Often in my talks and lectures about Christian life I mention the example of William Wilberforce, who became the instrument for the abolition of slavery in the British empire because of his passionate faith. William Wilberforce spent eighteen years of his life regularly introducing anti-slavery bills in parliament, bills that were regularly and repeatedly dismissed. Colleagues often mocked him; however, each bill he introduced represented another acknowledgment that slavery is an unacceptable way to treat other human beings. These “small victories” of perseverance in the face of enormous opposition ultimately contributed to ending the trade in slaves throughout the British empire. Wilberforce changed the landscape of his generation and set thousands of men, women, and children free to live according to the way God saw them instead of how they were defined by society.
Wilberforce’s belief in a God who was so much bigger and greater than himself enabled him to see that small, tenacious acts could and would ultimately lead to victory. Facing a society that seemed to be arrayed implacably against the rights of those who were enslaved, Wilberforce nevertheless chose to fight for what was right. Instead of abandoning hope at insurmountable odds, he chose to put his faith in God and let his Creator determine what the impact of his thousands of small choices would be. We in the 21st century can learn from his example.
As a young member of Parliament, in the autumn of 1783 William Wilberforce read straight through the New Testament while on a journey to France. Afterwards he said he became a new man as a result. Wilberforce at this time renewed a friendship with Isaac Milner, whom he had known in his school days and at Cambridge. Through Milner’s influence he began to engage in a real Christian quest, reading the New Testament and books about Christian life. Eventually the young politician began to see the world differently. Wilberforce was truly giving his heart to God. “For I had received into my understanding the great truths of the gospel and believed that its offers were free and universal, and that God has promised to give his Holy Spirit to them that asked for it. At length such thoughts as these completely occupied my mind, and I began to pray earnestly.”Wilberforce’s journal of November 1785 gives a sense of his devotional practice: early rising, a half hour of Bible reading, reading other Christian works, prayer, church-going, and keeping a journal. See the account given by William Hague in William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner, (London: Harcourt, Inc., 2007), 83–84. And the prayer connected him with Christian principles to be applied in the world at large. Two years later, a conversation with John Newton, the former slave trader and hymn writer, caused him to choose politics rather than the Church for his future.
Wilberforce, a converted man, developed a lifelong habit of Bible reading and prayer. He was also instrumental in founding The British and Foreign Bible Society. In his diary of 21 April 1803, Wilberforce records attending a meeting where “we resolved upon the establishment of the Bible Society.” He went on to contribute to its early formation.
He was one of the speakers at the Bible Society’s first general meeting, on 2 May 1804. He served as a vice president and a member of several of its committees. He remained committed to the cause until his death, aged seventy-four, in 1833.
Wilberforce exemplifies what is sometimes called “contemplation in action.” He experienced God’s presence through deep study of the scriptures and through prayer. But he also felt God was expecting much of him. He kept a journal to judge his progress in the Christian life. He reformed his ways by choosing his companions well and reflecting on his choice of work. He lived what he believed, and in doing so made an enormous impact— for good—on his own generation and those that came after. But perhaps he did not fully know the impact of his political actions. He acted in faith.
01. The Bible Society, Catching a Glimpse
I have been inspired by Wilberforce and by my own experience of the Christian life, including the practice of the spiritual disciplines, such as study, reflection, and prayer. But where the issues of my own day are concerned, I must ask: How can I follow Wilberforce’s good example? Along with others in the Bible Society, I have come to feel that same kind of believer’s commitment is needed today in the sphere of the environment. We need to arouse and motivate men and women of faith to act on their faith—and to see the connection between their faith and the political and policy choices that need to be made for the future of the planet. In my role as chief executive of the Bible Society, I sometimes catch a glimpse of what faith in action might accomplish today as it did in Wilberforce’s time. This happened to me and others in the Bible Society at the time of the Copenhagen Conference in December 2009, which was an attempt to shape global policy in behalf of the planet.The United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as the Copenhagen Summit, was held at Copenhagen, Denmark, between 7 and 18 December 2009. The conference included the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 5th Meeting of the Parties (COP/MOP 5) to the Kyoto Protocol. The intention was to agree upon a framework for climate change mitigations beyond 2012.
Around this time, my colleagues and I began to readdress the biblical scriptures regarding our stewardship of God’s planet. Our sense of purpose has to do with God’s sovereignty and his call to us to care for the world he made. Among the texts we noticed were these (NIVScripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™. All rights reserved.): “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1–2). “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). And Nehemiah says: “You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you” (Nehemiah 9:6).
One verse that crucially informed our thinking was from Leviticus: “The land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23, NKJVScripture quotations marked (NKJV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). This verse was part of God’s wider instructions about how his people should look after the land. Today it reminds each of us that no one has a right to abuse God’s planet. The planet does not belong to any of us. We are just passing through and have a duty to leave it for others who come after us to cherish and enjoy. And just as we have a moral duty to care for the poor or not steal or kill—we also have a moral duty to care for God’s planet because He asked us to.
Part of our mission in the Bible Society is to help the larger world understand the relevance of Scripture to our contemporary situation. So we began an exciting journey to share ways in which the Bible—along with Jewish and Islamic scriptures—can inspire practical steps to protecting the environment. These scriptures now appear on an interactive resource on faith and climate change that unites all Faith Climate organizations and opens dialogue for its members, in a friendly network, to share best practice and celebrate our collective responsibility. The website itself has a beautiful aspect: photography reveals the beauty of the earth in landscapes and close-ups of wildlife, interwoven with scenes of people, of scriptures and texts, moments of beauty and reverence. To view these scenes and scripture passages is to appreciate what God has given us. And the website is constantly updated (www.faithclimateconnect.com) with prayerful intentions that encourage praying for environmental concerns: “Climate change causes sea level rises around Sri Lanka and the Arabian Sea—pray we act now to protect them.” A second prayer reads, “Pray for Sudan as floods have killed at least 16 and forced 10,000 from their homes.” Another prayer request reads, “Nigeria wants every person [twenty million] to plant a tree this year—how amazing! Pray that all get behind the scheme.” On a given day in July 2010, some eighteen such prayer requests were posted. This is prayer of intercession—lifting prayer needs to God.
Immediately following the Copenhagen conference, the Bible Society took another step. A Bible Society poll was conducted on Faithbook—an interfaith social networking page on Facebook. The results showed that 47 percent of the faithful feel that religious leaders should fly less in order to set an example and reflect the ecological beliefs of their faiths. The poll results showed something else: 63 percent of respondents said they also believed that religions have not yet done enough to tackle climate change. Because of those findings the Bible Society hosted—via a new online network—the world’s first virtual dialogue or “no fly summit” on faith and climate change.
02. A Door to Interfaith Dialogue
The No Fly Summit on Faith and Climate Change was extremely successful in opening a bright green door for interfaith dialogue. It attracted speakers from all over the world: Israel, Switzerland, Kenya, UK, and the Caribbean— they needed to log in at home. Using cutting-edge video chat room technology, the speakers were able to talk to each other, via the network Faith Climate Connect, about the scriptures, Copenhagen, and practical next steps.
Speakers included the founder of the Jewish Climate Initiative, Rabbi Michael Kagan; the Environmental Adviser to the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, David Shreeve; the African representative in the World Council of Churches Committee for Climate Questions, Prof. Jess Mugambi; Dr. Denise Thompson; and Rabbi Awaham Soetendorp, one of the leaders of the Earth Charter. The “No Fly Summit” brought them together for a technological first, for they were watched on a huge screen by an audience in London, and people from all over the world could log into the network at home and post questions to the speakers.
The outcome was very positive, and for me it marked a promising start of practical progress for faith communities following Copenhagen. Each of the speakers made reference to ways in which God makes it very clear in the scriptures that we should be responsible stewards of the earth.
I hope both the dialogue and the network help to keep up the momentum of those voices that were heard prior to the conference. The virtual dialogue was certainly proof that people of faith are not distracted by the disappointment of the Copenhagen Conference of 2009. Everyone also agreed that care for the environment is a religious duty.
This viewpoint is also echoed by seven out of ten people in the Faithbook poll, who say that caring for the planet is not just supported by faiths and scriptures; it is a religious duty. Reassuringly, in the face of disappointment following COP15, two thirds of people also believe that their faith and scriptures have a greater influence on their environmental actions and beliefs than science or government policy.
I take great comfort from both the poll results and the fact that the online network Faith Climate Connect has already attracted over one hundred eighty members from across twenty-one countries. It shows what an impact people of faith can have in the climate change debate and how we can tackle it together as a collective. If governments and political leaders won’t take the lead, then the faith community must, and there are many ways of doing this.
03. “You Will Know them by Their Fruits”
Here at the Bible Society we are trying to practice what we preach. Matthew 7:16 (NIV) reminds us: “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Words without deeds are meaningless and can often lead to charges of hypocrisy. This is why we have introduced a whole host of green initiatives, including new windows to stop heat loss, new hot water boilers and taps with sensors to prevent water waste and control electricity, new timing systems on photocopiers to reduce power consumption, and the formal recording and monitoring of our office temperature to save electricity. Our main innovation since the “no fly” summit has been the introduction of videoconferencing facilities. This will mean that all our staff now have the potential to fly less, and I hope we use it.
These achievements may seem like a drop in the ocean, but if people of faith together across the globe begin to enact small changes in their daily lives, then the wider landscape will eventually be transformed and regenerated.
The end of the Creation story in Genesis says, “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.”Genesis 1:31, NIV. It’s a beautiful world, and I, for one, want it to stay that way. I have faith that I’m not alone in finding the best way to look after it, however small our deeds may seem.
04. Some Suggested Exercises:
- Spend some time contemplating the beauty of the natural world. whether on a solitary walk or sitting quietly in a garden, express your appreciation for God’s gift of landscape, trees, sunshine, and rain.
- Identify Bible passages that celebrate God’s gift of creation, beginning with Genesis and reading right through the Psalms.
- Plant a tree in honor of your believer’s commitment to the future of the planet.
- Consider what small actions you or your organization can take: windows, doors, insulation, reduced flying schedules. these are only a few of the practical steps that enable us to “practice what we preach.”
- Find your own “bright green door.” consider a realistic political action that is within your grasp as an expression of your believer’s commitment.
- Pray for the future of the planet and for your own immediate community.
Group Chief Executive of the Bible Society
James Catford is group chief executive of the Bible Society (formally British and Foreign Bible Society) and has been in post since 2002. Previously, Catford was publishing director for Hodder Headline and later HarperCollins. He is vice chair of the Board of Trustees of Renovaré USA and chair of Renovaré Britain and Ireland. He and his wife, Sue Catford, live in London and are active in Christian life. Parts of the above article appeared in the Washington Post Online shortly after the Copenhagen conference in 2009.