Mickey Mantle, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger.... and now William Wilberforce! After a squeaky clean bio and a movie came out about his life, you might think there was nothing more to say. You might think, ah finally a hero without flaws. You might think any dirt that was going to be found already would have been found. You might be wrong. Wilberforce was a real Evangelical hero. His was a great story of leading the fight in Britain to abolish the slave trade. Along with other members of the Clapham Sect he channeled his Christian faith into social action. His faith made a difference in the world in which he lived. Now a new book out on the Clapham Sect (The Clapham Sect by Stephen Tomkins) brings new information to light that shows us a Wilberforce who was forced to compromise his convictions for political gain. He was a politician, after all, and bringing social change is never a slam dunk. So it seems he looked the other way when the Sierra Leone colony in Africa, which he helped found, was practicing slavery while calling it another name. He knew what was going on but advised his handpicked governor there that there was nothing he could do and when the governor complained Wilberforce had him sent back to Britain. It was not a high point of Wilberforce's career. In fact, it showed an ugly side of this evangelical "superstar".
Should we be surprised? Sometimes we need heroes so badly that we are in denial and not only overlook flaws but pretend there are none. But, who of us does not have any? When we are kids we hear Bible stories in Sunday School and VBS in which the Biblical heroes are held up as role models. It's like the segment on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show called Reversed History. Someone sanitized those childhood Bible stories thinking it could not be a good thing for children to be exposed to the truth. And because we have a need for heroes. Then, when we get older and we read the real stories (which are so much better than the revised ones, anyway), we feel somehow manipulated - and either reject all the stories out of principle or settle in to rethink how and what we have learned about the Bible. Sadly, some people never outgrow their Sunday School years and never get back to the real reason for those stories in the first place. They hold onto their childhood stories all their lives and never find a faith to navigate the challenges of adulthood.
The only hero of the Old Testament my OT professor said is God. That's the point. He is the only hero we need. He is the only one who will stand up under pressure. Jesus is the only hero of the NT. Paul was a good guy and a brilliant theologian and a self sacrificing missionary - but as one of my NT mentors said, he was clearly a second class citizen when compared to Jesus. We follow Jesus not Paul.
Nor do we follow William Wilberforce. He was one of the saints, as we are, too. A flawed saint, as we are, too. He accomplished a great deal of good but he had his off days too, and so do we. We can learn from him and we can thank God for him. But like the title of the movie about his life he was able to do what he did because of God's Amazing Grace, and so it is with us.