action.

“Wilberforce’s critique of unemotional and apathetic Christianity remains penetrating.  He noted that a ‘hot zeal for orthodoxy’ was not the same thing as genuine internalised acceptance of the gospel.  He warned that what people paraded externally as ‘charity’ could often be ‘nothing other than indifference.’ Wilberforce suggested that in the case of many who had been ‘converted’:

Their hearts are no more than before supremely set on the great work of their salvation, but are chiefly bent upon increasing their fortunes, or raising their families.  Meanwhile they content themselves on having amended from vices, which they are no longer strongly tempted to commit.

“In all of this searching critique, Wilberforce laid the majority of the blame at the door of ministers who failed to engage with people at the level of their emotions, claiming that most Christian preaching spoke of ‘general Christianity’ rather than bringing to the surface ‘the workings of the heart.’

. . . “Much of the preaching which Wilberforce heard and rejected as less than full-orbed evangelical proclamation could be summed up in the phrase, ‘accurate, but apathetic.'”

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I suspect that Sanlon’s comments, built on Wilberforce’s significant ministry (not as a minister of the gospel, but as a politician), might be highly relevant to us today.  How much do we see a zealous orthodoxy shot through with a reprehensible apathy today?  Let’s examine our own hearts on this, and then preach to the hearts of others.

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From Peter Sanlon’s article, “Bringing Emotions to the Surface in Ministry,” in Anvil, vol.26, nos. 3&4, 2009, p239-240.

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