Charlie Emmerich Pens Article in Olivet: The Magazine

Posted on Dec 3, 2012 in Featured, Olivet Nazarene University | 0 comments

Charlie Emmerich Pens Article in Olivet: The Magazine

In “A Voice From 1797 Speaks Today,” Professor Charlie Emmerich explores the life and impact of William Wilberforce. Exemplifying the power of courage, wisdom, tenacity and faith in public life, Wilberforce’s story occupies a central place in Olivet’s new legal studies curriculum.

Download the article or read it below.


“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the god of Daniel,” declared King Darius in the sixth century B.C. “For he is the living God, and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end.” (Daniel 6:26)

How is it that a Persian ruler came to honor God in this way? The answer is the courage of one strategically-placed believer. Raised to the highest levels of political leadership, Daniel placed his hope in the Lord and defied an edict requiring him to violate his religious convictions. The eternal King rescued His faithful servant, and Darius, an earthly king, honored Daniel for his courage. This episode summarizes the Christian’s twofold hope in public life: that the Lord who reigns eternally as a King also exercises dominion over nations throughout human history.

It is with this twofold outlook that the Center for Law and Culture and Olivet Nazarene University are partnering to establish a premier legal studies initiative. This partnership will inspire a new generation of virtuous leaders and citizens in public life. It will bring hope in the midst of cultural and political disillusionment by emphasizing that the Lord reigns today, as He did in Daniel’s day.

Rule of Law Under God

Regarding public service as noble, the legal studies initiative challenges future leaders and citizens to rediscover the venerable Anglo-American legal heritage. Now entering its tenth century, this heritage rests on the bedrock principle of the “rule of law under God,” or as Winston Churchill proclaimed, there is “a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This is a reaffirmation of a supreme law, and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American Founders expressed this truth in The Declaration of Independence (1776): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

As America drifts further from these founding principles, it is understandable that many have become disillusioned. However, the examples of Daniel and many others testify that, “Blessed is he … whose hope is in the Lord” because He “reigns forever” and “frustrates the ways of the wicked.” (Psalm 146).

For the Good of the Nation

Few modern leaders exemplify this biblical basis for hope better than British statesman William Wilberforce. He exemplified the courage, wisdom and tenacity of biblical heroes, representing kingdom values in the midst of a culture marked by indifference, callousness and skepticism.

Born in 1759 into a wealthy family, young Wilberforce was a nominal Anglican and, by his own admission, squandered his time as a student at Cambridge and his early years in Parliament. Over the objections of his close friend, Prime Minister William Pitt, he became an “evangelical” Anglican in 1785. At this point he consulted his mentor John Newton, an Anglican minister, about whether he should abandon politics and become a clergyman. Newton, a former slave ship captain who later wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” wisely counseled Wilberforce to remain in politics for “the good of the nation.”

Two Great Objects

In 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his diary, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” Despite personal vilification, deteriorating health and numerous setbacks, he assembled a political and grassroots coalition and fought tirelessly for 47 years to achieve these two goals. Just three days before he died in 1791, the Methodist evangelist John Wesley encouraged his young admirer, writing, “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?”

That God had raised Wilberforce up for “two great objects” became evident in 1807 when the House of Commons vot- ed overwhelmingly to abolish the slave trade. But the in- stitution of slavery remained, so Wilberforce and his coali- tion labored until July 26, 1833, when Parliament outlawed slavery in the British Empire. Three days later, Wilberforce died, prompting his colleague Thomas Buxton to comment, “The day which was the termination of his labors was the termination of his life.”

Throughout his career, Wilberforce also threw himself into the second great object, that of reforming the nation’s moral landscape. Remarkably, he served in 69 charitable initiatives, including campaigns opposing public attacks on Christian- ity and its moral teachings, the undermining of marriage and the family, deplorable conditions in prisons and hospi- tals, inhumane treatment of the poor and the infirm, cava- lier use of capital punishment and harsh criminal sentences, gambling and the lottery, child labor, political corruption, sexual promiscuity, rampant drunkenness, cruelty toward animals, illiteracy and the lack of affordable general edu- cation. Historians now generally agree that these humani- tarian efforts, spearheaded by an evangelical coalition led by Wilberforce, John Wesley, George Whitfield and others, prevented Great Britain from undergoing a bloody revolu- tion such as that experienced by France.

Wilberforce’s extraordinary career prompts the question: what motivated this champion of the faith? Wilberforce answered this question in his bestselling book, A Practical View of Christianity (1797). The “grand governing maxim”

of Christians called to public life is “to do all to the glory of God.” As a result of this outlook and his unshakeable al- legiance to the Bible, Wilberforce argued that those desiring to glorify God in public life should estimate “the guilt of actions” by asking first, “the proportion in which, according to Scripture, they are offensive to God,” and only secondly, the degree to which “they are injurious to society.” In other words, Christians in public life should measure their actions in light of God’s moral truth as revealed in Scripture and as transmitted correctly through the English “higher law” tradition.

The Next Generation

As we seek to inspire the next generation of virtuous public leadership, we can derive hope from the life of William Wilberforce. Like Daniel and other biblical heroes, he relied upon Scripture and the best within the Anglo-American legal heritage to battle those offenses in British society that most offended God, and thereby most injured humanity.

Living in light of eternity, Wilberforce knew that God’s dominion in the world would not be thwarted. He attrib- uted Great Britain’s “national difficulties” to the decline of Christianity and its moral framework. The “only solid hopes for the well-being of my country” rested, he said, on “the persuasion that she still contains many, who, in a degener- ate age, love and obey the Gospel of Christ, on the humble trust that the intercession of these may still be prevalent, that for the sake of these, Heaven may still look upon us with an eye of favor.”

May the Olivet-Center partnership revive Wilberforce’s hopeful example at this troubling time in American history. May it inspire future leaders to champion biblical justice, teaching them how to glorify God in public life, love and serve their neighbors, and care for the created order.

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